Report date
September 2019

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

We engaged the Agents of Change (AOC) youth in community activities and training. This broadened their understanding of community issues and gave them experience participating in discussions that affect the neighborhoods. Chris and Rayo participated in the following: People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond – Undoing Racism 2 1/2 day training, 2 Neighborhoods 2020 community feedback sessions, Community Discussion on Preventing Displacement held at UROC and hosted by MSP Anti-Displacement Policy Network Team, Minneapolis 2040 Plan feedback session hosted by Councilwoman Alana Cano, Educational Leadership Summit and Discussions that Encounter Forum. The Agents also participated in community events like Back in the Day, Beloved Community and Central Neighborhood – Light up the Night. By attending these events and networking with residents, they honed their ability to express their ideas, advocate for the youth perspective and began to learn about neighborhood issues. Their participation also increased visibility for AOC. By attending the People’s Institute training, they gained critical understanding about the dynamics of race and insights into a process of undoing racism.
A key activity in the past year has been to go directly to youth and recruit potential Agents of Change. Chris and Rayo talked with youth at organized youth programs at Pillsbury House, the Boys and Girls Club and the Latino Youth Program. Chris would meet with youth once each week for about eight weeks. They also identified and engaged individual high school youth. Chris and Rayo met with individuals and sometimes their friends on a weekly basis. Finally, Chris and Rayo opened relationships with the Minneapolis Youth Council, Green Central Park and the MLK Park youth programs. As a result of this experience, we developed an overall approach that includes: building a relationship with program staff, agreeing on a strategy to approach youth, meeting with the youth directly, building relationships with them, sharing our passion for the work and then moving forward to help the youth understand their position in the community and nurture their passion to improve the neighborhood. In all, we estimate that they have engaged about 25 youth.
An important component of this year’s work has been strengthening our relationships with two neighborhood organizations and maintaining our relationships with our previous partners. The neighborhood organizations are CANDO and the Bryant Neighborhood Organization (BNO). The previous partners include: MIGIZI Communications, Pillsbury House, Urban Ventures and Courageous heArts. We also have maintained a special relationship with Urban Arts Academy which has been the administrator of this grant and more importantly a consistent and strong supporter of our work. We recognize that the key to our sustainability is the relationships we build now. Chris and Rayo meet with previous partner staff about once pAn ier month giving them updates, gaining their support on meeting with youth and receiving their insight on issues facing the community and our own program development. The two neighborhood organizations are critical to our future and we spend much time collaborating with them. AOC has its weekly program meetings at CANDO. Often, CANDO’s lead organizer attends. He provides good council and insights into our work. The consultants also meet with board members from CANDO and BNO.

Key lessons learned

Our story is all about lessons learned (and still learning). We encountered barriers to progress, analyzed these and arrived at alternative courses of action. Our response is one continuous narrative that bridges answers #1 and #2. The overarching lesson is: there are many strategies to achieve our mission and core values. By maintaining our passion and commitment, we will find alternative paths.

Late in 2018, the project was at a crossroads. We had developed the tools, trained youth Agents and undertook implementing referrals and site visits. However, we began to experience obstacles in carrying out the vision. Agents noticed: there appears to be less collaborator engagement, we received incorrect contact information and couldn’t follow-up or complete referrals and there appeared to be limited/no response to the recommendations youth made in their site visits. Collaborators said: It has been difficult to maintain support for the project in the face of staff turnover and organizational restructuring, funding for youth development has been shrinking. Programs therefore have decreased capacity and agencies are constantly “tweaking” program design to accommodate this.
We gathered our partners and youth resources, looked squarely at the obstacles, owned our limitations, reaffirmed our values and vision and created a new mission and strategy. The new mission is: “We are Agents of change, a youth initiative organizing to transform the neighborhood - Pulling together a core group of youth who are also committed to transforming the neighborhood and working with collaborators to express youth voice regarding an issue and giving those youth power to find a solution.”

The new strategy was summed up by our Agent, Rayo Daniel, at the last partner meeting:

• We want to have a youth focus in building a stronger community
• We will use the skills we have acquired to develop a youth constituency in the neighborhoods
• We would go directly to the youth and directly to the community
• The youth constituency will give voice to and advocate for youth’s ideas about how to make the community better

Our action plan has three parts: Mobilize – Meet and engage youth. Organize - Build and motivate a core group that is passionate about an issue and willing to work at resolving it. Transform – A core group of youth Agents work to transform the community.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

This year we needed to be resourceful. As described above, we encountered barriers to moving forward. It has been essential for us to be open to alternative strategies while staying true to our core values and vision for the community. When the youth agencies stepped back, the Agents, themselves, the consultants and the neighborhood organizations stepped up. We adapted our structure and strategy to the new reality.

These adaptations had positive effects. First, our circumstances gave us greater insight into the condition of youth resources in our community. Since the project began, 7 programs and two whole organizations closed. Second, we actually moved our practice closer to engaging youth directly in community change. Third, Youth Agents who stayed with the project plunged into direct community organizing work including forming relationships with organization staff, talking one-to-one and in small groups with youth, planning and organizing youth training, devising strategy and being visible at community events. Finally, youth Agents gained experience in expressing their voice at public meetings.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

Our experience highlights two additional elements. The first is “passion”. This is the emotional energy that drives us. AOC would have been stuck facing formidable barriers were it not for our passion and commitment to community. The adult consultants had a passion to transform the community. They live here. The youth had a passion to transform the community and to be heard. They wanted to literally be “Agents of Change” and wouldn’t be defeated. It was the youth who held strongly to the core values. It was they who barely skipped a beat and said we need to go directly to youth without organizational intermediaries. A major insight for us was that in order to recruit youth, we needed to transmit and share this passion.

Relationship building and strengthening is the second. Building on relationships established with project partners, we gained valuable insight from them as we developed our new strategy. These organizations remain partners but in a different role. At the same time, we strengthened our relationship with two neighborhood organizations. These will likely be our future home. The transition process has become smoother because we know and trust each other

Understanding the problem

Our understanding of “the need” has deepened and evolved. The initial “need” was “not engaged youth and families.” The solution was to connect highest risk youth to available out-of-school time programs. Youth in the project recognized that the problem was actually more complex. In order for them to feel comfortable referring other youth to a program, they needed to be confident that the program truly prepared youth. They created four core values and the collaborative adopted these values as the standards against which its programs would be evaluated.

Through the lens of these values, we looked at the community. Youth were clear that, in order to truly create equitable access, nonprofits need to transform themselves alongside the youth they serve. Further, we saw that we needed to move toward a transformation that goes beyond a traditional “program” structure, with the long-term goal of a true shift in neighborhood culture – a shift that begins to break down the cycle that oppresses youth and families of color and of low economic status by socializing them to play certain roles and accept certain beliefs about their identity and potential.

If you could do it all over again...

The piece of advice we offer would occur at the community planning stage prior to receiving the grant. We strongly advise including youth as soon as possible. This would have significantly affected the direction and timeline of the project. Our experience was that in the first year, devoted to design, youth helped us to change focus and direction. To our credit, we recognized the validity of their critique and moved on the changes. These changes included broadening the vision to community transformation, creating the four core values about youth leadership, telling the truth, youth power and youth “saving” each other, creating and implementing a youth program evaluation, and giving agencies feedback to improve their service to youth. Using these as our guideposts we navigated many twists and turns in the path to maturing the project. Our passion for transforming the neighborhoods through youth power allowed us to adapt to the obstacles and continue to move forward. After we received the Bush grant, it took the project a year to discover and act on these critical elements. Had youth voice been part of the original planning process, we could have saved that year.

One last thought

Right now, Agents of Change is carrying out our mission. At the same time, we have accelerated our plan for sustainability beyond the grant period. The Agents are recruiting youth to form the core team. We go to Park and Rec centers, other non-profits and community events. We conduct one-to-one conversations with youth and meet with you in groups.

Circumstances also push us to accelerate our process for sustainability. The project administrator, Urban Arts Academy, is closing at the end of 2019. Because of this, we are searching for an organization to manage the grant and sustain the project into the future. One neighborhood organization, CANDO, has the best potential. CANDO has been a partner since the beginning of the grant. Staff supports the project and we have used their offices as a place to meet. Their staff has mentored our Agents as well. The Agents and consultants met with CANDO’s Executive Director and members of the board. The Executive is initiating a formal process to have the board approve moving forward on this arrangement. This should occur before the end of October. We have confidence that Agents of Change will find its permanent home at CANDO.