Memorandum: Next Step Options – Strengthening the Links between Youth and Community Engagement

Karen Pittman
June 3, 2003

TO: Deborah Alvarez Rodriguez, Omidyar Foundation
FROM: Karen Pitman, Forum for Youth Investment/Impact Strategies, Inc.
RE: Next Step Options – Strengthening the Links between Youth and Community Engagement
DATE: June 3, 2003
CC: Merita Irby, David Milner, Thaddeus Ferber, Nicole Yohalem, Ken Himmelman

We leave each of our meetings with you with new ideas for how the Forum for Youth Investment can be helpful to the Omidyar Foundation’s current efforts to explore the intersection between strategies for increasing civic and community engagement and strategies for increasing youth preparation and engagement. We are excited by the prospect of a long-term partnership with the Foundation. We are equally pleased, however, that you have asked us to identify some concrete, short-term ways that we could be of assistance to the Foundation over the next 6 months.

What follows is a list of quick turnaround projects that we are prepared to undertake on behalf of the Omidyar Foundation that speak to some of the immediate needs you have raised in our discussions. Each of these is of great interest to us. Each would advance our thinking and doing as well as the Foundation’s. Each, in one way or another, focuses on the space that exists between the visions and missions of our two organizations.

The Forum is an organization that has, over the past two years, begun to realize that we cannot achieve our mission without finding ways to “promote deliberate, community-based planning, grounded in the history and interests” of the multiple communities that affect young people’s lives. First and foremost are communities of place – the neighborhoods where young people live, the schools where they learn. Equally important, however, are the professional and political communities in which decisions that affect their lives are made. Over the past two years, the Forum has deliberately looked for strategies to bring knowledge of “what works” for young people into community conversations in ways that lead to assessment, analysis, advocacy and change. Our opportunistic efforts have paid off. We are now at a point where we are sure that the framing ideas are large enough and powerful enough to sustain action. The challenge is finding the most effective community engagement strategies.

The Omidyar Foundation is, based on our limited understanding, an organization that is strategy specific (e.g., authentic civic engagement) but issue neutral. The Foundation’s goal is not to protect the environment, improve youth outcomes or privatize health care per se, but to spark and sustain public engagement in influencing and implementing solutions to these types of collective issues.
There are several reasons why we believe our organizational missions are not as far apart as they could, at first, seem:

§ “Youth” is a big topic. Interestingly, in the youth world, we are seen as “issue neutral.” While we care about improvements in important services such as school-aged child care, education, the arts, health and recreation, and are concerned about issues such as teen pregnancy, youth violence, illiteracy and voting, our approach when working with cities, states, systems or organizations is issue neutral. We argue that all these “sub-communities” should come together around the big picture of what young people need and can do no matter which particular issue a community decides to focus on. We encourage groups to “blur the lines” between traditional silos, such as schools and community-based organizations. And we provide tools to allow young people, their families, neighborhoods, cities and states to assess their overarching “youth portfolio” – the sum of their collective efforts. Our job is to create common ground – the basis for community – among the full range of individuals and groups committed to young people.

§ “Youth” is a perennially popular topic. In poll after poll, American’s rank education, child care, and other youth issues among their top concerns. Communities given “issue neutral” opportunities to organize coalitions, conversations or initiatives probably land in the child youth space more than any other.

§ “Youth” are increasingly at the forefront of civic engagement and community change. We are not the first organization to conclude that rebuilding the community and civic fabric of our country requires engaging youth. Nor are we the first to argue that low voting rates are not an indicator of general disengagement or disinterest in public service and public discourse. Young people are deeply interested in making a difference. But they have a profound mistrust of politics and many have a justifiable frustration with the public systems that supposedly serve them. The more we work with organizations that have a deep interest in fostering community engagement (like the Harwood Institute and the National Community Building Network), the more we recognize the need to help these organizations gain a deeper understanding of youth issues and, even more importantly, youth capacities. Young people are and can be major forces for change. Their involvement in public life should not be seen as simply educational.

§ Increasing support for youth investment and youth involvement requires new strategies for local engagement. There are few public issues that resonate with a majority of stakeholders and not only benefit but require local and community engagement. Young people, as we say, do not grow up in programs, they grow up in families and communities. Each community is different. Each needs to find and sustain ways to affirm the social contract that exists between youth, families and communities. The Forum’s frames are persuasive. People understand them. The challenge now is to strengthen our knowledge of communications, facilitation and community engagement strategies in order to help communities act on this belief in ways that they (not us) can shape, own and sustain.

Enough stage-setting. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on which things on our immediate wish list match up with your practical interests.

To expedite matters, we have put ballpark figures against each project that reflect the average size of grants or contracts we have received in the past to do this type of work. As you know, the work that we do to provide just-in-time supports to foundations, governments and non-profits, while not a major revenue source, is a key part of our mission. We look forward to talking with you about any or all of these opportunities.

1. Make the case for Youth as a focal point for the Foundation’s civic engagement efforts. Review and compile data to back up the four assertions made above.
§ Create a 10 page (maximum) white paper and presentation on the intersection between youth development and civic engagement.
§ Compile supporting background materials into a user-friendly notebook (print or electronic)
§ Facilitate a conversation on the intersection with the Omidyar Foundation staff and board. (Key grantees and consultants can be included as well).
§ Bring this thinking into the Foundation’s planned applied research project (as a discussant, as appropriate)
§ Prepare preliminary strategies report if desired. Assist in other ways as needed.

2. Create a joint “youth & community” work options paper with the Harwood Institute and others. Conduct several disciplined work product reviews and strategy sessions with Harwood staff and other logical community/civic engagement partners (identified either by Omidyar, Harwood or the Forum) in order to:
§ deepen our knowledge of each other’s premises, concepts, tools, initiatives and work experiences;
§ surface tensions between our approaches;
§ create a concrete side-by-side comparison of the specific strategies used/proposed for a) youth engagement, b) community engagement, c) community discourse on a youth-focused;
§ identify options for capitalizing on the conceptual and practical work underway in both/all organizations;
§ anticipate the facilitation and capacity building needs of the communities in which the Omidyar Foundation has or will make commitments in 2004.

3. Beta-test cutting edge tools and processes in Nevada, New Mexico, California and/or other communities of interest to the Omidyar Foundation. The Forum is eager for partners to refine and test tools and processes that could deepen, broaden and sustain community discourse across a range of stakeholders and a range of communities (communities of place, association, profession, power). Combining this option with the partnership with Harwood above would allow for beta-testing of joint tools and processes as well.
§ CubeWorks software upgrades. To create the data interfaces needed to expedite data entry into the CubeWorks database system in order to give communities a faster, cheaper way to use the CubeWorks “adding it up” graphic capacity.
§ Community Conversation/Youth Investment Portfolio technology, workbooks and report templates. We have done several successful tests (the latest in Anchorage, San Francisco) of the added value of “low tech” tools (e.g. transparencies) that give community planning groups and community forum participants the real-time option of collectively entering their priorities into a series of layered “adding it up” charts, viewing their results and producing quick turnaround reports on their recommendations for next steps. We have seen the added impact that accrues from higher tech options (e.g., allowing individuals or work teams to enter their priorities and comments into pre-structured voting screens to create instant data reports). We believe that some real time, electronic capacity would significantly enhance the community conversation processes we have been testing and will have an opportunity to kick off in California (4-6 school districts’ high school reform planning processes) and hopefully in New Mexico.
§ Youth Impact Report prototypes and guidebook. Working with our Community IMPACT! Youth Mobilizers in Washington D.C. and Nashville, we are creating a structured process for creating community partnerships, assessing community opportunities, analyzing gaps as well as creating an impact report that reflects the recommendations gathered through discussions with adults, community organizations and other youth. This process could be further developed as a model for additional communities.