Studies show that high quality out-of-school-time programs really make a difference in the lives of young people. However, young people of color and from families with lower income access these programs at lower rates. Urban Arts Academy is creating “Agents of Change”: a highly collaborative, sustainable youth program model fueled by youth-driven engagement. The 20 organizations in the Agents of Change collaborative believe that they will better serve youth and families in the Bancroft, Bryant Central and Powderhorn neighborhoods of Minneapolis if they truly listen to youth and work together.
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
The main focus of our implementation work is making connections between uninvolved youth and our partners’ programs. Recognition that the usual methods of outreach were not effective was the motivating force behind Agents of Change. We recruited and trained two youth who then went out into the community to engage parents and youth. The youth designed an Internet based connections system where they gathered information from parents or youth, recorded this in a form they developed and then forwarded this information to the appropriate program. A key element was to follow-up with the partner and the family to ensure that the connection actually was made. Another critical element was to identify specific venues in the community where youth and parents congregated and where youth and parents would feel comfortable to discuss participating in after-school or summer programming. After much trial and error, we identified four local venues where making connections was successful. In addition, we participate in 5 events sponsored by neighborhood organizations and local schools where we maintained a table, increased our visibility and made connections.
Another part of implementation was to increase our people power. We began a recruitment and training process. Our idea was to collect a pool of youth recommended by the partners (as they did with the youth who became Agents). We allocated money to pay the new recruits for their time in training. In addition, the current Agents designed a unique “interview and training process”. The concept was to move a pool of about 6 youth recruits through a training that would span four two hour meetings. The training was designed by our current Agents. It was based on their experience in our first year. By the end of the four sessions we would know and they youth recruits would know which of them would make the best new Agents. Our idea was that we would hired two of these and bring them into the on-going work of connecting youth and evaluating partners’ programs. After several efforts, we assembled a group of six potential Agents. The current agents led four sessions with these youth. At the end of the fourth session, we all realized that none of these youth would be committed to the same values that motivated the project and we did not carry forward with any of them.
Refining our program evaluation process was also a key aspect of our progress in the last year. Youth and partners always agreed that our youth Agents’ assessment of the programs is important for program improvement. This is also important for the Agents to maintain credibility in the community. Agents drew on their experience from the first round of visits to revise our site visit guide and sharpen the format for giving feedback to partners. In the site visit guide, Agents brought our four core values to the fore. In revising the format of giving feedback, Agents created a one page summary that highlighted program strengths and weaknesses according to the four core values. The method of delivering the feedback was also revised. Here we asked the partners how they would prefer to receive the information. Most agreed to see the one page summary through email and then have a conversation. The Agents made four follow-up site visits to programs.
Key lessons learned:
We learned a critical lesson about balancing overall project goals and values with allowing one component act on an individual interpretation of these goals and values. At the beginning of this grant cycle we hired a person to supervise the youth Agents. This “motivator” saw their role as increasing visibility through social media, participating in community events and producing our own event. By allowing this to unfold, we saw that our visibility was not much enhanced, resources were wasted and vital energy that could have gone toward our basic goals and values was diverted. To correct the situation, we did not renew the “motivator’s” contract. As we worked to find a new Motivator, we learned several things and put in place processes that strengthened the project. We created a Motivator performance evaluation tool, a revised job description and an interview and hiring process involving the Agents themselves. We hired a new Motivator who had extensive experience working with youth, managing youth programs and, most important of all, deep experience as a community organizer. We found that these were the ideal set of skills for the Motivator position.
In preparing for project sustainability, we discovered new program outcomes. As we discussed handing the project off to the four neighborhood organizations, we realized that Agents possessed skills that transfer to community work and make the project attractive for continuation. These are: 1) Experience in “street outreach”. They know how to approach neighbors and residents. They are skilled in “one-to-one” discussion. Agents can help community organizations know the neighborhood pulse. 2) Training in youth program evaluation. They developed their own tool, from a youth perspective. They know how to visit and observe a program. They write and deliver their findings. 3) Constructing and implementing a digital “participant management system’ that tracks participant progress. Our Connection Plan referral and follow-up process is similar to those used by any organization. 4) Expressing youth voice in community and organizational settings. Agents’ training includes understanding power relationships that affect their lives. They are comfortable in settings where various levels of power come together. They are excellent advocates for their point of view.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving:
As in the first two years of the project, “inclusivity” remains our driving force. We see inclusivity as being demonstrated by valuing youth leadership, engaging multiple nonprofits, and doing the work in the context of a broader community. This commitment has brought uplifting discoveries and advances. By being “youth driven”, the project changed its name to Agents of Change, established the four core values, developed the site visit guide and program feedback mechanism, developed a street based youth recruitment strategy, created an Agent of Change recruitment and training program, established a web site and participant tracking system. Inclusivity also brought many challenges and delays. We are still working on refining our model of fostering appropriate power balances and clearly identifying well-defined roles. We tested certain ideas and found they led up blind alleys. The effort about increasing visibility was one of these. It is a work in process.
Other key elements of Community Innovation:
There are two factors that do not seem to be included in the model that strongly influenced our project. One is relationship building. We found that we could not sustain the collaboration and our design for agency transformation with establishing trust and strong relations among all the partners. A second factor is overcoming the constant state of flux within the nonprofit world. Primarily this means significant loss of funds for organizations and/or programs. With the loss of funds come changes in organizational capacity. In some cases partners regretfully stepped back from the project because they had no one to carry out their roles or their programs were forced to contract. These changes also adversely affected our first item, relationships. The organizational changes often result in staff turnover. Just as we had established a strong relationship with one staff, they left. In these cases, we needed to start over.
Understanding the problem:
Our experience has given us the gift of gaining more in depth understanding about all the factors that led to and make up this project. By going out and engaging directly with the community, we increased our depth of knowledge. We saw that our initial implementation plan was somewhat naïve. For example, to recruit children, we realized we needed to find parents. Once we found them, we realized we needed to be in a venue where they were able to hear our message. In many cases, parents didn’t have the time to stop and hear our message. We learned more about organizational development as we pursued referrals and promoted transformation. In making referrals, staff transitions slowed us down. Some partners didn’t respond to a referral because they had no contact person. New staff required an orientation to the project and understanding of their role. In our effort to transform agency behavior, partners participated in site visits and received the commentary. We are working on an effective accountability system to see if the recommendations were implemented and if agency behavior is changing.
If you could do it all over again...:
We see two dimensions to this question. The first is about program logistics. In this case the answer is: build in more time. Taking this recommendation to a deeper strategic level we must explain why we need more time? This brings in the second dimension: to build strong and enduring relationships. Our experience reveals that a project like this that has not been done before requires strong relationships among all the partners and the youth. The project has many working parts. These are all facilitated by relationships. We cannot make referrals if we do not have a warm relationship with the contact person. We cannot support each other in making transformative moves at our organizations without supportive relationships. Strong relationships build trust and it takes trust to discuss organizations’ desire for change with others. It also takes trust to openly discuss difficulties with making the change and then listening to constructive commentary. Finally, if we say we want to transform the community, we need to model the type of relationships that will do this. Demonstrating strong interpersonal, supportive and trusting relationships will accomplish this.
One last thought:
As we faced certain challenges, our solutions strengthened the project. One example is preparing for sustainability. Partners brainstormed options that we never originally considered. These include:
• Clarify the role of Agents and the role of partner organizations in meeting the needs of families. The Village concept was originally about all the partners combining our resources to support the children and their families. Remembering this, the solution to supporting families may lie with the partners working together. Rather than the Agents taking on the role of social worker, partners who are now building a relationship with the youth and their families should take over and together, build a network that supports families? In this scenario, it is the families that drive the process and partners are committed to facilitating it.
• Agents might be located at different partner’s sites (rather than have one “home). This would make the Agents more visible and might lead to more collaboration.
• Agents’ work load may be seasonal. There may be times when referrals peak and other times where it is more conducive to doing site visits.