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A trusted advisor once told me, “Never reach over a dollar to pick up a dime.” It’s a metaphor I’ve lived by as a social entrepreneur and president and CEO of talent development accelerator LeadersUp for the last five years. It reminds me not to play small if I want to make transformative impact, which leads me to ask: Why can’t South L.A. be 100 percent employed?

The unemployment rate in South L.A. is higher than of L.A. If there’s one issue that’s sustained by artificial barriers, it’s this one, and they must be eliminated. On that solid point employers can agree. Many are experiencing a “have-to” moment. By that I mean that they can no longer overlook talent in communities of color. They “have to” recruit from diverse communities if they want to stay competitive. And they “have to” get over their hang-ups about hiring ex-offenders. There is untapped potential out here representing a half-billion dollars in lost tax revenue, and that number is expected to rise. We need a bold vision and audacious leadership to demand not just that we do better but that we aim for 100 percent workforce participation in South L.A. Everybody who wants a job should have a job.

That brings me to the War on Drugs. Joblessness in South L.A. is a direct outcome of that community being the target of law enforcement. The government’s zero tolerance drug policies and mandatory sentencing laws fed the prison pipeline with black and brown bodies for over two decades. Upon release, these individuals struggle to find employment. There are policies that exclude them from holding certain types of jobs, and employer perceptions take care of the rest.

We need to think critically about how we can reverse this cycle of incarceration and stop imposing life sentences that create a permanent class of “others”. The next generation of young adults from South L.A. is entering the workforce. Some are from households where wage earners were absent, because they were doing time for possessing substances that are now legal. South L.A. was nearly leveled economically by the War on Drugs. We owe it to that community to try and make it right by creating pathways of opportunity. LeadersUp is uniquely positioned to tackle this issue. Last year, we engaged 518 L.A. youth and achieved a 68 percent interview-to-offer ratio and a 50 percent interview-to-hire ratio through our talent solution strategies. Over the past three years, LeadersUp has trained and brokered economic opportunities for 5,496 Los Angeles area young adults, 94 percent of them individuals of color.

The governor’s office recently awarded LeadersUp a $300,000 California Community Reinvestment Grant to support our work connecting justice-involved young adults in South L.A. to training and inclusive employers who will give them a fair chance. Fair Chance Coalition member companies will be at our fourth annual Future at Work Summit on October 29 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.  at the California African American Museum, 600 State Drive. We have 33 confirmed employers so far with 1,000 open positions from a cross section of careers in transportation, aviation, construction, retail, healthcare, technology and entertainment.

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Attendees will be able to get help with their resume and perform mock interviews before sitting down for the real deal. The Summit was designed for young adults 18 to 29 years old who are neither working nor in school, but anyone who shows up looking for a chance is welcome.

South L.A. residents want to work but they’ve been fenced out of opportunity. And if you have an arrest or conviction that stigma may follow you the rest of your life. We can end these exclusive practices right now.

Our leaders – and heck, maybe some of us, too – have become accustomed to economic shortfalls hitting communities of color hardest. But our workforce demands have forced an urgency to do right by communities still trying to recover from two decades of war. To do this work successfully will require a confluence of influential people to challenge companies to go beyond writing a check to think critically about how their corporate social responsibility and their willingness to adopt more inclusive hiring practices can generate transformative impact.

The ability of the private sector to create change is powerful right now. Also, I believe there are influential people who care deeply about what’s happening in South L.A., and willing to get in front of the issues. Maybe nobody has asked them. I’m asking.

One is Danny Bakewell Sr., of Bakewell Media, owner of this esteemed publication. Danny has committed to using his influence to make sure South L.A. residents don’t miss opportunities to work on major infrastructure projects coming to the area. The two of us and our organizations have formed a partnership, and together we’re calling on influencers of color – celebrities, sports figures, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and corporate leaders – to speak out and speak up about inclusive hiring to help drive a triple bottom-line return on investment in our community.


We need a bold vision. Let’s meet people where they are and connect them to opportunity.

Register for the Future At Work Summit at https://leadersup.org/summit/.