What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
Pre-planning and relationship-building: before beginning the project, the primary partners spent a year getting to know each other, discussing needs, and building relationships. The result of this pre-planning year was a concept paper that turned into the proposal for innovation. This allowed us to “hit the ground running” once the grant period started.
Youth leadership training and partners’ willingness to follow youth leadership: we launched the project by engaging youth in a series of leadership-building activities, led by an experienced youth worker, that were aimed at helping youth gain a better understanding of complex societal issues (e.g. racism, poverty, etc) and discover their own power. These trainings, combined with the nonprofit partners’ openness to follow youth leadership, resulted in what we believe to be an authentically youth-driven process. A key component of the success of the youth-designed Site Visit Assessment was the willingness of organizations to be vulnerable, open to scrutiny, and receptive to feedback from youth.
Collaborative work on program design and roles for consultants: the collaborative aspect of the project – working with 20 nonprofit partners and youth from the community- is what brought so much depth to the process. Within this collaboration, we found that the role of paid consultants – independent of any nonprofit partners – was a key component of moving the project forward.
Key lessons learned:
One of the first lessons we learned is the value of having an inspiring, passionate leader who has already established strong, trusting relationships in the community. Our project began by an initial invitation from Urban Arts Academy’s Executive Director, Tamar Ghidalia, to neighborhood youth-serving nonprofits – inviting them to come together to discuss how we could better serve youth and families by working together. This original invitation came without promise of any funding and without a concrete plan of action, and yet it was very well attended. We believe that this initial level of support and enthusiasm had much to do with the established relationships and trust that Tamar had already built with community partners.
As we learned the importance of consistency and predictability in certain aspects of the project, we also learned that some of the greatest discoveries were the result of our flexibility. When we engaged youth in leading the project, they raised questions and ideas that the nonprofit partners had not considered in the original planning process, such as the need for a process to assess nonprofit partners to help make sure their programming is aligned with the core values identified by youth. We followed the youth lead and supported them in designing a Site Visit Assessment and process. Although the addition of this component delayed our pilot project by around six months, it has added an invaluable component to the Agents of Change program structure.
An additional lesson that we learned throughout the project was the need for clearly identified roles for all project collaborators. As we worked with multiple nonprofits, youth leaders, external consultants, and supporting nonprofits, we found that it could be difficult to keep everyone “on the same page,” prevent duplication of work, and keep the project moving forward efficiently while also encouraging participation from all partners. We continue to refine the ways to best define and communicate roles for each partner.
Other lessons are described in question 10.
Reflections on the community innovation process:
Our commitment to “inclusivity” had the greatest impact on our accomplishments. There is no doubt that our commitment to being inclusive (valuing youth leadership, engaging multiple nonprofits, and doing the work in the context of a broader community) brought many challenges and delays. We are still working on refining our model of fostering appropriate power balances and clearly identifying well-defined roles. At times, it seemed like we had so many “great minds” at the table, that we ended up with more ideas than what we were able to do with our limited resources. It is a work in process. Nevertheless, this commitment to an inclusive process is undoubtedly what led to some of the greatest discoveries - innovative ideas that are different from the status quo. We aimed to create an authentically youth-driven process, led by the four key values identified by youth. We followed their lead in the need for a site visit guide to assess and provide feedback to partner nonprofits. We changed the project name from “Youth Navigators” to “Agents of Change,” at the request of youth. We used the site visit reports from youth as a guide for planning the next two years of the project.
Progress toward an innovation:
We made great progress in generating ideas, using those ideas to develop a program model, and launching the pilot. Eleven nonprofits serving youth in four South Minneapolis neighborhoods broke out of their silos and modeled a new way of working together. The design that resulted from our inclusive idea generation process is innovative: employing youth from the neighborhood to help connect disconnected youth to available programs, while at the same time helping nonprofits ensure that their programs are truly serving and empowering youth. We incorporated youth site visits into the program model as a way to ensure that organizations are held accountable for their programming and receive help, when needed, to offer programming that best supports youth. Our youth leaders defined four values of high-quality youth programming:
1. Demonstrate through action that we value youth
2. Tell the truth about our society
3. Create substantive opportunities for leadership and engagement.
4. Empower youth to help and save one another.
The collaborative adopted these values as the standards against which its programs would be evaluated, as well as the values of the AOC initiative.
What it will take to reach an innovation?:
Our concept is innovative, and many of the steps we took along the process were innovative. We have not yet achieved the whole innovation that we envisioned more than two years ago, but we look forward to continuing to make progress toward realizing our vision.
Our plan for continuing to move the project forward responds to some of the challenges and opportunities we identified during the last two years, including:
+ Nonprofit leaders want to deepen their understanding of institutional racism and how they perpetuate the cycle of socialization;
+ Nonprofits lack the resources and support needed to implement and sustain institutional changes to align with youth recommendations;
+ Time of youth Agents is stretched thin with the demand for youth project leadership and the addition of the nonprofit assessment component; and
+ More youth-led planning is required to ensure that AOC does not become a “feeder program,” but truly a space for youth to engage in creative, innovative leadership that goes beyond the walls of any one nonprofit.
Over the next 2.5 years, the AOC youth Agents, their Motivator, and the nonprofit partners plan to: complete the initial AOC pilot; engage in additional planning to address newly identified needs; integrate and pilot the new components; and refine the model for replication. We will continue working to create a “village” concept, in which the Agents of Change model is deeply rooted in the community.
If you could do it all over again...:
Although we spent a considerable amount of time building relationships prior to the grant period and throughout, the importance of this aspect is something that we cannot emphasize enough. As we incorporated youth into the process, we would have benefited from more intentional and frequent activities aimed at strengthening relationships between youth and adults, rather than jumping into program design. In addition to the intentional relationship-building activities, we have found that strong and consistent communication is a key element of maintaining a highly-engaged group. When youth and/or adults began to disengage, it seemed to be when we held less frequent meetings and were less clear about each partner’s role in the process. Identifying and reinforcing clear roles for all partners – and updating those roles as they change – is an important strategy for keeping everyone active and engaged.
One last thought:
An additional lesson learned was that placing the concepts “on the ground” was even more difficult that designing the program, and an even longer pilot is needed to troubleshoot challenges and strengthen the program infrastructure.
Additionally, we learned much about engagement. Our nonprofit partners’ attendance and engagement was very high during the first year. Second year attendance was much less consistent. Several factors converged to influence this: 1) during the first year, we were meeting monthly on a consistent day/time, and we provided a modest stipend for attendance. When we shifted to quarterly meetings in year two (on varying dates/times and without stipends), attendance was much less consistent. 2) Partners’ roles and the challenges of implementation were also factors. By year two, the design was complete and partners expected to receive referrals. Because of youth attrition, we literally did not have the people power to accomplish this and partners were left in a void. Moving forward, we plan to set a standard time for monthly meetings, and recruit additional Agents to make referrals.