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Memo to Foundation CEOs: Get a Youth Council

September 30, 2019

Calendow_presidents_youth_councilSeven years ago, we launched a President's Youth Council (PYC) at the California Endowment, and it seems like a good time to tell you that the young people who've served on the council over those seven years have significantly influenced our programming as a private foundation, been a source of reality-checking and ground-truthing on how our work "shows up" at the community level, and have substantially increased my own "woke-ness" as a foundation executive.

Before I get into the details, I'd like to briefly share why we decided we needed a President's Youth Council and how it works: In 2011, our foundation embarked on a ten-year, statewide Building Healthy Communities campaign that was designed to work in partnership with community leaders and advocates to improve wellness and health equity for young people in California. We had already been using a variation of a place-based approach in our work, and so we selected fourteen economically distressed communities to participate in the campaign — some urban, some rural, and all, taken together, representing the complex diversity of the state.

At the time, I was aware not only of the privileged position I occupied outside my organization, but also of how sheltered I was as a chief executive within my organization. More often than not, I received information about the effectiveness and impact of our work in the form of thoughtfully crafted memos from staff, PowerPoint presentations, and glossy evaluation reports filled with professionally designed charts and graphics. Even when feedback in the form of recommendations from consultants or comments from the community came my way, it was all carefully curated and edited. As I had learned — and this is especially true at large foundations — when members of the community get "face time" with the CEO, it is a carefully managed and considered process.

Being at least vaguely conscious of these issues early on in our Building Healthy Communities work, I wanted to ensure I would have some regularly calendared opportunities to meet face-to-face with young leaders from the communities we were serving. So, we solicited nominations from grantee-leaders in each of the fourteen program sites, and a President's Youth Council, featuring mostly young people of color between the ages of 17 and 21 and of varying sexual/gender orientations, was born.

Seven years later, here's what it looks like.

We meet three or four times a year (just like our board of directors), beginning with an informal dinner on Friday evening and continuing with breakfast and lunch conversations on Saturday. Then I excuse myself so that members of the council can have their own "executive session" and social time in the afternoon. They then de-brief each other over breakfast on Sunday before making their way home. The foundation pays their expenses and also provides them with a modest stipend — a welcome bonus, as many of these young people come from economically struggling families and communities. Between year three and six of their tenure, members rotate off and new young leaders are recruited to replace them. Two foundation staff members provide support with PYC meeting logistics and structure.

It's been a richly rewarding experience for me, and both I, as a foundation president and CEO, and the foundation — have learned a lot:

  • PYC members have pushed me and the foundation out of our strategic comfort zones. With respect to social justice, social media, youth-led and -shaped narrative change, youth empowerment, and governance, we are in many ways a different foundation than we were a decade ago. My young colleagues also have pushed me to be more courageous about using our foundation's brand and voice in the advocacy arena and to speak out more boldly.
  • Council members — and hundreds of their activist colleagues around the state — have helped us see how connecting young leaders across geographies can lead to policy change at the state and national level. Especially in the area of school discipline reform, the voices of young people engaged in "schools not prisons" and "health for all" campaigns have translated into meaningful impact.
  • I have learned a great deal about the intersection of childhood trauma and adversity in the battle for social and health justice. Our PYC leaders are exceptional — but they also carry an enormous burden of trauma and anxiety as a result of family and community stressors, economic distress, stigmatization in school settings, and adverse experiences with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. One of our PYC leaders was murdered two years ago, others have been subjected to police violence, still others have had family members deported or have been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation. The trauma they experience is quite real, and over time we have learned to embrace the use of healing and spiritual supports when these young leaders gather and have built in "how are you doing" sessions on Saturday mornings.
  • We have learned — and are still learning — how to leverage PYC members specifically, and young people more generally, as thought leaders. At the moment, for example, I am asking them to give me their best thinking as we consider investments in grassroots leadership development in the years ahead.

We continue to think about how we engage with young people as authentic — and not "tokenized" — thought partners. For example, our board of directors has considered inviting a young leader or youth representative to sit on the board — although care must be taken when considering what it might be like for a young person (or two) to share his or her thoughts about complicated issues with fourteen or fifteen civic leaders in their forties, fifties, and sixties. We haven't ruled it out and will consider the possibility more thoroughly with members of the PYC in the year ahead.

We've also commissioned an evaluation of our PYC experiment by Professor Veronica Terriquez of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Based on a survey, a focus group, and interviews with PYC members and PYC coordinators and foundation staff, the evaluation found that nearly four in five PYC members "strongly agree" (while the rest "agree") that they had further developed their leadership skills as a result of their involvement in the council. They also cited as a plus the various opportunities they have received, including participation in a support network, professional development and skills coaching, and an investment in healing and self-care.

So let me leave you with this: investing in activist, community-engaged young people has a triple-bottom-line impact: it generates positive benefits in terms of a young person's well-being; it generates positive benefits for his or her neighborhood; and it can result in positive policy and systems changes with respect to social justice and health equity.

Maybe it's time to start thinking about creating your own President's Youth Council.

Robert_K_Ross_2019_for_PhilanTopicRobert K. Ross, MD, is president and CEO of the California Endowment.

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