67 posts categorized "Youth Development"

Five Things Your Agency Can Do to Deliver Results for Families

January 17, 2020

Sykes_foundation_whole_familyIndividuals are whole people made up of a rich mix of physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual parts. Individuals exist within families, and families are the heart of our communities. In many ways, working families earning low wages are the backbone of our country, working the jobs that keep America running.

But many American families are struggling. Despite an uptick in the economy, more than 8.5 million children currently live in poverty, and they are often concentrated in neighborhoods where at least a third of all families live in poverty. Others are just a paycheck away from falling into poverty. For these families, a simple change in circumstance for a family member — a reduction in working hours, an illness, even the need for a car repair — affects the entire family's long-term well-being.

At Ascend at the Aspen Institute and the Pascale Sykes Foundation, we collaborate with families, nonprofits, government agencies, advocacy groups, and others to advance family well-being through a whole family or two-generation (2Gen) approach. Such an approach addresses challenges through the lens of whole people living in intact families, equipping children and the adults in their lives with the tools to collectively set and achieve goals, strengthen relationships with each other, and establish the stability of the family unit so that every member is able to reach his or her full potential.

In our work every day, we see the many meaningful ways in which a whole family approach benefits families and creates opportunities for service organizations to reach vulnerable populations, scale their work, and fulfill their missions. Here are five things your agency can do to shape its work in ways that will benefit families and support family members as they define, create, and realize the futures of which they dream.

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Looking to Africa's Future: The Promise of Transnational Ties

January 14, 2020

African_gradNearly seven years ago, when I became president of Yale University, five of the top twelve — and eleven of the top twenty — of the world's fastest growing economies were in Africa, even though the continent faced serious challenges. Amid discussions of sobering events and hopes for the future, Yale took a stand for the promise of education, scholarship, and research — a promise that is particularly significant across Africa, home to a vibrant and growing population of young people. That year, 2013, I launched the Yale Africa Initiative as a way to create new partnerships between Yale and institutions on the continent. 

Africa's economic development remains impressive, but even more spectacular is the growth and promise of its youth. The continent's youth population is expected to increase by 522 million over the next three decades, while in the rest of the world, over the same period, it will decline by 220 million. By 2050, one-third of people on the planet age twenty-four or younger will call the continent home. As they come of age, these young people will take their place among the world's leaders and innovators — meaning we all have an interest in Africa's future.

As a university professor, I am focused on higher education, though primary and secondary education are, of course, critical. Higher education is essential to economic growth, and it also delivers a broad range of benefits, including progress toward gender equality, improvements in individual and public health, strengthened civic  institutions, and enhanced creativity and skills among those who serve society. 
 

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The Best-Kept Secret: A Strategic ‘Pivot’

December 10, 2019

Greater-Denver-Jewish-Community-Study-2018-300x300There are countless examples of strategic "pivots" to point to in the for-profit world, many of them from the not-too-distant past. Remember when Amazon just sold books, when Netflix mailed DVDs, or when the Gap was a record store that sold Levi's? It's rare, on the other hand, to hear about nonprofits making the same kind of massive changes in strategy. Of course, taking a risk in Silicon Valley (where companies are expected to produce financial returns for their investors) is different than risk-taking in the nonprofit world, where organizations are responsible for having an impact on a social or environmental problem.

But pivoting — a shift in strategy that helps an organization achieve its desired impact — is crucial for nonprofits that want to succeed over the long-term. "Pivot" doesn’t have to be a bad word or signal failure. Think of it, instead, as a natural part of organizational evolution.

Pivots can be large or small, but they should emerge from a clear understanding of what is working and what is not. Using data (e.g., performance metrics, evaluations, and direct observation) to decide whether or not it's time to pivot will ensure that you pivot in the right direction. This kind of intentionality, coupled with the ability to admit what isn't working, makes a strategic pivot different than just throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.

Organizations that don't pivot eventually end up stuck doing the same old thing, even when evidence points them in another direction. In such a scenario, funders often start to wonder about their investment in a "stuck" organization and whether it's truly creating the impact they would like to see. To help nonprofits that are struggling with the pivot issue, as well as funders who may be sitting on the other side of the table, I wanted to share a story about a pivot made by my organization, UpStart, what we learned from it, and how you can benefit from the same kind of thinking and tactics.

UpStart's flagship initiative in Colorado was our Teen Fellowship program, which each year engaged twenty-four fellows in the fundamentals of social entrepreneurship through a Jewish lens. This program was a part of the larger Denver-Boulder Jewish Teen Initiative to increase engagement of diverse local Jewish teens. In the fellowship, teens worked in small teams to solve a particular problem in their respective communities, developing new initiatives and learning key skills that would help them navigate the world. The program was rated favorably by the teens who participated, but from an outcomes perspective it was becoming increasingly clear it was off-strategy.

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Building the Community We'd Like to See

August 08, 2019

Logo_BCYFPresident Trump recently made disparaging remarks about Baltimore that made headlines across the country. His comments stoked anger and outrage. He tarred Baltimore with a broad and reckless brush without offering even a token gesture of support from his administration.

This president has learned it is easy to throw stones. He hasn't learned how to pick up stones and build. Instead of tearing us down, Baltimore needs leaders at the state and federal levels who are committed to building.

Like many American cities, Baltimore struggles with the long-term consequences of disinvestment and segregation: aging infrastructure, dwindling resources, and too few opportunities for young people.

And so our city celebrated the creation of the historic Baltimore Children and Youth Fund as a beacon of hope and possibility, and as a commitment to the city's most important resource for the future: our young people.

BCYF was launched in 2015 by Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who was then the president of the Baltimore City Council. The fund was approved by voters in November 2016 with more than 80 percent support. The non-lapsing fund is supported through an annual set aside of property tax revenue.

Baltimore is only the third city in the nation to create such a fund, and it is the only fund of its kind that has included a racial equity and community participatory lens in grant selections. You will not find this sort of program anywhere in the country.

Why does this matter?

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'College Means Hope': A Path Forward for the Justice-Involved

July 12, 2019

Michelson_20MM_smart_justice"Former gang members make incredible students. The same skills that made me a good drug-dealer — resiliency, hustle, determination — I now use on campus to succeed in school," Jesse Fernandez tells the audience attending our panel discussion at this year's Gang Prevention and Intervention Conference in Long Beach.

I was on stage with Jesse as co-moderator for the first education-focused panel in the conference's history. (The Michelson 20MM Foundation convened the panel, tapping Jesse, Taffany Lim of California State University, Los Angeles, and Brittany Morton of Homeboy Industries to share their experiences.) Only 25, he has come a long way from the gang life he once knew. Today, he interns for Homeboy Industries, helping other students on their path to college; has finished an associate's program in Los Angeles; and has studied abroad at Oxford University. He may not look like a typical college student, but he speaks with the certainty and eloquence of someone who has been in school for years.

"College means hope. It means understanding your identity. For me, it was learning about my indigenous heritage, what it means to be Chicano, and how my community has been affected by violence and loss."

I first met Jesse over a lunch of chilaquiles (with salsa verde) and agua fresca (Angela's Green Potion is a "do not miss") at Homegirl Café, an L.A. staple since the 1990s. The café is run by former gang members and offers a safe space for people coming out of prison, providing many of them with their first job and creating a pipeline to sustainable employment. It's so popular that Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and other politicians on the national stage have stopped in for a bite while in town.

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Youth Apprenticeship: Accelerating a Path to College and Career Success 

June 13, 2019

MachineapprenticeWe seem to have reached a consensus that, in today's economy, it's nearly impossible to secure a quality job and get on the path to economic stability without postsecondary education. But the reality of student loan debt and surveys which show college graduates don’t feel prepared for their career of choice challenges the narrative that a successful future is intrinsically linked to a college degree.

Reality is also hitting employers' bottom lines as businesses of all sizes and in a variety of fields, including information technology, manufacturing, finance, and healthcare, struggle to fill good-paying positions. The pipeline that used to lead young people through high school and, ultimately, to the skills needed to secure those jobs is broken — and it might not have ever worked equitably, anyway.

It's clear our country needs additional, widely accessible postsecondary options that provide young people with the foundational skills, experiences, and credentials they need to thrive in a rapidly changing economy.

K-12 systems, institutions of higher education, and industries alike have been searching for solutions that reflect the current and future state of work, with little success. For decades, philanthropy has been investing to improve educational outcomes and college access, and it, too, recognizes that new approaches are needed, and fast.

That's why we funded the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA), a multi-stakeholder New America-led initiative to promote more equitable and sustainable pathways to economic mobility. PAYA aims to do this by partnering with educators and employers to build more scalable long-term solutions that have been proven to help youth acquire the skills they need to navigate the rapidly changing world of work.

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Building the Power of Immigrants and Youth of Color

January 02, 2019

BP+LCF+Siren+Rally059852Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network (SIREN) - Bay Area has spent the last several years building the political power of immigrant and youth voters with the aim of shifting the political landscape in the region and across the state. In 2018, we doubled down on our commitment to building this political muscle by registering more than fifteen thousand new immigrant and youth voters, contacting a hundred and sixty thousand already-registered voters, and mobilizing more than two hundred volunteers. In the 2018 midterm elections, our efforts helped generate one of the highest turnouts in state history for a midterm and resulted in the passage of critical local and state ballot measures, as well as the defeat of House members opposed to immigrant rights. 

One of SIREN's youth leaders, Miguel, participated in phone banking and door-to-door canvassing of Spanish-speaking voters. Although Miguel and his family cannot vote because of their immigration status, the day after the election he told us: "The community was my voice at the polls yesterday. Immigrants and youth came out and demonstrated our power in Northern California and the Central Valley. Through our voting power, we are passing policies in our state and region that are impacting our families, and we will carry our momentum into 2019 to fight for immigrant rights and protections for immigrant youth."

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Don’t Wait Until 2020 to Invest in Youth Leaders

December 13, 2018

Youth_engagementFor anyone interested in increasing youth civic engagement, the midterm elections are a cause for celebration. In the election,
31 percent of youth (ages 18-29) voted — according to at least one source, the highest level of participation among youth in the past quarter-century.

Traditionally, support for youth civic engagement declines at the end of an election cycle and resumes as the next cycle starts to heat up — along with thought pieces about why young people don’t vote. To break this pattern, I offer a suggestion: increase investment in youth organizing groups now; don't wait until 2020.

The country is in the middle of a massive demographic shift, with young people of color the fastest-growing segment of the population. The key to developing a robust and inclusive democracy that reflects this shift is to support the active civic participation and leadership of this group. And the best way to do that is not to wait until the start of the next election cycle to pour millions of dollars into advertising to reach young voters.

Instead, we should support organizations led by young people of color that are engaged in year-round organizing around both voter engagement campaigns and efforts to address issues in their local communities. Issue campaigns focused on quality schools, immigrants' rights, ending mass incarceration, and preserving reproductive rights are what motivate young people to become engaged in the world around them and, by extension, the electoral process.

Take the Power U Center for Social Change and Dream Defenders, youth organizing groups in Florida that have been organizing to end mass incarceration and the school-to-prison-pipeline. In the lead up to the midterms, both groups worked tirelessly in support of a ballot measure to restore voting eligibility to formerly convicted persons, and as a result 1.4 million people in Florida have had their voting rights restored. If those ex-offenders are organized effectively, most of them will vote — and in ways, hopefully, that strengthen their communities.

From where I sit, there are three reasons to double down on investments in youth organizing groups:

Youth organizers are good at engaging voters of all ages. Some youth organizing groups have focused on engaging young voters; others are organizing whole communities. Power California, a statewide alliance of more than twenty-five organizations, works to harness the power of young voters of color and their families. Between September and November, the organization and its partners worked in forty counties to get young Californians to head to the polls and make their voices heard on issues that affect them. Through phone calls, texting, and targeted social media, the organization talked to more than a hundred and fifteen thousand young voters and registered and pre-registered more than twenty-five thousand young people of color. Other organizations such as Poder in Action in Phoenix, Arizona, engaged young people in their communities because these young people are knowledgeable and passionate about the issues in play and serve as highly effective messengers. Our takeaway: investing in youth leaders generates results, now and for decades to come.

Engaging the pre-electorate now increases civic participation in the future. Many of the young people organizing and canvassing with grantees of the Funders' Collaborative for Youth Organizing were ineligible to vote because they hadn't turned 18. But while they weren't old enough to cast a ballot, many of them were active in knocking on doors and making calls to encourage others to vote. Today's 16- and 17-year-olds will be voting in 2020, and we should be supporting organizations working to engage them. These organizations are a vital resource for developing the next generation of civic leaders.

Youth organizers play a vital role in connecting issues and voting. Over the last several years, we've seen the emergence of a number of organizations that are organizing young people of color around issues in their communities and helping them engage electorally as part of a broader goal of creating a just and equitable society. These groups are developing the next generation of young leaders, organizing campaigns aimed at improving quality of life in their communities, and encouraging people, young and old, to get out and vote. Recent research shows that this kind of organizing is one of the best ways to support the academic growth, social and emotional development, and civic engagement of young people, and these groups are our best hope for actively engaging young people today, as well as developing a pipeline of leaders equipped to solve future challenges.

Unfortunately, funding for this work has been sporadic, often showing up — in insufficient amounts — just before elections and then disappearing as soon as the last vote has been counted. To build a just and inclusive society, we must make a significant, long-term investment in the leadership of young people of color willing to organize around issues and engage voters, both young and old.

The 2018 election cycle has come to an end. Our investment in youth organizing shouldn't. It is time to get serious about supporting the next generation of leaders.

By 2020, it'll be too late.

Headshot_Eric BraxtonEric Braxton is executive director of the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a collective of social justice funders and youth organizing practitioners that works to advance youth organizing as a strategy for youth development and social change.

5 Questions for… David Egner, President/CEO, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation

November 27, 2018

Established by the late owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills with more than a billion dollars in assets, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation plans to spend those assets down, with a focus on western New York state and southeastern Michigan, by 2035.

David Egner was appointed president and CEO of the foundation in 2015, having served prior to that as president and CEO of the Detroit-based Hudson Webber Foundation. A fixture in Michigan philanthropy for decades, first as an executive assistant to longtime W.K. Kellogg Foundation CEO Russ Mawby, then as director of the Michigan Nonprofit Association and executive director of the New Economy Initiative, Egner is using his extensive knowledge, experience, and connections to make the Detroit and Buffalo metro region better places to live and work.

PND recently spoke with Egner about Ralph Wilson and his vision for the foundation and the two regions he loved and called home.

Headshot_david_egnerPhilanthropy News Digest: Who was Ralph C. Wilson? And what was his connection to Buffalo and southeastern Michigan, the two regions on which the foundation focuses most of its giving?

David Egner: Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. was a tremendously successful businessman and the beloved founder and former owner of the National Football League's Buffalo Bills.

The four life trustees he appointed to lead the foundation decided to focus its giving in the Detroit and Buffalo regions — southeastern Michigan and western New York — where Mr. Wilson spent most of his life and was the most emotionally invested. He had called metro Detroit home since he was two, and Buffalo became a second home after 1959 through his ownership of the Bills.

But above all, he's remembered for being a lover of people and of everyday difference makers. We want the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to be a testament to his spirit, and that ethos helps guide who we are, what we do, and how we help shape communities.

PND: Why did Mr. Wilson, who lived to be 95, decide to structure the foundation as a limited lifespan foundation?

DE: It was a very personal decision. First and foremost, it was born out of his desire to have an impact on everything he touched. Doing so ensures that the foundation’s work will be completed within the lifetimes of the people who knew him best, our four life trustees, and that its impact will be immediate, substantial, and measurable.

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[Review] 'You Can't Be What You Can't See: The Power of Opportunity to Change Young Lives'

September 26, 2018

Concrete, practicable solutions to society's urgent challenges are rare, in part because the debate around such issues too often is driven by philosophical differences and partisan political calculation. What is needed instead are compelling stories that explain those challenges through the eyes of the people affected and suggest possible solutions based on their lived reality. You Cant Be What You Can't See, by Milbrey W. McLaughlin, tells one such story.

Book_you_cant_be_what_you_cant_seeIn the book, McLaughlin, the David Jack Professor Emeritus of Education and Public Policy at Stanford University and founding director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, documents what happened to more than seven hundred young people from Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project who participated in CYCLE, an out-of-school-time tutoring program started in 1978 in the basement of Cabrini-Green's LaSalle Street Church. Over the next decade and a half the program evolved into a comprehensive afterschool and summer support program for neighborhood youth, the history of which McLaughlin traces through the lives of the young people who participated. Along the way, we learn, through the kids' own voices, how the program altered the trajectory of their lives for the better.

For much of its existence, Cabrini-Green — which comprised the Frances Cabrini Row-houses and the William Green Homes — was portrayed by the national media as a sort of urban version of the Wild West, a place where crime, drugs, and guns were all-too-common and lawlessness prevailed. Like many narratives, this one was overly simplistic. McLaughlin starts her story at the beginning, in the early 1940s, when the Chicago Housing Project built Cabrini-Green "to replace the crime-ridden slum widely known as Little Hell with clean, family-friendly, affordable housing" for (mostly) white families. As those families grew more prosperous in the post-WWII boom and began moving to suburbs, low-income black families, many on public assistance, moved in.

The 1950s and 1960s were "a time of hope and relative racial calm" in Cabrini-Green. The two-story row houses were a great option for low-income families with children, and major high-rise expansions of the complex in 1958 and 1962 meant that more low-income families could afford to live there. "It was paradise compared to what you had before," remembers Craig Nash, a CYCLE alum who became coordinator of CYCLE's I Have Dream scholarship program. "When the high-rises first went up, they were beautiful. There were trees, there were families — mother, father, children, working families."

But over time, the effects of the "redlining" practices that were common at the Chicago Housing Authority during the period began to shift "the make-up of Cabrini-Green from the 1960s-era community of two-parent, working families to, by the late 1970s, "an economically, racially, and socially segregated" series of projects comprising thousands of units, mostly occupied by struggling black single mothers. "Neighborhoods are not accidents," Tim Huizenga, an early CYCLE board member, told McLaughlin. "They are the products of systematic sorting processes….For a while, the high-rises were decent places to live. But, for a variety of reasons, eventually they became the place where people that just had no options were living." As the condition of the buildings and in the neighborhood declined along with expectations, gang violence, teenage pregnancy rates, and social and institutional isolation increased, creating a toxic dynamic that fed on itself.

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CBMA Turns 10: A Decade of Daring Work for Black Male Achievement

June 26, 2018

Campaign_for_black_male_achievementThis month, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA) marks ten years of progress: catalyzing more than $200 million in investment in black male achievement while building a national movement to eliminate barriers to the success of African-American men and boys.

From the beginning, we committed to building beloved communities across America where black men and boys are healthy, thriving, and empowered to achieve their fullest potential — that is our core mission and rallying cry.

Leaders in philanthropy, government, and business were not always as focused on mobilizing the necessary investment to ensure that black men and boys — and boys and men of color more broadly — were recognized as assets to our communities and country. That's why in 2008, at the Open Society Foundations, we launched CBMA in response to the growing need we saw in cities and communities across the nation where outcomes for black men and boys lagged far behind those of their white counterparts in all areas, including education, health, safety, jobs, and criminal justice involvement.

Over the last decade, together with our partners, we have catalyzed multiple national initiatives, including the Executives' Alliance for Boys and Young Men of Color, the BMe Community, and Cities United. We played an instrumental role in helping former President Barack Obama launch My Brother's Keeper, an initiative developed in the wake of his speech in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin — asking ourselves, "How should philanthropy respond to Obama's speech on black men and boys?"

CBMA was spun off from OSF as an independent entity in 2015, and today our work resides at the intersection of movement and field building, bolstered by a membership network of more than five thousand leaders and three thousand organizational partners. Our network includes inspired individuals like Robert Holmes, who directs the Chicago Aviation Career Education Academy at the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. In partnering with CBMA, Holmes has widened the reach of his efforts to create an educational pathway for young black men interested in becoming pilots, helping diversify a critical industry that has little to no black male representation.

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It’s Time to Invest in Youth Leaders

May 16, 2018

DCPSWalkout_AFA-1024x681In the months since the tragic mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the response of youth activists has captured the attention of the nation. What has largely gone unnoticed, however, is that across the country a dynamic youth-organizing field has emerged. Over the past twenty years, groups — many of them led by low-income young people of color — have been organizing to improve education, end the school-to-prison pipeline, protect immigrant rights, and address other critical issues.

New research demonstrates that not only does youth organizing result in concrete policy changes, it also promotes positive academic, social/emotional, and civic engagement outcomes. Yet despite recent investment in youth organizing from funders like the Ford Foundation and the California Endowment, overall funding remains modest. That's unfortunate, because even as a new generation demonstrates its willingness to take on some of our toughest issues, the need for investment in the leadership of young people, especially those most impacted by injustice, has never been more important.

According to the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing's National Youth Organizing Landscape Map, there are more than two hundred youth organizing groups across the country, the majority of them focused on middle and high school students of color. These groups support the development of young leaders and organize campaigns to address inequity in their communities. In Los Angeles, Inner City Struggle and Community Coalition led the campaign to ensure a rigorous college preparatory curriculum for all students. Groups such as Communities United in Chicago, Padres y Jovenes Unidos in Denver, and the Philadelphia Student Union have gotten their school districts to create policies that address racial disparities in school discipline, resulting in changes that have benefited hundreds of thousands of students. 

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Cities Are Raising the Bar and Building Beloved Communities Where Black Men and Boys Can Thrive

February 16, 2018

Cbma_promise_of_placeTo build beloved communities across America where black men and boys are healthy, thriving, and able to achieve their fullest potential — that is the Campaign for Black Male Achievement's (CBMA) core mission and rallying cry.

CBMA's work is driven by the unwavering belief that black men and boys are assets to our communities and our country, that they possess untapped potential and brilliance, and that they thrive when given opportunities to succeed. We cannot truly prosper as a nation when any group is left behind and forced to exist on the fringes of society. The well-being of black men and boys is directly connected to the well-being and strength of our families, communities, and nation as a whole.

Over the past decade, CBMA has supported leaders in cities across the United States who are working to accelerate positive life outcomes for black men and boys and whose efforts are moving the needle in measurable ways. To chart and track the progress happening in these cities, in 2015 CBMA developed the Black Male Achievement (BMA) City Index, which scores cities based on their level of engagement with and investment in black men and boys. In conjunction with the new index, we released Promise of Place, a first-of-its-kind report series that assessed commitments and targeted initiatives across fifty cities focused on supporting black men and boys. A few weeks ago, we released a follow-up report, Promise of Place: Building Beloved Communities for Black Men and Boys, that explores whether those cities are keeping their promises. Encouragingly, we have found that most cities have in fact increased their investments and actions in support of black men and boys.

The new Promise of Place report finds that, since 2015, 62 percent of the cities included in the index have ramped up their efforts to support black males across a variety of focus areas and needs, with scores based on five key indicators: demographic mix, commitment to black men and boys, presence of national initiatives supporting black men and boys, targeted funding supporting black men and boys, and CBMA membership. Detroit and Washington, D.C., remain the two highest scoring cities, each with a score of 95, while Jackson (Mississippi), Seattle (Washington), Omaha (Nebraska), and Mobile (Alabama) saw the greatest improvements in their scores. Cities not captured in the first report — including Denver and Yonkers, New York — have since become highly engaged in leading black male achievement efforts.

To be clear, the BMA City Index is not a ranking of which cities are doing the best with respect to this work. Rather, it is meant to serve as a starting point to see what commitments and engagements cities are making to black men and boys. It is imperative that city and community leaders hold their cities accountable to these commitments and continue to collaborate on measuring the impact of their efforts.

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[Review] 'Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America'

August 17, 2017

When you're able to do something that sparks your passion and leverages your skill set, it feels pretty good. When you can make a living doing it, it's even better. But getting to that place can be hard; you have to have opportunities to learn a new skill or stretch a new muscle, learn from the experience, and improve. I've been lucky to have had some great mentors, informal and formal, who have guided me through such learning experiences — from a cross country coach who taught me that slow and steady will get you to the finish line (if not always win the race), to entrepreneurial friends who offered marketing tips for my side hustles, to my parents, who stressed to me the importance of writing thank-you notes. Many young people, however, aren't as lucky to have received the kind of coaching that can give them the confidence and skills to tackle new or unexpected challenges. That's where mentoring programs can provide significant value; they provide learning opportunities to young people who may not otherwise have them.

Book_teach_to_work_3dPatty Alper is a seasoned mentor with fifteen years of experience mentoring inner-city high school students. She's "adopted" classrooms through Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), an international nonprofit organization that I first learned about in the Mary Mazzio documentary Ten9Eight. The film showcases the transformational learning that happens when students are given the opportunity to create a business, benefit from a curriculum that allows them to dive into critical skills, and have a supportive adult serve as their mentor during the process. As an NFTE donor and board volunteer, Alper wanted to "allow supporters [of the organization] to go beyond financial giving and share their knowledge as well," so she created an Adopt-a-Class program that recruits professionals to sponsor an entrepreneurship class, work with teachers, and commit to mentoring students for a full academic year. I remember being struck by how many of the kids featured in Ten9Eight went from expressing little hope about their future to confidently tackling and successfully delivering a big on-stage presentation about the businesses they had created. Seeing the obvious pride and sense of accomplishment in these young people, it's easy to overlook the other piece of the story, which, I confess, I had done until I picked up Alper's new book, Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America. But once I started reading, it didn't take long for me to be persuaded that mentoring involves both art and science, and that done well, it can truly unlock the potential of underserved youth.

For many, the act of mentoring is something one just does, based on one's hard-won experience. But in her book, Alper takes a very granular, how-to approach to mentoring, starting with this key bit of advice: one of the best things a mentor can do is to listen and not share everything she has learned over the years with her mentee. (Note: Alper relies on an adult-student framework throughout the book and, unfortunately, does not touch on any other kind of mentor-mentee relationship. As the book is based on a particular model of mentorship, so, too, does this review.)

"The fastest way to turn kids off is to tell them how great you are," Alper writes. Instead, mentors should relate to their mentees as "peers." You do that, she adds, by telling them, "[Y]ou are the boss. You can accept or reject my suggestions because this is your project. What I bring to bear is experience, ideas, and support. We can brainstorm, but the ultimate decisions here are yours."

That's only a start, though. There are lots of other things mentors need to be mindful of — from body language, to support systems, to hopes and dreams — and for each, Alper lays out solid advice designed to help mentors approach the challenge at hand in a manageable way. In a chapter about lesson planning, for example, there's a terrific line-by-line guide that adapts the Harvard Business School-developed case method into a ninety-minute classroom exercise. It's hard to tell accomplished adults they may not be good teachers or thoughtful lesson planners (a truth many of us are happy to acknowledge about others, though not ourselves), and so Alper doesn't try to tell us; she shows us instead with tools that no mentor ought to ignore.

But while her advice is grounded in deep experience and mostly useful, there are elements of it that feel outdated. A very thoughtful section on key components to establishing a one-on-one dialogue ended up falling flat for me, as there was no mention of asking a mentee herself if she had any ground rules she'd like to suggest. Without such reciprocity, the dialogue you hope to have often ends up a one-way street. Another example: the advice in a section about preparing a student for an interview ("[W]omen should wear dress slacks or a knee-length skirt with a blouse and possibly a blazer, or a dress...also wear low heels") and, in a later section, about dressing for presentations ("What is inappropriate? Clothing that is too sexy, too baggy, too dirty, too ripped, too short, or too bare") felt too prescriptive and gendered. Like most of the  examples Alper provides in the book, this one is more appropriate for "traditional" professions and contexts, even though the book purports to be about preparing students to pursue any passion and path. And finally, Alper tries so hard at times to be actionably prescriptive that she loses sight of the human touch that, as she reminds readers elsewhere, is essential to successful mentoring. (Do kids actually say, "How do you do?")  

That raises another question: Beyond the grateful letters from students she cites throughout the book, did Alper consult young people about what works (and what doesn't) when writing it? After all, feedback loops are embedded in the mentorship process for mentees, but I wonder whether the same can be said for mentors, or whether the inevitable power differential in any mentor-mentee relationship makes that difficult. And how might authentic feedback be obtained and heard? While there's a nice suggestion for reflective debriefing at the end of each program (a group meal outside the school setting, with some reflective questions kept handy on an index card), it doesn't seem to provide sufficient space for meaningful critique. And still another question I had is whether the pay-to-mentor model she discusses actually limits the diversity of the mentor pool? While this isn't the only model Alper discusses, it is prominent and many examples in the book seemed to refer to careers in which mentors likely could afford to sponsor a class. Which begs the question: Is there a bias in favor of mentoring among people who are paid well, have lots of social capital, and have the wherewithal to be flexible with their time and choices? And how well does such a pool of mentor candidates reflect students' passions and needs?

Those questions aside, Teach to Work left me with a renewed sense of gratitude for the mentors I've had, and pride in the mentoring I've done. There are lessons in the books that anyone — young or old, accomplished or with as-yet–unrealized potential — will find relevant to them in some way. And perhaps most powerful is the assertion implied by the book's subtitle: that the mentoring young people receive can be a lever to help close America's skills gap and bring increased diversity and talent to the workforce. As Alper's book describes and the aforementioned Ten9Eight brings to life, project-based mentorship can be transformational, and, done at scale, there's no doubt it would be a gamechanger. And, besides, this millennial is into placing big bets on solutions that will make the world a better place.

To volunteer as a mentor — and commit to doing it well – is about wanting to create change and catalyze potential. I would suggest there's an added value proposition: maybe mentoring a young person isn't so much a one-way learning opportunity as it is a way for us all to get smarter. Alper certainly acknowledges how much she has learned and grown from her experiences in the classroom. And as I've seen through any number of youth grantmaking programs, philanthropy as a sector has much to learn from students in terms of how they approach community needs assessments and discussions of impact. What more could we learn and apply to our own careers by pairing up with a young person who is wrestling with difficulties in her life and, with our help, coming up with her own solutions to those challenges?

Jen Bokoff is director of stakeholder engagement at Foundation Center. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

5 Questions for...Alma Powell, Chair, America’s Promise Alliance

April 24, 2017

America's Promise Alliance, the nation's largest network dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth, is marking its twentieth anniversary on April 18 with a Recommit to Kids Summit and Promise Night Gala in New York City. PND spoke via email with Alma Powell, the network's chairwoman, about its work, the progress it has made toward its goals over the last twenty years, and what every American can do to help.

Headshot_alma_powellPhilanthropy News Digest: A lot has changed since America's Promise was founded twenty years ago. Are the Five Promises to America's children and youth announced at the Presidents' Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia in April 1997 — caring adults, safe places to learn and play, a healthy start, an effective education, and an opportunity to serve — as relevant today as they were twenty years ago? And what, if anything, would you add to those five promises?

Alma Powell: The Five Promises are just as relevant and necessary today as they were twenty years ago. I can't imagine that ever changing. They are rooted in both sound social science and common sense and represent the minimal conditions that every child, in every neighborhood, has a right to expect. If these objectives aren't met, it is not the fault of children; it is a collective failure of adults in this country.

I wouldn't add another promise to the five. When it comes to young people, we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We need to summon the will.

PND: Of the five commitments that form the core of the organization's mission, which has been kept most successfully, and where has progress been unexpectedly difficult?

AP: Thanks to the work of researchers and youth development experts, we know a lot more about what young people need to thrive. Better data helps us pinpoint educational problems by school district, school, and student, enabling us to focus help exactly where it is most needed. At the same time, more nonprofits and other organizations are involved in this work than ever before; advances in neuroscience have opened new windows into how children learn and have underscored the importance of the early childhood years; and scientific breakthroughs on the impact of adversity, high levels of stress, and trauma have taught us a lot about why some students struggle and how they might be helped.

All that has led to progress. Today, infant and child mortality rates are lower, rates of smoking and alcohol use among teens are lower, and high school graduation rates are up. More young people are living in homes with parents who graduated high school, and more students are attending college.

But there's more work to do. The child poverty rate is about the same as it was twenty years ago, snd social and economic mobility has stagnated. If we're to help more young people get on a more sustainable path to the middle class, we need to address the issues behind generational poverty and its long-term effects on young people. 

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