Adding Youth Voices to Youth Workforce Strategies — Let Their Experiences Guide Us

In Baltimore, more than 20 percent of young people ages 16 to 24 are neither in school or working — one of the highest rates in the nation. Deeply rooted inequities have left these youth — particularly young men and women of color — disconnected from the educational and employment opportunities necessary to realize their full potential.

For those of us working to change those odds, we need to remember that youth in Baltimore — and those around the country — have a lot to say: They know what they need and want, and it’s up to us to listen and adjust our strategies accordingly.

The uprising following Freddie Gray’s death in April 2015 was a manifestation of decades of disinvestment, and a painful reminder of the work that remains to be done. At the time, I was heading Baltimore’s Promise, a public-private collaborative working to support children’s health, safety and education. These events prompted me and many of my partners to re-examine the work we were doing to repair the broken systems and policies that have failed our young people, and to ask ourselves if those strategies had been informed by the youth we aimed to serve.

The honest answer was no. To truly help teens and young adults access quality education, good-paying jobs and fulfilling careers, we must let their voices and experiences guide us.

Baltimore’s Promise, the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and many other organizations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, began looking for new ways to understand young people’s needs and develop more effective strategies for reaching them.

In the days and months following the uprising, members of the Casey Foundation’s Baltimore Civic Site team stepped outside their normal grantmaking practices and developed the concept for a research pilot that would draw on the expertise of young black consultants to go deeper on some of the issues facing youth across the city.

In partnership with Frontline Solutions, Casey recruited seven young leaders and hired them as consultants to develop an engagement process they felt would genuinely connect with young Baltimoreans. The Foundation hoped that by providing youth and young adults with a peer-to-peer platform to express their concerns, aspirations and dreams, it would gain valuable information that could strengthen workforce interventions.

With these young leaders’ guidance, Casey sought to answer critical questions, such as:

  • What strategies will effectively reach young people who have the greatest barriers to employment?
  • What do young people need to stay engaged with training and work opportunities?
  • What would best support their engagement?
  • What do young people aspire to?

After months of research and planning, the youth consultants held a series of “corner conversations” — a strategy they designed — with more than 80 young people throughout the city.

Around the same time, Casey also began working with the Poverty and Inequality Lab at the Johns Hopkins University to learn from young people about their responses to the uprising and their challenges and needs to get beyond negative media portrayals of local youth. A racially and ethnically diverse team of interviewers in their late teens and 20s spoke with dozens of young people from neighborhoods with the city’s highest poverty rates.

These projects uncovered important insights about young people’s goals, the resources they rely on when searching for work, the barriers they feel keep them from getting jobs and careers, and the negative perceptions they feel surround them.

Among the findings:

  • Young people interviewed for both projects craved safe spaces for recreation, stable employment and other positive activities, and felt the city was not doing enough to make those opportunities possible.
  • A lack of information about job openings and job support — and a lack of reliable access to phone, internet and transportation — were some of the most cited barriers to employment.
  • While young people in Baltimore understand the long-term advantages of education for building a career, many are limited by the immediate need to make money.
  • Teens and young adults crave entrepreneurship and resources to build businesses that benefit their communities. For them, a career is not only a means to escape financial woes, it is also to create opportunity for others and build a life free from violence and poverty.

Many interviewees also raised the challenges young people with prior criminal convictions face, noting that job prospects are slim and the expungement process is complicated. If they do get hired, youth with criminal backgrounds reported that they are paid less than their peers.

The Foundation and several partners are beginning to use this information to rethink workforce development approaches and ensure they’re responsive to the genuine desires of youth, rather than relying on interpretations or assumptions.

At a recent community forum, youth, advocates, professors and other community members reviewed the Hopkins team’s report, “Set-Up City, The Voices of Youth After the Baltimore Unrest,” and identified ways to increase opportunities, including giving youth a greater voice in local policy; recognizing connections among public safety and employment, housing, health and other systems that affect quality of life; and making sure nonprofits and community groups are strong enough to deliver needed services and programs.

Since this research began, I transitioned from Baltimore’s Promise to the Casey Foundation. While my title and organization have changed, my passion for serving young people in my hometown has not. In the next few months, the Casey Foundation will release the youth consultants’ full set of findings, including recommendations for the field. We hope the voices and experiences captured in that report can serve as a blueprint for workforce practitioners, policymakers and other funders to engage young people, and provide the tools and resources they seek to pursue their passions and develop meaningful careers.

We believe young people are the experts when it comes to what they want and need to thrive. Their voices have advanced our thinking. We are more committed than ever to ensuring those we seek to serve are at the table from start to finish — and we hope others will join us on the journey.


Tomi Hiers is the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Baltimore Civic Site and has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for more than two decades to improve outcomes for Baltimore’s children and families.


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