Here’s what youth leaders taught us about pathways to opportunity:

By Equal Measure

As part of our evaluation of the Aspen Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF), we conducted an open dialogue with youth leaders from seven of the 21 communities in that investment. The dialogue took place during the Aspen OYIF May 2015 Convening in New Orleans, LA. Our goal was to learn from their personal stories about pathways to education and careers, and to engage with their ideas on how philanthropy can better approach community development.

The youth leaders’ stories were at once heartening and inspiring; their ideas creative and enlightening. They taught us much about how communities can better support youth. And over the course of the conversation, the three core themes emerged. Here, we share with you these themes, and their expression through the voices of the youth participants:

Youth want to contribute to community solutions in an authentic, meaningful way

When funders, or community partnerships, offer a solution to a problem, without really listening to the voices of people who will be affected — it can unintentionally create a patronizing atmosphere. The approach can come off as inauthentic, and can act against efforts to empower youth. The youth leaders stressed that being heard, and being asked to become part of the solution, are essential to meaningful community engagement. They also view themselves as thought partners whose lived experiences can inform valuable insights on programmatic approaches.

“Looking forward, I want to build local capacity and engage youth authentically to see positive change.”
“Let youth have availability of opportunity by establishing a network for youth to reach the supports that are needed for them — one without adults in the room guiding them and telling them.”
“I’d like to see a self-initiated youth engagement movement, something sustainable. When you give power of knowledge to the people, that’s when change is implemented.”

Youth desire to become more aware of tangible education and career pathways in their communities

The youth leaders emphasized the importance of how and where they receive information about education and career pathway opportunities. They expressed concern over not knowing about appropriate programs throughout the community, and some said they end up participating in programs only because they are closest to their homes. Several youth leaders suggested that community based organizations, afterschool programs, and other neighborhood groups could more actively promote the availability of education and workforce training opportunities.

“The key for opportunity youth is awareness. There’s an endless list of opportunities for young people, but a lot of times they don’t know what’s already out there. They’re doing what they see and what’s closest to them.”
“Funds should go back to the communities. I love nonprofits, but they need to be more visible in the communities they work with, not just in Center City.”
“We need to create more awareness of programs. It’s a lot of people, so there’s competition for these slots. These opportunities should be accessible and visible.”

Youth would like to address barriers to accessible education and career pathways

The youth leaders also stressed a number of challenges that impede access to education and career pathways. These challenges include lack of housing near community college, financial barriers (e.g., student loans), and lack of funded programs in their neighborhoods. To chip away at these obstacles, the youth leaders emphasized the need to fund, integrate, and centralize local supports and programs. One participant cited building student housing near a local community college as a way to facilitate access to the school. Another participant discussed the development of a club for foster youth at a community college, which helped the students raise money for scholarships and meals.

“I can’t stress it enough; it’s community development. People shouldn’t have to leave the community for opportunity. After awareness, where’s my access?”
“A lot of youth want to go to school, but there’s no housing or basics needs support. My vision is to do housing for education because I see housing and basic needs as barriers to success for youth.”
“We need to have more handoffs for youth in my community, like letting them have availability of opportunity in education, and establishing a network for youth to reach supports that are needed for them.”

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