Readiness as a Right Part 1: I’ve Played it Safe

March 20, 2015

Let’s stop playing it safe. Readiness is more than a goal; it’s a right.

This isn’t just an outward call to action.  It’s a personal admission of inaction.

I’ve played it safe.

I am an African-American woman who is the leader of a well-respected national organization, and, according to some, the “grandmother of positive youth development.”  Our organization has always had a focus on disadvantaged and disconnected youth.  But this focus was implied, not explicit—evidenced by the choices made about what to write, where to work and whom to work with.   

My passionate promotion of the youth development approach has always been fueled by three premises: problem free isn’t fully prepared, academic competence is not enough, and fully prepared isn’t fully engaged. 

My professional and personal goal has been to shine a spotlight on all of the formal and informal contexts in which learning and development happen, in order to ensure that leaders both understand the cumulative effects of under-investment in the places where young people spend their time and recognize unlikely bright spots.

These commitments, my passion and, frankly, my race, have gotten me a seat at tables that now have a much sharper focus on equity.  I’m not ready for emeritus status, however. I want to earn my seat.  And that means that I need to own the fact that I’ve played it safe. It is time to be up front that readiness is not just a universal goal: it is one of the toughest civil rights issues of our time.

I have advanced readiness as a universal goal over the course of my career for one strategic reason:  To counter the strong tendency those with the signing pens had to set stingier, substandard goals for “those kids” compared to those for their own.  I stand by this approach.   But it is also true that excellence is a hollow goal unless it is pursued in the service of equity.   

There is much more that I could have and should have done to make sure the call: “all young people ready” really means all. You and I know that the “traps” in systems and approaches that derail some youth are getting deeper.  The gaps among young people—and among what young people learn and what they need to be able to do in life—are widening.   

I and the entire Forum team pledge to do much, much more to make sure we are bringing an equity lens to the excellence table.  This starts with our national meeting in New Orleans at the end of this month, where a focus on equity – on readiness as a right – will permeate, starting with my opening plenary and ending with our closing session featuring Roy Austin Jr., the deputy assistant to the president for urban affairs, justice and opportunity, who will spotlight critical national efforts like the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

But it doesn’t end there.  At the meeting, we’re formally sharing our first set of offerings from The Readiness Project, our commitment to provide our own staff and leaders like you with stronger lenses to see the disparities, sharper tools to map and link solutions, and more diverse voices to motivate action.

The Project is funded by the Ford Foundation and co-led by me, Stephanie Krauss (our Senior Fellow), and Caitlin Johnson (Managing Editor of SparkAction).  We’re providing dedicated time needed to make good on this commitment.  I’ll share more on The Readiness Project later (and you can begin to explore it a bit on your own).

What I want to emphasize now is that The Readiness Project is more than a project.  It’s a commitment.  The Readiness Project provides the entire Forum team with ongoing opportunities to more visibly demonstrate how our passion for readiness and equity plays out through the precision work we do to help programs and partners align and assess to improve performance.

The SparkAction team manages the on-line hub for The Readiness Project, providing all of us with newsfeeds, blogs and storytelling on the readiness gaps, traps, and proposed solutions and creating direct opportunities for youth and adults to share, critique and advocate. They are building on their current work, such as support the National Council of Young Leaders/Opportunity Youth United, to ensure that formerly disconnected youth always have a seat at the table.   

Stephanie is responsible for rolling out tools and guides to sharpen cross-system, cross-sector discussions of the abilities young people need andthe practices and resources adults need to make readiness a reality for all.  Stephanie builds on the exciting work she started as the founder of a competency-based school for over-age, under-credited youth.

But in addition, our Ready by 21 field services team – the folks who work with leaders and partnerships in communities across the country – will bring The Readiness Project lenses and tools to their clients to extract stronger commitments to closing gaps between populations and addressing the traps across systems that disproportionately affect some youth. 

The team at the Weikart Center will work to leverage the incredible trust they have gained as builders of quality improvement systems that encourage accountability to ensure the availability of quality settings focused on boys and young men of color and encourage all networks to assess the “evenness” of their progress across neighborhoods.

The Community Systems Group has the huge task of getting us to the finish line on the prototype of a powerful process and platform that allows communities to do “collective seeing and collective learning” in ways that empower leaders to see and respond to the cumulative impact of systemic disparities.

Our Policy Alignment team will double down on efforts  to ensure that we focus on policies for those most vulnerable, such as the Performance Partnership Pilots (P3) focused on disconnected youth, and that we help local policymakers create cross-system solutions for those most in need.  

The Opportunity Youth team is not only working with the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and Gap, Inc. to support the Opportunity Youth Network’s collaborative efforts to reconnect one million disconnected youth over five years, it is working to align OYN with the various initiatives focused on boys and men of color to ensure that communities get clear messages and accurate information about how they can connect the dots to create better pathways for more children and youth.

My job:  Make sure our work builds on, contributes to and connects to yours in ways that add real value.  I doubt that anyone reading this list will believe that this is all I or the Forum can do.  But I hope you’ll let it stand as a down payment.  And challenge us.

Karen Pittman, a sociologist and recognized leader in youth development, is the cofounder, president and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment.

readiness is a right


This article is part of the Readiness is a Right blog series, posted under The Readiness Project, a joint effort of The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction. Find more blogs and expert views in The Readiness Project Insights section. 


Karen Pittman