Interview: US Needs “Rational Policy for Child and Youth Development”

Print More
Irv Katz

Irv Katz

Irv Katz retires in March. He has spent a 41-year career serving communities small and large, most recently as president and CEO of the National Human Services Assembly.

WASHINGTON — Irv Katz comes from a long line of family members who have prided themselves on serving their communities, dating to the days after his Jewish grandparents emigrated from Europe to the United States in the early 20th century.

His paternal grandparents, who settled in South Bend, Ind., had seven children of their own and were poor but took in other kids who needed a place to stay. His maternal grandparents helped establish a synagogue, local Jewish charities, a lodge and a burial society in South Bend.

His parents were active in their synagogue and parents groups, and his wife Beth’s parents were also always involved in their community, from their synagogue to the United Way.

For his part, Katz, who retires in March, has spent a 41-year career serving communities small and large, most recently as president and CEO of the National Human Services Assembly (NHSA), a Washington-based association of the nation’s leading national nonprofits in the fields of health, human and community development, and human services. (More than 50 of NHSA’s member organizations are part of the National Collaboration for Youth, focusing on youth issues.)

Before taking the helm at NHSA in 2001, Katz had worked as development director and in other positions for Indianapolis Settlements Inc., a federation of historic settlement houses in low-income Indianapolis neighborhoods from 1973 to 1978, as president and CEO of the United Way of Central Indiana from 1978 to 1997 and as group vice president/community impact for the United Way of America from 1997 to 2001.

“So I’ve had the luxury of getting a virtual Ph.D. in the state of the art of nonprofit leadership by working with so many great organizations, learning from trial and error, learning what things don’t work or don’t work anymore and what things are kind of cooler and more effective,” Katz told Youth Today during an interview in his NHSA office in Washington.

After he retires, Katz said he’d like to work in consulting roles that enable him to help nonprofits and advance “social change efforts” and to continue writing for the Huffington Post’s “Impact” blog, as he has done regularly since July 2013.

Katz, 65, and his wife, a teacher, live in Alexandria, Va., have a grown daughter, Julie, and a 4-year-old grandson.

Youth Today asked Katz to talk about his career, his legacy and the future of organizations serving youths. Edited excerpts of the in-person and e-mail interview follow.

Youth Today: What inspired you to choose your career path?

Katz: I’m a longtime social worker. I learned about social work from a cousin who went into the field, but the deciding factor was an interest inventory taken in college and interpreted by a college counselor. The result, in his telling, was: “You should be the director of a YMCA.” It was a very long time ago as an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, but there were questions and choices of answers that went in different directions: “Would you rather work alone or do you get energy from working with other people?” I found the assessment amusing, since the answer was, Young Men’s Christian Association, and I was Jewish. But I got the message, and it made sense to me.

As I learned about social work, I found that the big-picture stuff I was inclined toward could be achieved through social work. I got my master’s degree in social work at Indiana University in 1973, and it was absolutely the right fit.

I really didn’t see myself as a clinician. I didn’t see myself sitting across the table from someone and listening to their problems and being a support to resolve them. I just always thought I was kind of drawn to community organizing, and this is well before President Barack Obama (who spent years as a community organizer in Chicago), but the specialty I was trained in was community organization. So I just love that. I love the idea of influencing community at whatever level to shape policy. I really got into what would later be called community planning or social planning, so I was interested in change at the community level. I decided I really wanted to have influence on a broader scale. It just felt like the thing that was right and out of a class of I’m going to say maybe 80 students in graduate school, there were only seven of us who specialized in community organizing, and it felt different and it just felt like it was really an important way to make an impact.

Youth Today: You described the prominent settlement house pioneer and social worker Jane Addams as the “figurative godmother of human services/human development in America.” Why? And how did working at the Concord Center settlement house in Indianapolis help define and shape your career?

Katz: You learn about Jane Addams and Hull House (a former settlement house founded in 1889 in Chicago) and the English settlement houses and the settlement houses in America, and when I was looking for a job when I was out of graduate school, I had two offers. One was in the state drug- and alcohol-abuse system, and the other was in the settlement house. And I had been studying drug and alcohol abuse, but when push came to shove, I thought the settlement house experience would be more expanding in terms of learning and potentially influencing.

Concord Center had programs for kids, programs for families, after-school recreation, camps, all of that. But my job was about mobilizing the community to develop a plan for its future, and so I was working at the macro level, at the community, at the city government level, so that was such a great, great experience. I learned what planning really was. I learned the difference between planning generically or typical city planning and community-based social planning.

America has kind of forgotten there are still a bunch of settlement houses – grassroots organizations, service organizations in communities – in places like Indianapolis and Cleveland and New York City, and those are centers that the community feels they own. And they do.

Youth Today: What do you consider some of the most important accomplishments of your career?

Katz: There are two projects that I worked on in Indianapolis [with the United Way of Central Indiana] that I’m particularly proud of. One is the Marion County Commission On Youth (MCCOY), and the other is Bridges to Success, which is a school-community partnership. Both of them are celebrating their 20th anniversary, and that’s just amazing. It’s amazing to me that we had a good idea back then and that great people kept it going and have really built on the vision that we created 20 years ago. I always believe that any kind of work is teamwork, community work, and my contribution is often perceiving a vision or articulating a vision and also kind of a plan to get there.. And I fully appreciate the fact that it really takes people to actually implement. I’ve been involved in implementation, but I think my gift is really kind of upstream.

With MCCOY, the issue was there were there gaps between the needs of kids and services available: Why were the statistics what they were in terms of high school dropout rates, kids getting in trouble, teenage pregnancy, all of that? And shouldn’t there be a total community way of dealing with it? And so our job at the United Way was to – on behalf of the city, the foundations, the community, the United Way – to say what could we do to come up with some community approaches. And we did. We studied what other communities had done. We came up with a model of a public/private entity that really was independent of government to drive a positive agenda for kids. And thanks to great leadership in all these years, it has been driving positive change for kids in Indianapolis/Marion County for over 20 years.

The other initiative is the Bridges to Success, and that is really part of the community school movement where community agencies, community organizations bring the resources to kids in schools to help them learn but really help them overcome some of their obstacles to learning – poverty, family problems, whatever.

One of the most exciting and encouraging things has been the passion and the shared conceptual framework of the youth field. But I see parallels among other population-serving groups, like the community that serves and is of people with disabilities. They’ve got their many shared values there that are about individual autonomy, self-actualization, ability to contribute, ability, not disability – and the same thing with aging.

Youth Today: How do you define human services?

Katz: Human services are community-supplied supports for children and youth, families, people with disabilities and older adults that allow them to overcome obstacles and live fulfilling lives with as much self-direction and independence as possible. We’re actually in the throes of changing paradigms from thinking about human services to thinking about human development, the latter being the developmental arc people and families go through at every stage in the life cycle and regardless of their abilities or disabilities, to reach their full potential and be good citizens. This notion of human development really parallels what the youth-development field has been advancing for years, but for the whole lifespan.

Youth Today: You mentioned a national policy for youth development as something we’re still in search of. Could you speak more about that?

Katz: It’s OK, and expected, as a nation to have strategies to win wars, but it’s not accepted as a nation that it’s OK and important to have strategies to develop American people, including children. It’s that stubborn reluctance to perceive the importance, the value, the necessity of having real consensus on outcomes for youth. Since working for the National Collaboration for Youth and the National Human Services Assembly, we’ve done a variety of projects and promoted a variety of legislation for youth. But we’ve been fairly consistent in trying to drive the government and the nation toward a real national policy on youth. We’re still advocating for a rational policy for child and youth development in America. The challenging news is we don’t have a critical mass to represent youth development as a unified voice the way that labor, education and so forth do.

Youth Today: You have greatly expanded NHSA’s Internet and social media presence. Why and how important has this been to the organization?

Katz: I smile at this question. As social media rose to prominence, younger staff and board members kept saying, “You’ve got to get into social media.” The why and how were not especially clear, especially for an organization with a small staff and no one with a title at all close to communications or marketing. So we tried this and that to little real avail. And then the time was right. I was dabbling with Twitter, and in just the past year the staff and I decided that my Twitter account would speak for the assembly. Staff began contributing tweets, and we had the good fortune to have a group of staff who are social-media savvy. We ramped up tweeting, added a blog, and I began contributing to the Huffington Post’s “Impact” blog. We noticed others, including our members, who were producing similar content, and they have recognized us. We don’t have huge numbers, but we’re always surprised to find people around the country who know who we are and appreciate what we are saying.

Youth Today: Could you speak more about the National Collaboration for Youth (NYC) and its efforts to win passage of the Youth Development Community Block Grant Act, the Younger Americans Act and the Federal Youth Coordination Act?

Katz: The core of NCY is and has always been a policy council composed of public-policy staff of member organizations that meet and collaborate regularly around a common agenda they have defined and annual legislative priorities.

NCY provides the space and encouragement for youth-serving agencies with specialized interests to define and pursue issues that are common ground. It is one of the most collegial groups I have ever seen.

The advocates and the agencies they represent are passionate about positive youth development and find the policy aspects of it that they can advance collectively. NCY and its members have always sought common tools and language as well.

There was a succession of attempts by NCY and others to get movement toward a national policy for youth. Block grants were a popular method of government action, so that was the first attempt [in 1995].

A few years later, folks said, “If there is an Older American’s Act, why not a Younger American’s Act?” and pursued a bill to that effect. Then, in the wake of a federal study of youth programs, NCY members drafted a response, called the Federal Youth Coordination Act.

This took a couple of sessions to get through, but it passed in 2006. Unfortunately, there were not resources to support it, nor the will by Congress or the White House to make it work. [Youth advocates launched a campaign to create a White House Office on Children and Youth.] NCY is nothing if not persistent. There will be other efforts to get this nation to set a national policy for child and youth development.

Youth Today: You have repeatedly pointed to the importance of “positive youth development.” What does it mean, and why is it so important?

Katz: To me, positive youth development (PYD) is a way of thinking of the trajectory kids take from birth to young adulthood which recognizes the assets that children and youth possess (e.g., intelligence, loving families) and that are leveraged in the best of circumstances to produce young adults who succeed in life. And when important assets and opportunities are lacking, parents, schools, youth agencies and other individuals and organizations come together to provide them. PYD recognizes that there is a developmental arc that every child who becomes a successful adult must go through, for which the community, acting collaboratively, provides pathways to attain.

The concept of positive youth development really is about being Ready by 21. [That’s a national drive by the Forum for Youth Investment to ensure children are well-prepared for college, work and adulthood.] It’s about going from birth to becoming a productive adult, a good citizen, a good worker, a good family person. That’s success. Almost all of the youth-serving organizations subscribe to the concept of positive youth development. It’s all about helping kids develop in a positive way and ensuring they have the supports they need.

Youth Today: Some see a disconnect between education and out-of-school time, with each being in their separate silos. What’s your take on this?

Katz: Education and youth development are not two different things. I don’t care what you call it. We happen to think youth development is an inclusive term, but education is a part of child and youth development — and education doesn’t only happen in school. It happens at home. It happens in the faith community.

It happens in out-of-school time programs. Education is one of those developmental nutrients that is a part of the kids’ encounter with all sorts of venues and people, so it really is linked. And if you move outside of the disciplines that divide us like education, social work, health, out-of-school time, early childhood development, if you move outside those disciplines, the common thread is getting a kid or helping a kid access the full arc of developmental nutrients, the maximization of his or her born talents and assets and achieving that ultimate outcome of being ready for life.

Youth Today: Can you speak more about your work at the United Way of America with then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre?

Katz: Since the perpetrators of the violence had fallen between the cracks, were clearly disturbed and were disconnected from positive influences with peers and the community, those were the elements we focused on. We coalesced United Ways and community agencies, mostly youth-serving agencies, to help make their local communities aware of the positive resources available for youth.

Youth Today: Why are you retiring?

Katz: I’ve been sort of working non-stop about 41 years, so it just it feels like time to do this kind of work but not to be the executive in charge. I really love the National Assembly, and I loved the United Way, which were my two big jobs in life. But I could live without the day-to-day, the fundraising, the administration, the personnel management. I’d like to work on projects around social change. I’d be happy to do consulting.