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The Importance of Service

Assistant Secretary Jay Williams tours robotics lab with Detroit Public School Students at the Cody Academy of Public Leadership. Detroit was an early adopter of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Guest blog post by Assistant Secretary of Commerce Jay Williams

We all face frustrations and challenges in our daily lives. Most of us are fortunate that our biggest complaint is often a bad day at our office job, the perils of DC traffic, or the fact that our DVR didn’t record the end of the game. It’s become a bit of a joke on social media with the advent of #FirstWorldProblems. Yet, there are many people living in the “First World” whose problems are much bigger than we realize.  

Many young men of color in this country live in poverty. In fact, minority children are 6 to 9 times more likely to be raised in areas of concentrated poverty. For most living below the poverty line, this gap in wealth creates a gap in opportunities that only grows as these children enter adulthood. I was privileged to have been afforded many opportunities growing up in a middle class household, but I know many of the other young black men of Youngstown, my hometown, were not so fortunate. That's why the President's efforts to address this issue are so personal to me. 

Last February, President Obama launched “My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential. 

I was honored to be invited to participate as an Ambassador for the MBK initiative and do my part to help achieve the program’s six main goals:

  • Ensuring that all of our children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally prepared
  • Ensuring that all of our children read at grade level by third grade
  • Ensuring that all of our young people graduate from high school
  • Ensuring that all of our young people complete post-secondary education or training
  • Ensuring that all youth are employed out of school
  • Ensuring that all of our young people are safe from violent crime 

These goals are the backbone of a larger effort in which cities, towns, and Tribal Nations across America will take up the President’s call to improve outcomes for all young people in their communities, to create a society where nobody is left behind and where all children have opportunities to succeed. EDA’s work in distressed communities and Commerce’s commitment to helping promote and support workforce training supports these goals and helps to make them a reality. 

This week, I traveled to Detroit, Michigan, an area that has seen its share of economic challenges.  I was invited to celebrate in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s announcement that USA Funds has made a $1.25 million commitment to improving graduation and employment outcomes for Detroit Public Schools students through the Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates program.  With this investment, 1,000 Detroit students will receive instruction in job attainment and retention, leadership, and self-development paired with mentoring, academic support, and exposure to employers. 

This is a great project that supports several of MBK’s goals. It is my hope that more communities like Detroit will find ways to help their young people thrive and succeed. The young men and women that I met in Detroit represent our nation’s future, and we owe them every opportunity to build a better and brighter future for us all. That is the core of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and I am honored to be a part of it. 

I know that I had certain advantages growing up. I have never forgotten that I was blessed with opportunities absent to many of my peers. I have carried that appreciation with me and have spent much of my adult life seeking to pay those advantages forward. I chose to serve my community of Youngstown as Mayor for six rewarding years. In 2011, I was given the opportunity to serve my country as a Presidential Appointee with the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers at the U.S. Department of Labor and now in my current role as Assistant Secretary of Commerce. The chance to serve America’s first black President and to help communities across the country strengthen and grow their economies to help their people prosper is truly humbling. 

As Monday marks the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, I am especially proud to serve.  Dr. King once asked, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is: 'What are you doing for others?’" I invite you to forget about your #FirstWorldProblems this MLK day - our National Day of Service - and instead think about how you can be of service to end the problems of inequality and lack of opportunity in our so-called First World.

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