Once, the idea of standing in front of a crowd terrified Darius Anderson. A shy boy, he’d long stuttered in public, but at age 13, after joining a Boys-to-Men program run by Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Darius began to change both himself and the young people around him. He is now at the forefront of youth organizing in Chicago, and his emphasis is youth employment.
His interest in jobs for youth started in high school, when Darius became increasingly aware of the sparse job opportunities for young people in his city and jumped in to help organize the LIFE (Leaders Investing for Equality) Campaign. LIFE organizers traveled the state to rally other low-income teens who wanted greater investment in youth employment programs from government.
“I remember going to Decatur, and they’d had no youth summer jobs for years,” he says. “We started these tours because we understand that youth employment is not only a problem in Chicago, but everywhere.”
To Darius, the lack of summer jobs for youth is linked to the cycle of poverty. Without experience in the workforce, he reasoned, low-income teens had even less chance to find solid employment upon graduating from high school: “When youth have a summer job, it opens up their minds, gives them experience and changes lives,” he says.
Darius also sees a link between the lack of jobs for young people in a community and the level of violence in that community: “We’ve done numerous studies about these links,” he says. “They show that when there’s no youth employment, there’s a rise in street violence, especially in the summertime.”
In 2010, after three years of hard work with LIFE, Darius watched as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed Public Act 1225 – known as the Community Youth Employment Act – into law. It provides community organizations with funds for summer jobs for thousands of Illinois youth and has been recently refunded with $14 million.
“That was a major win for the LIFE Campaign,” says Shannon Jalida Bennett, deputy director of KOCO. “It was really a sweet victory, and Darius has become one of our core leaders on this. He’s a young person who’s come a long way.”
Encouraged to push even harder, Darius has since worked to build a national coalition of 15 youth organizations across 25 states to address investment in youth at the federal level. The once-shy boy is now a recognized youth leader, regularly meeting with elected officials such as Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, organizing press conferences and leading youth rallies.
His commitment goes well beyond shaking hands with the powerful. After Darius won the Shriver Poverty Warrior Award, he donated part of the money toward the establishment of a no-cost teen center offering mentoring, tutoring, creative-arts classes and sports programs.
Darius, now a high school senior, plans to become a restaurateur, and young people from the Chicago public schools will be among his first hires.
“You can count on that,” he says.
Meanwhile, Darius is fighting to reinstate a Chicago Public Schools program – lost to budget cuts – that had helped students prepare for life after graduation with college advice and career guidance.
“It helped students get ready for the real world,” Darius says, offering an apt description for his entire approach to youth organizing.
From January through March, Equal Voice News is publishing a profile each Friday of a young person who contributes to his or her community. In 2012, these young people received a Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News, honors young people with this award. Leaders Investing for Equality Campaign nominated Darius for the award. Tim Matsui shot the video.
2014 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper