Written by Tina Law
Growing up, I was part of a number of youth programs designed to help me and other kids of color in our predominantly low-income neighborhood to strive for academic, career, and other life opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach. While these programs were certainly successful in connecting me to these opportunities, I never shook the feeling that with each program I joined and successfully graduated from, I was taking yet another step away from my community. I saw this same dynamic as a program director for a youth organizing group, and continuously as a researcher looking at youth organizing programs across the country. For many organizations serving low-income youth of color, helping youth to take steps forward sometimes means helping them to take steps away.
This feeling took on new significance this week, as I thought about The Building Movement Project’s work on the nonprofit racial leadership gap. If our sector is facing stagnant and even diminishing numbers of leaders of color, what does it mean that many of the youth we serve may not be returning to our communities? Are we missing an opportunity to welcome home a cadre of bright, talented young leaders of color who know our communities better than anyone else?
One way that social justice organizations are working to better ensure that our youth continue to serve as leaders in their communities is by increasing and sustaining engagement with alumni. For instance, one of the key findings from The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing’s (FYCO) national scan of over 100 organizations focused on youth organizing is that more than half of organizations are actively involved in alumni engagement strategies. While organizations are finding ways to continue to engage youth who have graduated from their programs, they often lack the capacity and resources for alumni engagement. Simply keeping track of alumni and their contact information, for instance, is a key task that often looms large for understaffed organizations with limited resources.
Organizations in our sector have nevertheless developed innovative strategies to engage their alumni. The Capuchin Soup Kitchen’s Rosa Parks Children and Youth Program in Detroit, for example, recently developed a peer mentoring program to provide older youth with an opportunity to practice leadership. In this way, the program is able to encourage their youth to become long-term leaders in their community—all while they are still part of the program. The program also had the added effect of increasing the organization’s capacity to serve even more children in the area. For more information on this program, check out our “Developing the Leadership of Recipients” report from our “5% Shifts” Series.
As a sector, however, the ongoing challenges of alumni engagement and insufficient representation of leaders of color present an opportunity for deeper reflection. For example, would our sector benefit from approaching alumni engagement in a more collaborative way, where alumni are cross-referred between organizations for internships, employment, and other opportunities so that wherever alumni go, we know they are contributing to social justice efforts? Moreover, for those of us focused on the well-being of youth, what should “success” look like? Is success attained when we’ve helped our youth move away to create a new life, or when we advocate for broader community change so that they can come home and thrive?
As a sector focused on the empowerment and well-being of our communities, we must continue to find paths for our youth to seek better lives—and some of these paths may lead them to places beyond the community for some time. But we must also forge paths for our youth to come home to strengthen the communities of which they’ll always be part.
Photo: Coming Home Mural by Young Aspirations/Young Artists in New Orleans. Credit: Wally Gobetz via flickr