By Melody Barnes
This essay was originally published on the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions on July 24, 2014.
Just over a year ago, I stood on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival to announce 21 communities across the country that were selected for inclusion in the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF), an initiative of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions. The Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund awarded grants to fund promising cross-sector collaboration in communities seeking to build successful education and employment opportunities for young people disconnected from work and school.
Today, the OYIF is awarding grants for the second time, investing in multi-year implementation funding in all of the original community grantees that have successfully completed a year of planning. But today is not just about announcing grants — it is about an innovative approach beginning to demonstrate results affecting outcomes for the 6.7 million opportunity youth in America.
Opportunity youth are men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 who find themselves disconnected from education and employment. Many times, they go unnoticed and their stories remain unheard. They live in rural areas, large cities, and every community in between. There is no single explanation for why many are not employed or did not finish high school or complete college, so there is not one solution that can be adopted to address the root causes. But years of research and work in communities has led us to believe that collective impact — working across different systems and sectors toward a common goal with shared metrics and accountability — is the key to creating effective pathways to prosperity for this population of young people.
Using the collective impact framework, our grantees have built cross-sector collaboratives with the K-12 system, community colleges, employers, local government, philanthropy, and community-based organizations. Central to our approach is the experience and participation of opportunity youth in our communities, who have demonstrated a level of civic engagement that sets a stellar example for young people of all backgrounds.
The OYIF has set ambitious goals for the next five years, which our grantees will use as a roadmap to guide their collaborative strategies. OYIF grantees will work to reduce further rates of disconnection from education and the workforce and to coordinate systems that support and bolster secondary, postsecondary, and employment attainment for opportunity youth. Additionally, our grantees will seek to leverage policy changes to increase comprehensive reconnection pathways to postsecondary and career success.
The collective impact approach has received support at the federal level. Earlier this year, the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Social Innovation Fund released a call for proposals seeking to accelerate the creation of collaborative, community-based strategies that address the barriers faced by opportunity youth — especially boys and men of color — in reconnecting to education and employment pathways. At the community level, the collective impact approach has been enthusiastically endorsed by the investment of time and resources from a range of national and regional foundations. Together, these funders do three things:enable the OYIF to design and implement a national learning community that shares lessons learned in real-time and convenes grantees in-person twice a year, engage a third-party evaluator, and re-grant upwards of $13,500,000 to communities and learning partners by the time the initiative ends in four to five years.
There is still so much work to be done, but also tremendous opportunity ahead of us. From the Philadelphia Youth Network to Partnership for Youth Development in New Orleans and from the Hopi Community Foundation to the Maine Youth Transition Collaborative: urban, tribal, and rural communities are coming together through the OYIF to address the policy and programmatic needs necessary to empower many more young people to get on pathways to opportunity for themselves and their families. Today’s announcement builds on the great progress our community grantee partners have made and recognizes the growing success of the collective impact approach.
There is growing recognition that we need to provide all young people — including, and especially, those with extraordinary barriers to success — the chance to pursue a healthy and productive life. In the years to come, these community collaboratives will build effective pathways to opportunity while fortifying the case for increased adoption of collective impact as an effective model for community change.
Melody Barnes is the chair of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.