Minneapolis—For more than a decade this city’s youth coordinating board has been hailed as a national model, winning an award from the National League of Cities for community collaboration on behalf of kids. Its meetings, says one local official, are where “deals are hammered out” for youth services in this city of 383,000.
But all the while the board has engaged in an odd juggling act: It’s been operating youth programs itself, sometimes, as the school board president put it, “getting into turf battles with the very organizations it was intended to be working with as a coordinator.”
Maybe it was inevitable that something had to give.
After trying to balance its two roles for 16 years, the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board (YCB) is considering the unusual step of downsizing itself by no longer running programs.
“We’re at a crossroads,” acknowledges Annie Nelson, the 27-year-old executive director, who oversees 45 employees and a nearly $7 million budget (both of which may decline).
It is a crossroads that others have come to before: Florida’s Juvenile Welfare Board and Kansas City’s YouthNet, cousins of sorts to the Minneapolis YCB, once provided services but stopped. In Durham, N.C., a new board is avoiding the one role that has created difficulties for its model, the Minneapolis YCB.
The YCB’s success and its continuing evolution offer lessons for any entity that wants to promote coordination, cooperation and communication across the crazy quilt of jurisdictions that govern youth services.
The board is widely recognized for doing things right in a city with a strong progressive tradition in youth matters. “YCB is the voice of youth as a priority in the city,” says Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, current board chairman.
The local CityBusiness journal recently included Nelson among its 40 movers and shakers under age 40.
The YCB has earned its clout by putting together deals in which its governmental partners share in funding programs, and by winning grants to help fund collaborations among government agencies or between government and community-based agencies.
The foundation of its success seems simple: It brings state, county and city elected officials (and their key staff) together once a month. “You have all the governmental players at the table,” says McLaughlin, “and it’s the table where deals [on youth services] are hammered out.”
“Sometimes it’s like running a big poker game,” says Richard Mammen, YCB’s founding executive director, who now heads a youth development effort called Change Inc.
The YCB’s proponents say an intermediary can look at youth services holistically, seeing the big picture that individual governmental bodies cannot. “We’re able to step outside the bureaucracies in ways that board members can’t do within their own institutions,” Nelson says.
Born with Clout
Almost from the beginning, the YCB faced hard choices in determining the exact role it would play. Founded in 1986 with the understanding it would be, at minimum, a 20-year effort to plan for youth services, the board had to decide issues such as:
How should the board fill gaps in youth services? Should it encourage others to expand or create programs? Or should it step in on its own as a funding agency or administrator of service programs?
It was not hard, however, to figure out the first issue for the YCB to address: early childhood development, which had pointed city officials toward the idea of creating a coordinating body in the first place.
In the mid-1980s, Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser and others were convinced that money spent on early childhood development programs might be money saved down the road on combating crime and chronic unemployment. Mammen recalls that studies like the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Mich., showed that good preschool programs could affect a person’s success in later life.
But how could a city influence early childhood programming? First it tried the Minneapolis Coordinating Council for Youth, which sought to bring together public and private youth-serving agencies, with service providers playing a prominent role. Nice idea, but the council soon sensed it own lack of political clout, Mammen says.
“We just didn’t have the power. We needed to have elected officials on board.”
Politically, Minneapolis is an unusual city. Elections for city offices are non-partisan, but even the library board and the park and recreation board are independent entities elected by voters.
So the YCB was created under a state-authorized joint-powers agreement between five partners: the city, the county, the city school district, the library board and the park and recreation board.
The composition of the 13-member YCB has been crucial to its success. It includes the mayor, two representatives from the city council, two from the Hennepin County commission, two from the city school board, one each from the state House and Senate, one each from the parks and recreation and the library boards, the Hennepin County attorney and a juvenile court judge.
(While staffers routinely sit in for some of these officials, board participants say the officials themselves really do show, especially for important discussions.)
With a $100,000 budget for 1986 and its focus on early childhood, YCB immediately confronted a common youth service dilemma: Various private and governmental agencies, such as day care providers and Head Start, were involved in some aspect of early childhood services.
In 1987 the YCB brought all the players together at a conference. “But in looking at how early childhood was addressed in the city,” says Mammen, “it seemed there was no one organization, public or private, that had a leadership role.”
And no one stepped forward to take that role. The YCB became a “program developer of last resort.”
Is This the Way to Grow?
Nothing demonstrates how the board has both succeeded and struggled with its mission as well as its oldest and largest program, Way to Grow.
Founded in 1989 as a public-private collaboration focusing on early childhood, Way to Grow has a $3.2 million budget to provide health, counseling and other services for preschool children and pregnant mothers.
YCB is the umbrella administration for operations at eight community centers. Each is run by a lead agency such as Pillsbury United Communities, which operates six community centers in Minneapolis and traces its origins to the city’s 19th century settlement houses.
Each Way To Grow center is supposed to operate as a “community collaborative” between parents, neighborhood residents, public and private organizations, corporate sponsors, health agencies and the staff at each site. The staff is to include a coordinator, administrative assistant, three to six family outreach workers and a public health nurse, a parent educator, social and mental health workers and volunteer attorneys.
It sounds complex, but does all this collaborating and connecting really happen at the centers?
“Yes – it’s a great program model,” insists Terri Barreiro, vice president for community building for the Greater Twin Cities United Way and a member of Way To Grow’s advisory board. “It’s a good marriage of government structure for financial management and community-based agencies for service delivery. YCB defines the expectations and holds each neighborhood organization accountable.”
But now there’s a hitch with Way To Grow. The economic downtown has reduced corporate giving, leaving an expected shortfall of almost $500,000 in this year’s Way To Grow budget. At the same time, more and more people in the youth field here are suggesting that a continuing scramble for funds may not suit YCB’s role as coordinator and advocate for youth.
“The biggest risk for a coordinating board,” says Mammen, “comes when you start operating programs and start competing with the people you’re supposed to be bringing together.
“An advocate for youth loses its righteous power when it starts running programs.”
What Does it Really Do?
Collaboration. Coordination. Anyone who’s tried to grasp precisely how these ideas are carried out in nuts-and-bolts youth work knows that it can be like trying to grab a handful of fog.
The YCB’s relationships with Way To Grow and other programs are so complicated and intertwined, with multiple funding sources, that it becomes difficult to describe the board’s role. Is it a grand initiator, a financial and quality control gatekeeper, or a service provider?
“We’re not quite this and we’re not quite that,” admits Way to Grow program director Darlynn Benjamin.
“In most cases, we’ve not providing services,” Nelson says. “We’re connecting people to services.”
YCB has backed, created, managed or run a diverse set of efforts that involved funding from a variety of sources, or that brought together agencies in new working relationships. They include sponsoring a study about what kids were doing with their free time and launching a service to connect more of them to programs and activities; helping to rehabilitate and construct Early Learning Centers in neighborhoods; starting a collaboration with schools to boost attendance and grades; and securing federal funds for a program to improve child support enforcement and job training for fathers.
Even as the scope of YCB’s ventures grew, it was the coordinating aspects that attracted the most attention outside Minnesota.
YCB impressed John Kyle, program director for outreach and strategic planning of the National League of Cities (NLC), with its “staying power” in creating a long-term focus on youth services and youth development that remains relatively constant and intact.
“Having all the various elected officials at the table has given them a gravitas that doesn’t go away,” says Kyle. The YCB’s “influence doesn’t just reside with one official or one office.”
The board received a 1996-97 Award for Excellence for Community Collaboration for Children and Youth, sponsored by NLC, the National School Boards Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other national groups. The award cited “energetic participation from leaders of a broad range of governmental bodies.”
The Center for Youth Development & Policy Research in Washington, D.C., also cited YCB for sponsoring local collaborations in a May 2000 report, “Building Local Infrastructure for Youth Development: The Added Value of Capacity-Building Intermediary Organizations.”
"When the Dust Settles"
When she applied for the executive director’s job in 1999, Nelson could see ahead to the crossroads that the YCB has reached.
“In an attempt to meet the immediate needs of children and youth the YCB has responded with programs and services,” she wrote. “Although these programs have served children and youth well, it has put YCB in the precarious position of defending its own programs while advocating change within others.”
Others, like school board President Catherine Shreve, were also troubled. “In recent years, many people believe that YCB lost its focus as a coordinator and became a service provider,” Shreve says. “The YCB should return to its original mission of coordinating efforts of various bureaucracies on behalf of youth.”
Then last November, Minneapolis businessman R.T. Rybak ousted Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. The two-term mayor was considered a strong YCB supporter, while Rybak’s views on the board were largely unknown.
Under Belton the YCB became the city’s official link to America’s Promise, and Belton added a Mayor’s Youth Council to the growing list of YCB programs. The council was to develop youth leadership and involve more young people in civic affairs.
In November, the Youth Council held a mock election in the city’s schools prior to the mayoral election. Belton beat Rybak in the schools, but not at the real polls.
Although the YCB was hardly mentioned in the mayoral campaign, school board President Shreve – who headed Rybak’s transition team – told a community newspaper that collaborations between the schools and government agencies needed major improvement. “It might mean rethinking and reinvigorating the Youth Coordinating Board, whose structure hasn’t always strengthened the connections between our elected officials,” Shreve told the Southwest Journal.
The Rev. Albert Gallmon, the other school board representative on the YCB, agrees. “I have never seen a total commitment to coordinating efforts,” he says, citing a need for more collaboration between the schools and other agencies on after-school programs.
That brings up another turf question, this one between YCB and the schools. YCB’s largest programs are frequently described in terms that make them seem school-related. Way To Grow is a “school readiness” program. Minneapolis Redesign is a “school attendance” or “school success” effort. So why aren’t the schools running these programs?
Nelson agrees that the YCB should shift its focus. Though only 27, she knows the board from the bottom up, having first worked on YCB programs in high school.
In her 1999 job application, she wrote, “Instead of responding to a need by creating a program, the YCB should help build the capacity of the appropriate service provider to meet that need.”
Nelson suggests that YCB programs could be shifted to other agencies. “The structure will change,” she says. “There are tons of [youth-serving] programs, but no one looking at the bigger picture.”
Outwardly, at least, no one seems worried about YCB’s future as a major player in planning youth services.
“When the dust clears,” Mammen says, “YCB will still be there.”
Annie Nelson, Executive Director
Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board
310 1/2 City Hall
350 S. Fifth St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415-1325
Richard Mammen, President
232 City Center, 40 S. Seventh St.
Minneapolis, MN 55402
Durham Youth Coordinating Board
212 W. Main St., Ste. 104
Durham, NC 27701
A sample of accomplishments:
• Sponsored a 1995 study by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute on what kids ages 7 to 14 were doing with their time. The study found that nearly half of the city’s youth were not regularly involved in youth programs.
In response, Nelson, then a program manager, oversaw the creation of What’s Up?, which consists of a hotline [(612) 399-9999], a website (www.whatsup.org) and a downtown service center that keeps track of activities for young people. What’s Up? also sponsors events, including contests and job fairs, and promotes a recreation program, Phat Summer, to keep school and park facilities open late on summer evenings.
• Joined with the city’s community development agency to coordinate the rehabbing or construction for seven Neighborhood Early Learning Centers that bring the early childhood services by various agencies under one roof. Nelson describes this as a bricks-and-mortar project; YCB’s role essentially ended once the centers were created.
• Launched Minneapolis Redesign in 1996. This complicated collaboration of schools and other agencies focuses on school achievement and attendance. The program operates three school-based centers that offer families with school-aged children a range of services as broad as Way To Grow’s.
• Received $2 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Child Support Enforcement Division), the U.S. Department of Labor and the Ford Foundation to be one of 10 demonstration projects that would encourage fathers to take a more active role in their children’s lives. The result: the Minneapolis FATHER Project, a collaboration between city, county, state and federal agencies that encourages child-support enforcement and employment training agencies to work together to find fathers the means to support their children.