When Marguerite Sallee became CEO of America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth a little more than a year ago, she saw two particularly troubling trends: The country wasn’t paying enough attention to needy youth, and few people were paying much attention to America’s Promise (AP).
The alliance “had lost a lot of momentum” since its founding chairman, Colin Powell, left to become U.S. secretary of state in 2001, Sallee says. “We were not visible.”
AP needed buzz – which it’s getting with its new list of the “100 Best Communities for Young People.”
On one level, AP’s “100 Best” is a marketing tactic that joins countless lists of “top” anythings: websites, colleges, great holiday gifts for the kids. But if the skeptic in you suggests that perhaps this endeavor makes a lot of adults feel good but does little for youth, the usually chipper Sallee issues a warning.
“ If you turn this into a negative story,” she says, “I will be so upset.”
Sallee is riding an Amtrak train back from New York, where she just got more glowing media coverage, this time on “The Today Show.” Such coverage is part of the list’s payoff: All of a sudden, media outlets in at least 100 towns and cities have done stories about services for kids, and about AP.
Hal Cato, executive director of a multiservice youth development agency in Nashville, Tenn. – one of the winning cities – says the contest also has government and business leaders talking about youth services in a way they usually don’t. “It helps keep children and youth sort of in the center of the radar screen,” says Cato, head of the Oasis Center. “I’m surprised no one thought of it before.”
In a way, they had. Sallee says she got the idea from Working Mother magazine’s annual list of the “100 Best Companies” to work for – a list that companies campaign to get on and boast about when they do. Sallee, who ran a child care business when that list began 20 years ago, says she informally advised the magazine about creating the list, and saw its impact.
“ It changed the culture of corporate America” in accommodating working mothers, Sallee says. “Every
company wanted to be on that list.”
After joining AP, she says, she felt that the nation “needed to have a greater sense of urgency” about the state of its youth, and AP needed to get back into the nation’s consciousness. She talked with people in the youth field, like Cato, about creating a Working Mother-style list of the best communities for kids. “Everybody loved the idea,” she says.
Enter to Win
Last spring, AP publicly invited communities to apply for the award, to be judged by a 17-member panel of nonprofit, business and civic leaders. The major financial backer was Capital One Financial Corp., which contributed $500,000, AP says.
The agency says 478 applications were submitted to its Alexandria, Va., headquarters. The applications were somewhat involved; this was not a matter of writing an essay about “why my town is great.”
The 14-page application asked for descriptions of and data about community support, resources and outcomes for youth. It sought information about demographics (including child poverty rates); youth-focused collaborations among government, nonprofits and businesses; efforts to give youth a voice in policy decisions; health (such as teen pregnancy rates); youth behavior (such as drinking); and efforts to take effective practices to scale.
One danger was that this would become a list of “100 wealthy enclaves in which to raise children.” To avoid that, the contest divided the communities into groups based on factors such as population, ethnic mix, poverty rate and geographic region. It put heavy emphasis on collaboration and on progress in addressing problems.
“ Progress, innovation and change counted just as much as results to date,” Sallee says.
The official selection panel was composed of such notables as Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service; former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala; Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert; and United Way of America President Brian Gallagher.
No, they did not wade through 478 applications. Staffers from AP and its alliance partners screened and scored the applications, then gave the panel unranked applications from 271 of the top-scoring communities, says AP spokesman Mike McGill.
The selection panel’s job was basically to decide among the applicants whose scores put them barely within or out of the top 100, says Cato, who was one of the panelists. He says they discussed the applications in a series of conference calls.
The Value of Winning
The announcement of the winners near the end of September set off a wave of feel-good news coverage around the country. In Iowa, The Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier declared, “Never let it be said that there’s nothing for young people to do the Black Hawk County.” Other winners included Long Beach, Calif.; Brockton, Mass.; and Boys Town, Neb. – the main campus for Girls and Boys Town.
Among the surprise winners: Tempe, Ariz., where 60 percent of youth live below the poverty line. AP praised Tempe for public/private partnerships that are helping its schools succeed.
AP says the winning communities are from 40 states, and nearly half are urban. Sallee says 20 of the winners have minority populations of more than 40 percent.
What do they get? Many winners probably share the feelings of Tym Rourke, executive director of a nonprofit coalition of youth-focused agencies in Manchester, N.H., called Makin’ It Happen: “It validates the work that a lot of our providers and community members have been doing to make this a better city for youth. That piece, while warm and fuzzy, goes a long way.”
The city’s youth services director, Martin Boldin, says that among other things, the recognition will be used in “press releases and applications for funding.”
Cato notes that communities typically boast about being rated high for business or job growth, but don’t get to boast about being great places for kids, largely because there is no official ranking. AP has provided one.
“ To talk about what we’re doing in children and youth services – that conversation doesn’t happen every day,” he says.
AP will give people plenty of chances to talk: It plans to bring representatives from the winning communities to Washington for a celebration in early November, sponsor a celebration day in each winning community, and conduct regional forums around the country for the communities to discuss their strategies for helping youth.
The “100 Best” list is part public relations, Sallee admits, but “it’s much more than that. It’s about best practices, It’s about community collaboration. It’s about outcomes for youth.”
Her hope, she says, is that “these communities will lead by example. Our goal is to encourage every community to be a great place to grow up. Our hope is that every community in America wants to be on the list.”
Capital One has committed $1.5 million for AP to run the contest in future years, McGill says.
Contact: AP at (703) 684-4500. Information about the contest, including the winners, is at www.americaspromise.org/100Best.