In May, 2014 I attended the Catalyzing Large Scale Change: The Funder’s Role in Collective Impact convening that was led by the Collective Impact Forum. During the Leading for Results plenary panel, United Way Worldwide U.S. President Stacey Stewart coined the phrase “civic confidence”. This phrase refers to the idea that as community members collaborate to problem-solve using the collective impact approach, there is an increased ability, infrastructure and public will to take on new issues that move the community forward. According to Stewart, as the collaborative muscle builds up over time, civic confidence is gained, and communities increase their capacity to effectively achieve results.
Through my work with the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions, Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF), I have seen evidence of civic confidence. This confidence is particularly important in the context of the OYIF due to the collaborative cross-system/sector approach community leaders are using to improve education and employment outcomes for Opportunity Youth (defined as youth between the ages of 16-24 that are disconnected from education and employment). As communities experience early success in their collaborative efforts, they are demonstrating a willingness to take on more complex issues and are using a variety of approaches to achieve impact. Across the OYIF there are three examples of civic confidence in action:
Strategic Use of City Leaders and Systems
As community collaboratives seek to build an infrastructure that has the capacity to move a collective impact agenda, it is essential to have high-level local leaders, such as mayors and other city officials, engaged in the effort. However, for the sustainability of the effort, it is imperative to engender critical buy-in from local leaders while also organizing a strategy that will live beyond a mayoral cycle. In September 2013, the Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative led by Kathy Hamilton from the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC) and Kristin McSwain from the Boston Opportunity Agenda, developed a strategy to include the needs of local Opportunity Youth in the platforms of candidates running for mayor. Last fall, the Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative organized a forum that attempted to engage all 12 mayoral candidates to discuss education and career pathways for Opportunity Youth. Eleven out of 12 candidates participated in the forum and proposed new city-level strategies for reconnecting Opportunity Youth to family sustaining education and employment opportunities.
The work of the Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative following the mayoral election serves as an example of how growing civic confidence in the community can engender increased public will and also deepen the infrastructure to address youth disconnection. Coming out of the fall forum, the collaborative has focused on deepening the partnership with the office of the new Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in order to inform the ongoing efforts in Boston to reconnect Opportunity Youth to school and jobs. With the Mayor’s team and local community college leaders as thought partners, the Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative – working in tandem with the Youth Transitions Office at Boston Public Schools – is establishing a new Connection Center. Designed using a similar model to the re-engagement center that is responsible for reconnecting hundreds of former high school drop-outs across the city of Boston for more than a decade, the new Connection Center will act as a bridge between high school and community college. The ability to move these critical plans forward was born out of the organizing efforts of the collaborative.
The Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative example demonstrates how the growth in civic confidence in the course of engaging in collaborative organizing can increase a community’s ability to effectively push public will on key issues and build supportive infrastructure for long-term solutions. The collaborative’s previous work on dropout re-engagement, as well as early organizing efforts to engage mayoral candidates, have allowed it to deepen partnerships with high-level local leaders, secure the public will to support the reconnection strategy in Boston, and build new infrastructure that will improve outcomes for Opportunity Youth.
Leveraging Public and Private Resources for Growth
Collaboratives know that there is a delicate balance between public and private funding as both are necessary to solve complex issues and accomplish community level goals. The San Diego Youth Development Office (YDO) is an example of successful braiding and leveraging of public and private resources to improve outcomes for Opportunity Youth in San Diego. In the second year of the Youth Opportunity Pathways Initiative (PATHWAYS), Director Ian Gordon and his colleagues continue to successfully braid funds to support various youth initiatives.
The PATHWAYS strategy of engaging key government and philanthropic leaders in the collaborative has allowed it to push public will and to leverage public and private resources from the collaborative members to support its strategy of opening a re-engagement center to reconnect Opportunity Youth in San Diego. Most notably, the collaborative was able to secure $900,000 in WIA Youth Title 1 funds redirected by the San Diego Workforce Partnership to support the re-engagement center. The collaborative also partners with the San Diego Unified School District to provide three of their mentors to serve as “life coaches” for the re-engagement center participants. Additionally, several local philanthropic partners – who participate in the PATHWAYS collaborative – have committed to provide match funding, and all 39 collaborative partners have provided pro-bono work to support collaborative activities.
According to Gordon, collective impact is not just about systems coming together to collaborative, it is about genuine, meaningful collaboration built on data and rigor. For Gordon, this has meant bringing every sector and system that touch Opportunity Youth to the table to discuss the problem of youth disconnection, develop a shared agenda informed by data, and design and implement a reconnection strategy in San Diego. By engaging in shared activities to develop and implement the reconnection strategy in San Diego, the collaborative gained the civic confidence to identify critical opportunities to leverage public and private resources in support of its agenda for Opportunity Youth. The collaborative has also developed a sustainable model for its operations, and continues to implement innovative approaches that will serve to deepen and sustain the infrastructure that is critical to reconnecting youth to long-term, family sustaining change.
Authentically Engaging Opportunity Youth in Organizing
In South King County, Washington, the Road Map Project Opportunity Youth Initiative is doing an exemplary job of making sure that Opportunity Youth are at the center of their efforts. Director Nicole Yohalem and her team partnered with SOAR, a grassroots coalition in their community that supports the King County Youth Advisory Council. Participation of Youth Advisory Council members in collaborative activities is integral to the success of the Road Map Project. Youth – who receive stipends and tuition support for their participation – maintain active membership in the collaborative work groups, attend collaborative-wide meetings, review proposals for reengagement programs, and conduct external focus groups.
The focus on youth leadership and engagement allows the collaborative to engage directly with the key stakeholders in their work, provides youth with an opportunity to advocate for their peers and develop key leadership skills, and allows youth programs that participate in the collaborative to learn from young people about strategies that work for them. The civic confidence of the Road Map Project is also growing in key ways, particularly in the area of the collaborative’s ability to build public will for its activities by engaging the experts – youth – in advocating for its strategies, as well as in its ability to grow key infrastructure around engaging and developing youth leaders that will sustain the future of this work in years to come.
These examples from Boston, San Diego, and South King County demonstrate how the work of organizing collaborative activities and forming key cross-sector partnerships allows communities to grow their civic confidence and tackle more progressively complex issues. Whether engaging mayoral candidates, to forming active partnerships with the Mayor’s office in order to move public will to support youth reconnection strategies; leveraging resources of collaborative members to fund critical infrastructure that expands options for re-engaging youth; or engaging youth authentically in organizing efforts to create the infrastructure of youth civic leadership; OYIF grantees prove that collaborative problem-solving can lead to sustainable pathways and improved outcomes for Opportunity Youth. As communities experience success, their increased civic confidence has a multiplier effect that aggregates into long-term, sustainable change.