Equal Measure serves as the national evaluator for the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions’ Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF). OYIF supports cross-sector partnerships in 21 communities across the United States, with the goal of bringing 6.7 million young people back into education and the workforce. In this edition of The Q, Justin Piff (Senior Director) and Georgia Kioukis(Senior Consultant) share their thoughts on the investment and our evaluation.

Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts on the Aspen Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund evaluation. To start, what are the objectives of the Aspen OYIF investment?

GThey’re funding backbone organizations that work with opportunity youth in 21 communities across the country. Opportunity youth are between the ages of 16 and 24, and are not employed or in school. Aspen is funding these organizations around the collective impact model, to bring partner organizations to the table to improve systems that serve these youth.

JExactly. These communities are using collective impact as a mechanism to build and deepen the pathways for opportunity youth, to improve education and employment outcomes.

What are some of those pathways?

GA couple examples are a GED to postsecondary education pathway, or a postsecondary education degree or diploma or certificate to employment. The communities are focused on education and employment outcomes for youth.

JI’d add that opportunity youth are involved with a number of systems, such as the social service system, the juvenile justice system, and education and workforce systems. Those systems need to work better together to increase the likelihood of success for opportunity youth.

How does the Aspen OYIF investment differ from initiatives with similar goals?

GTo start, this investment has three cross-cutting priorities, or values, woven into the work of the 21 communities. There is an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. And there is an emphasis on engaging youth as leaders and partners in the work. Using data, not only for continuous improvement, but to drive decision making and track outcomes, is a priority as well.

JThe youth engagement piece is really unique. The communities are including youth and their perspectives in how they develop and implement their strategies. That engagement varies to differing degrees in the communities, but it is unique to this type of work in general, and especially for a national initiative of this scale.

Regarding youth engagement, is it simply that they are doing it that makes it unique? Or is it how they are doing it?

JThat they are engaging youth is a really big deal. There are other communities outside this portfolio doing this type of work, but the fact that youth engagement is an expectation is important. And the fact that communities are actually doing it makes it that much more impressive.

GI agree, but it’s also the how. On the national level, Aspen engages a youth leadership council. They really want youth to become leaders and partners at the table, and ideally contribute to funding and program decisions, and conduct their own research and evaluation to understand gaps in their communities. They’re being engaged as full partners.

Are there any other factors that make this investment unique?

JI think the fact that it focuses on hard to reach youth is unique. Many initiatives tend to target youth who are in school or behind in school. Opportunity youth tend to be involved in systems that often get overlooked, such as the foster care system. So just focusing on opportunity youth is unique. They can be pretty hard to reach, and are connected to systems that often get left out of the picture.

So given the objectives of Aspen OYIF, and how it differs from similar investments, what are some of the key questions we want to answer through our evaluation?

GWell, we’re looking at process implementation and lifting up lessons about what’s working and what’s not, what communities are achieving in the short term, and impact. We’re also exploring what systemic shifts might result from this investment, and what opportunity youth outcomes have been achieved. A third level is to assess the investment itself, and understand how the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions is working with these 21 communities to build a learning agenda and communities of practice.

What have we learned thus far?

JWe’ve learned that communities have done some really good work building the infrastructure of their collaboratives, making sure that the right partners are involved in this work and informing the work. These partners include everyone from public officials to different community based organizations to parents and youth.

GAnd the partners have identified gaps in their communities, and ways that they can address those gaps. They’ve fine-tuned and refocused their strategies, and have built a common vision.

JWe’re also seeing new narratives emerge. We’re starting to see communities reconsider how they think about opportunity youth. Prior to this investment, they might have thought that youth were out of school or out of jobs because of something that was ‘wrong’ with them. Now, communities are beginning to understand that the challenges opportunity youth face are largely systemic. I also think they understand what opportunity youth can provide. There is a lot of value among the opportunity youth population in being able to meet local employment demands and to contribute to their communities more broadly.

What will our evaluation look like over the next year?

JWe’ll continue to talk to the communities about the work that they’re doing and understand how they’re shifting systems within their communities. And we’ll visit a handful of sites to get a better understanding of the work they’re engaged in, and what it really looks like on the ground. Right now, our evaluation is pretty broad, as we are trying to capture some cross-cutting themes across 21 very different communities. So site visits will give us an opportunity to learn more about what’s going on in the communities, and allow us to elevate some promising practices that Aspen and other communities can learn from.

GAnd we’ve already conducted two site visits to date. These visits give us an opportunity to go deeper and see what’s working and what’s not working.

Ultimately, how can this investment help shape the opportunity youth field?

JFrom a communications standpoint, we’d like to emphasize the unique characteristics of this investment and how these approaches can help improve outcomes for opportunity youth. We also want to elevate promising practices.

GI think we can shine a national spotlight on the work that these communities are doing with this population. The investment is changing the narrative from ‘disconnected youth,’ to focusing on the opportunity they provide their communities.

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