By Lolly Bowean Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In 2013 Aimee Eubanks Davis founded "Braven," a nonprofit that helps students land their first positions. Now, because of her work to create a job pipeline for young college graduates, Davis was named a 2019 Obama Fellow.
While Aimee Eubanks Davis was growing up on Chicago's South Side and in the south suburbs, college was emphasized as a pathway to better pay, a stable career and an overall healthier life.
But years later, when she was working with college students from nontraditional backgrounds, Davis noticed many of them were finishing school, sometimes with stellar grades and accomplishments -- yet were struggling to find jobs.
"Close to 50 percent of jobs in the country never go on a job board; they get filled through the internal network," she said. "If you're not on that grid, you don't get looked at and you don't have a chance to compete. My students just didn't have the networks to get in the door."
Aiming to change that, in 2013 Davis founded Braven, a nonprofit that helps students land their first positions.
Now, because of her work to create a job pipeline for young college graduates, Davis was named a 2019 Obama Fellow, officials are due to announce Tuesday.
She joins a group of 20 thought leaders, civic entrepreneurs and community organizers from around the world in this year's class of fellows. Davis, who lives in Oak Park, is the only one from the Chicago region.
"To be able to be an Obama Fellow from Chicago with Braven is enormously special," she said in an interview, noting she and former first lady Michelle Obama are both from the South Shore neighborhood. "
As I think of the life journey of the (Obamas), but especially the journey of Mrs. Obama, I believe we can have a million or so young people who start in places like Englewood and South Shore reach the American Dream."
Now in its second year, the Obama Fellowship is one of several initiatives the Obama Foundation oversees that aim to groom the next generation of civic leaders. The fellowship doesn't pay or offer a stipend. Instead it allows the handpicked group to gather at least four times for conferences, workshops and other programming.
The fellows coach each other and champion each other's causes. They meet large-scale philanthropists and donors who might invest in their projects. And most of all, they use the Obama Foundation name and brand to elevate their platforms and draw attention to their work.
"The 2019 Obama Foundation Fellows are tackling big, complex issues in unique and inspiring ways but all share the common practice of making positive change in their communities," foundation CEO David Simas said in a news release. "We are excited to bring together a new group of civic innovators and amplify their work."
Other presidential foundations have similar fellowship programs. But the Obama Foundation has sought to highlight its fellows to demonstrate the type of work it intends to do on the South Side once it opens the Obama Presidential Center, planned for Jackson Park.
Even as work on the center has been stalled by a federal lawsuit and other setbacks, the foundation has pushed forward with workshops, summits and gatherings that bring internationally recognized figures to marginalized neighborhoods on the South and West sides.
Last year's inaugural group of Obama Fellows included two women from Chicago: Tiana Epps-Johnson and Dominque Jordan Turner. The former president met privately with the group when it convened for the first time at the Stony Island Arts Bank in South Shore.
Next month, this new class of fellows will convene in Washington, D.C., officials said. The fellowship lasts two years, and this year more than 5,000 people applied.
Besides Davis, the 2019 class includes a community organizer who helps fathers overcome personal barriers so they can be more involved in child-rearing, an environmentalist who runs a nonprofit law firm that promotes ecological equity in communities of color and the leader of an organization that educates children in Appalachia.
Davis, 45, grew up in Englewood and South Shore, she said. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College, she joined Teach For America and worked as an instructor in New Orleans. After her two-year commitment with that agency ended, she stayed there for four more years teaching in the public schools.
"I fell in love with my students and their families," she said. "So much had to do with feeling connected with them and their parents. I stayed because I felt I was playing a unique bridging role with my students to help them think of college and career."
In 2005, Davis moved back to Chicago and worked for Teach For America's corporate office. It was there where, while trying to diversify the staff, she realized how many college graduates from underrepresented backgrounds weren't ready to promote themselves or to jump into the job market.
According to a 2015 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, young African-Americans with four-year degrees were having a harder time finding jobs and, when they did, were more likely to be underemployed and to be paid less than white workers with the same experience.
Davis began researching that college-to-job gap and its impacts on minorities, which led her to publish a paper on the topic and eventually to found Braven.
The organization provides career coaching and mentorship to first-generation and lower-income college students who rely on federal Pell Grants to pay for school. Starting sophomore year, students take courses, practice interviewing and seek internships that will help place them on a path toward gainful employment.
"So many people never thought it would be hard for college-educated students to get jobs they are worthy of," Davis said. "We would argue, in our world, that this is solvable. This issue is not one that's rocket science hard, if we make sure higher education evolves in the right way."
Braven has partnerships with San Jose State University in California, Rutgers University in New Jersey. In January 2018, the firm partnered with Chicago's National Louis University. There, the program started with 48 students. Those students have earned internships and jobs at establishments including the Chicago Sky, the Princeton Marketing Group and the Box Business Fellowship, said Natasha Kohl, manager of career development for the undergraduate college. Now there are 77 students enrolled in the Braven course, she said.
"There's a confidence that our students have leaving the program," Kohl said. "They know what they need to be successful. It's not about someone telling you, it's about going through this program so you can claim it for yourself -- so you feel you know what you need to get where you want to go."