Blog: Pathways to Aspen – Melody Barnes and the AFCS Perspective

This blog is the final post in a series leading up to the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF) Fall Convening in Aspen, October 27-29. In this installment, Melody Barnes, Aspen Forum for Community Solutions chair and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, talks about the work of the Forum, the changes she’s seen over the past two years, and what’s still to come.

Melody Barnes, color photoThe work to reengage 6.7 million opportunity youth through collective impact initiatives across the country started as a persistent, determined whisper for change.  Today, it has become a full-throated chorus, but that evolution did not occur overnight.  Anyone who works with mission-oriented organizations can tell you there is no formula or playbook for movement building. Achieving authentic and sustained commitment to a common goal takes hard work, coordination and collaboration among key stakeholders.

For more than two years the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions (AFCS), has partnered with other organizations, companies, and funders who share our passion to improve the lives of young people. As chair of the AFCS, I have seen the professionals who do this work every day demonstrate extraordinary commitment.  I am impressed by the coordination and technical support provided by backbone organizations and the generosity and continued commitment of funders. The gains already realized through the collective impact approach are a source of hope for all of us who seek solutions to the most challenging problems facing our communities.

At Aspen, we are building on the work of the White House Council for Community Solutions by supporting cross-sector collaboratives across the country. Through the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF), the Forum’s flagship initiative that will provide up to $13 million in grants to our 21 community partners, we have seen collaboration at the local, state, and national levels. These partnerships include educators from the K-12 system, community colleges, and other vocational tech schools; staff and board members from non-profits and philanthropic organizations; administrators from municipal and state governments; employers and hiring managers from Main Street to Wall Street.

On a state and local level, the efforts in our communities are driven by men and women who work tirelessly to make sure every young person has the opportunity to pursue a path to and through post-secondary education or family-sustaining employment; we are so pleased that this group includes young adult leaders, many of whom were formerly opportunity youth. They inspire those who work with them, as well as their peers.  They remind us that although this work may be difficult, it matters and progress is possible.

For proof of the power of this movement, look to the Maine Youth Transition Network (MYTN), an OYIF grantee which was instrumental in the passage of first of its kind state legislation.  Signed into law by Governor Paul LePage on April 28, 2014, LD 1683, expands the provision of education benefits to former foster children until the age of 26.  Today, Maine is the first state to provide post-secondary education benefits to foster care youth beyond the age of 20. Access to this funding makes it easier for young people to further their education at two or four-year colleges and universities. The MYTN team and their youth representatives collaborated with state legislators to make this idea a reality – a policy win that will have real impact on the lives of youth in Maine.

Many at the national level are taking note of the progress taking place in local communities.  The AFCS, in partnership with Jobs for the Future, was recently selected by the Corporation for National and Community Service to receive a grant from the Social Innovation Fund, a key White House initiative to catalyze effective social solutions. The $6 million investment will be used to build pathways for opportunity youth in 12 communities.   Critical funding, technical support, and evaluation plans will lead to more successful, scalable pathways for opportunity youth.

Today, with thousands of young people on a better path, it is clear that when given the right opportunities and supports, opportunity youth are eager to reconnect to education and the workforce. There is also strong evidence building for the collective impact approach. Communities are pulling together toward a shared vision for their cities and towns, and demonstrating that cross-sector collaboration works.  And elected officials, the media, and the public – who for too long have overlooked this group of young people – are beginning to notice.  Millions heard former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak about opportunity youth during an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this summer.

When we gather our OYIF grantees and strategic partners in Aspen, Colorado next week, we will hear from leaders in the public and private sectors, including Jim Shelton, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and allies from the Starbucks Foundation and JPMorgan Chase.  We will reflect on what we have learned, share insights from our work to date and discuss what is next.  So much has been accomplished in the last year, but we are just getting started.