Takeaways From the Fall 2023 Opportunity Youth Forum Convening

October 30, 2023  • Mike Swigert

Twice a year, the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions brings together hundreds of intergenerational leaders from the 40 urban, rural and tribal communities of the Opportunity Youth Forum (OYF) network across the United States to learn from one another. The shared pursuit is building and scaling reconnection pathways that achieve better education, employment, and overall wellbeing outcomes for opportunity youth, young adults aged 16-24 who are engaged in neither work nor education.

Our most recent convening, this October 9-11, was the first in Aspen, Colorado since the pandemic. This followed gatherings over the past two years in Austin, Texas, San Francisco, California and the lands of the Hopi Tribe, New Mexico, and Pueblo of Jemez

As the OYF continues to celebrate 10 years of impact, here are four key takeaways from this event:

1: “Nothing about us without us.” The opportunity youth movement has adopted this clarion call from  global disability rights advocates.  Young leaders bring lived experience to the core of dialogue across the philanthropic, education, workforce development, juvenile justice, child welfare, and private sectors to forge and advance common agendas. Dialogue among leaders from the rising generation and seasoned advocates was a constant throughout the covening, like the opening plenary where Maya De La Torre of YouthWill, Meyia Carrasco of Youth Liberation Movement, and Paola Soyumi Ramírez Peña of YouthSpeaks discussed the future of equity and democracy with Dr. Michael McAfee of PolicyLink and Aspen Forum Chair Melody Barnes. This approach is essential to designing and implementing effective solutions at the local, state, and national level.

2: To supercharge pathways to opportunity, tap into the power of purpose. A key theme of the convening was understanding the ability of evidence-based interventions that cultivate Belonging, Meaning, Wellbeing, and Purpose (BMWP) to transform the lives of youth and young adults of color in ways that benefit future generations, our communities, and our democracy.  Cornell University psychologist Anthony Burrow took us through the rich body of research that demonstrates how cultivating a sense of purpose can help individuals navigate challenges and stressors more effectively, boosting health and longevity. Sessions throughout the convening unpacked how to apply these insights in practice. The event closed with the launch of a new funder learning community  co-convened by the Aspen Forum in partnership with six other philanthropic collaboratives that will work to identify big bet investments for advancing racial equity by centering BMWP approaches.

3: To improve financial wellbeing, infuse financial capability into existing programs and target public funds directly to young people. New and deeper partnerships between financial institutions—especially CDFIs—and OYF collaboratives are a low-hanging opportunity to support young people of color to launch businesses, own homes, pay for learning and upskilling, and weather the financial crises life brings. As part of our strategy to advance financial wellbeing, the Aspen Forum is partnering with MyPath to launch a community of practice focused on integrating financial capability strategies into eight opportunity youth programs across the country.

This work also requires changing systems. For example, Minnesota is piloting an intervention co-designed with youth to end young adult homelessness through direct cash transfer and developing entrepreneurship and home ownership opportunities for young adults of color. Maine just changed state law to expand banking services for youth. And San Francisco’s Dream Keeper Initiative has increased Black homeownership and Black entrepreneurship through a $120M two-year investment in the Black community.

“Prudential Financial has committed $180M since 2018 to support opportunity youth through grants, corporate contributions, and impact investments, because when young people thrive, they strengthen their communities and drive the global economy. In partnership with Aspen and others, we are excited to support field-building to improve programs and change systems in service of building the wealth of youth and families nationally and globally.” – Sam Diaz, Manager, Work and Wealth, Prudential Financial

4. Center holistic wellbeing alongside traditional metrics of success. The OYF network works to improve education and employment outcomes in part because every $1 spent on opportunity youth work returns $4.40 to the community. But to respond to the dreams and needs of these same communities, we must aim higher than just economic success. Throughout the convening, we heard from young leaders of color the importance of thriving holistically.

What does that mean? The Youth and Young Adult Wellbeing Project convened by FreshTracks includes design teams of youth and young adults who self-identify with one of three cultural affiliations: American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN), Latine Bienestar (bienestar meaning ‘wellness’), and Black Expressions of Wellbeing.  Supported by adult and peer research allies, these teams defined key areas of wellbeing for their culture and traditions and are developing valid, reliable, and culturally-grounded measures of wellbeing.

Not everyone could make it to Aspen: some of the research team were presenting at the American Evaluation Association’s national conference that same week in Indianapolis. Given the old adage, “What gets measured is what gets done,” these tools have exciting implications for everyone working for and with young people.