Taking Collaboration for Youth Seriously

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As chairman of the National Collaboration for Youth, a coalition of more than 40 national nonprofit youth-serving and youth-interested organizations, I am reaching out to you here because collaborating with and on behalf of youth has never been more crucial.

Why? Because the contributions and developmental needs of youth are not on the national radar screen. It is our job to get them there.

First, a little context: What is the National Collaboration for Youth and why does it matter to youth workers?

Thirty years ago, leaders of a dozen national youth-serving organizations gathered to discuss juvenile justice issues and decided to form a coalition focused on those issues and, more broadly, on youth development. They agreed that the collaboration, staffed by the National Assembly of Health & Human Service Organizations, would pursue public policy and program development.

Our members today include the household names of youth services that are found in virtually every community in the nation, collectively serving upwards of 40 million youth each year – organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, 4-H, the YMCA and YWCA, and the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. But our members also include less widely known organizations, such as Junior League International and KaBOOM.

The collaboration is known, among other things, for its go-to website, the National Youth Development Information Center (www.nydic.org), the National Youth Development Agenda (of public policy positions), its leadership of efforts to enact a Younger Americans Act, and its work on volunteer screening, including a new web-based system (www.volunteerselect.com).

We’re particularly excited about two current initiatives. A grant from the Mott Foundation is allowing us to identify the factors that enhance CBO participation in 21st Century Community Learning Center programs at the state level. And a two-year initiative underwritten by the Lilly Endowment – the National Youth Development Learning Network – seeks to make it possible for any youth worker anywhere to access the best information and training available about youth development.

It is gratifying to have a strong core of national organizations working in coalition to advance youth development in policy, program and practice. But the field of youth development faces multiple challenges that the collaboration cannot and would not presume to address alone.

First and foremost is the challenge I cited above: Youth are not on the national radar screen, and the little attention they get typically casts them as problems, not assets.

The stability and quality of the youth development work force are also major challenges. How do we get young youth workers to view this as a career, not just a part-time job or a two-year stint on the way to another career? How do we develop a common understanding of (and even consensus on) the competencies needed for this work, credentials and standards for youth workers and programs, and compensation and benefits that befit youth work and encourage those with this passion to stick with it?

We must also maintain the modest gains in services and funding achieved in recent years, while addressing concerns that funding streams and services are still inadequate and fragmented. We are challenged to help policy-makers understand that public investments that help youth prepare for adulthood and participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives must get priority over dollars spent on punishment. We are further challenged to help decision-makers understand that positive youth development is essential, but cannot come at the expense of specialized prevention, intervention and treatment.

Given the magnitude of these challenges, all of those who support the concepts of youth development and see themselves as a part of this field must collaborate. We tend to define our coalitions by the specific issues we address, the geography we cover, the nature of membership (individual or organization), the sectors in which we work, funding sources and other factors. The collaboration does, also, but we define ourselves most significantly by our shared belief in youth-centered approaches that engage youth, families, communities and service providers; that recognize children and youth as assets; and that seek to surround them with the assets they need to become caring, competent adults.

The collaboration is seeking ways to work more closely with state and local coalitions for youth. We will continue to partner with more specialized national coalitions, such as the Afterschool Alliance. It is imperative that we all be active in both of these dimensions. We welcome your insights and suggestions to improve our collective impact in order to get youth and their developmental needs on the national radar screen.

Shay Bilchik is the CEO of the Child Welfare League of America. Contact: (202) 942-0250, sbilchik@cwla.org.