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New Program for At-Risk Youth Hopes to Close the Workplace Racial Equity Gap

A young woman in a green apron standing in a grocery store.

​In commemoration of Juneteenth, some companies are committing to hire at-risk youth. American Family Insurance and Delta Air Lines, among others, are joining a program funded by Walmart and backing the mission to decrease workplace racial inequity by hiring young adults who have been affected by the criminal justice system.

The program, called Unlock Potential, was designed by social justice nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) and Ben & Jerry's. Program designers advocate closing the workplace racial equity gap by lowering the incarceration rate of at-risk youth. Unlock Potential targets 16- to 24-year-olds who possess a juvenile criminal record, spent time in foster care, are victims of sex or human trafficking, or have a parent who was incarcerated during their childhood.

Juneteenth is a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

"Preventing [at-risk youth] from becoming economically disenfranchised by the justice system will have a tremendous impact on racial equity," according to an op-ed by Ben & Jerry's CEO Matthew McCarthy and RBIJ CEO Celia Ouellette. Finding jobs is crucial to the effort: Black Americans experienced 8.6 percent unemployment in 2021, compared with the national average of 5.3 percent.

However, companies need to be "very careful" how they handle the commemoration of Juneteenth, said Tiesa Leggett, RBIJ's director of partnerships and programs. They should have a strong diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) workplace culture in place before recognizing Juneteenth at work; otherwise, the message comes across as lip service.

HR's Role in Closing the Workplace Racial Equity Gap

Unlock Potential will launch in October 2022 by introducing a recruiting and hiring process for small, midsize and enterprise businesses and franchises.

HR professionals play a major role in implementing Unlock Potential's mission because they will determine the best practices to recruit and hire at-risk youth. For example, Delta Air Lines may rework job requirements for positions that currently call for applicants to have a bachelor's degree even though the work does not require a college education.

Unlock Potential's goal is to add more job candidates' resumes to the overall hiring pool.

"We know that having a diverse workforce builds a better and more innovative business," said Keyra Lynn Johnson, Delta Air Lines' vice president and chief DE&I officer. "This partnership builds a bridge to individuals who often don't have connections and opportunities to careers at Delta, while at the same time broadening our access to untapped talent."

Retaining Participants with a 'Wrap-Around' Support System

Persevere, a national nonprofit aiming to end mass incarceration, will offer widespread access to "wrap-around" programs that provide mentorship, compelling work placements and flexible career paths for Unlock Potential's participants.

Other tasks for HR professionals include evaluating the necessary training and resources involved to start a new role so that the Unlock Potential staff can provide the right resources to potential applicants. For example, since remote-work opportunities have greatly increased over the last few years, support programs may need to purchase laptops or mobile phones for job candidates if HR professionals say these tools are necessary.

In the long run, Unlock Potential's goal is to increase the number of people of color in leadership roles, while in the short term, it aims to increase racial equity across the entry-level workforce.

"A workplace cultural shift toward robust DE&I initiatives should already be in place in order for these young people to stay in the program and have access to meaningful work," Leggett said. "Not only will those efforts meet Unlock Potential's short-term goals, but also for the long-term goal of providing a sustainable career path."

Sarah Dolezal is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.


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