Blog: Pathways to Aspen – The Post-Convening Re-Engagement Perspective

This blog is the third in a series following the Fall 2014 OYIF Convening. We interviewed Jansen Azarias, the Executive Director and Founder of Higher Ground a Resource Center, who shared with us his experiences from the Convening, and most importantly, how he is applying what he’s learned to his work in his community.

By Jansen Azarias, Executive Director and Founder of Higher

Ground a Resource Center

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Tell us about your work within the OYIF.

Higher Ground was selected to be the location and oversight of the first re-engagement center in Tucson, Arizona. Our approach is a cross-sector collaboration, following the collective impact model, that will work with each opportunity youth following a mapping method. Using this mapping we are able to support youth in a holistic manner, ensuring that their pathway to development goes beyond education and career to include development of grit and character that’s also necessary to be a contributor in the community.

What was one lesson, insight, or idea that resonated with you the most coming out of the OYIF Fall 2014 convening?

When Dr. James Shelton stated that innovation is something that moves the needle, something significantly better than the status quo. I realized that it is not enough to have something significantly better but that is changing only a few lives: we need something that can change the inequity in our system. Hearing that challenged me as a leader and founder of an organization trying to make impact with our youth. I began to wonder if our “invention” is moving towards becoming an innovation. It made me realize that while we may have impacted a few lives, our goal needs to be a systematic innovation.

What are some of the ways you have applied the learnings from the convening back home?

As a result of my time in Aspen, we began to look into policy work. We realized that the inequity that youth experience cannot be changed by simply working with them as individuals. As an organization that works directly with youth, we need to begin to educate our youth about the policies that affect them, so they can begin to advocate for themselves at a policy level. This will allow them to be a part of true system change. Our first step involved a high-school circle that began to discuss the current policies in Arizona that affect them as students. This sparked some interesting conversations – and that is the beginning of potential action among our youth.

Can you talk about the role of collective impact at Higher Ground?

Our collective impact takes place both on a macro scale and a micro scale. On a macro level, our organization works with 13+ organizations that impact our daily programming. Instead of re-creating the wheel, we look at what the youth need; then we look at pre-existing organizations that answer that specific need and engage them to run programs with our youth center. This allows us to leverage existing resources and offer high quality programming while maintaining low costs for our organization – and without any cost to the student.

On a micro level, our youth programming involves the pre-existing community of every individual child and youth in the work that we do. This means that we connect with immediate and extended family members, teachers, community influencers, and other people in a young person’s life who have an impact on them. We then work collectively with this community to effectively address all of the young person’s needs by including everyone in the picture. This also allows us to unite these influencers to a common message and vision for youth.

What is your vision for Higher Ground in the next year, as you open the planned reengagement center?

Our vision for Higher Ground in the next year is to begin to see these opportunity youth grow and draw from within themselves the character and skills they need to contribute in the community. We want to see these opportunity youth pursue their passions and break the generational cycles that they may have in their families. At the same time, we hope to see opportunity youth impact Higher Ground as an organization and help us grow as leaders and adults. We want to see their input, growth, feedback, and leadership shape Higher Ground to become better for the community.