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Nine Ways to Tell Whether Systems are Changing in a Community

For the past two years, Equal Measure has been evaluating the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions’ Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF), which aims to connect opportunity youth – young people between the ages of 16 to 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market – with education and workforce opportunities that lead to family-sustaining employment.

This second of two blogs about the OYIF investment explores how the evaluation is examining systemic shifts across the OYIF communities.

At the core of this work is the theory that systems must change in order to improve outcomes for opportunity youth at scale, and that communities need to: 1) build and strengthen collaborative infrastructure, 2) build diverse stakeholder commitment, and 3) instigate and sustain collective action among stakeholders. Taken together, these shifts will fundamentally change the ways in which opportunity youth are supported in communities.

We developed a framework that outlined the systemic shifts we expected to see in those three areas for the 21 OYIF communities that we are including in the OYIF evaluation. Overall, as collaboratives become accustomed to working together, and collaborative infrastructure is stabilized, they continue to emphasize activities associated with commitment building and collective action. Collaboratives are building and strengthening local systems in order to seamlessly and more effectively support opportunity youth.

After two years of implementation, we are seeing progress in nine systemic shifts (listed in order of most progress made to least progress made):

Circle 1_orange_80x78Partners are committed to sustaining opportunity youth collaborative activities and structures, and specifically the backbone role (a critical element for any collective impact investment). Partner organizations consistently participate in collaborative meetings, and regularly contribute between meetings.

Circle 2_green_80x78Partners have seen increased accountability when implementing collective, mutually reinforcing activities for the shared opportunity youth agenda. Not only do partners articulate a common vision for their work together, and for their community, but seek input from youth about the progress of their programs.

Circle 3_blue_80xThere have been increased investments in new pathways for opportunity youth (e.g., new/reallocated funding, in-kind resources, joint leveraging of funding streams). Funders of partner organizations are aligning their resources to support the collaborative’s goals. New private funding, from local and national philanthropies, is being dedicated to support opportunity youth pathways. In nearly every collaborative, partners have committed in-kind support – office space, materials, staff, and other resources as well.

Circle 4_purple_80xWe see increased visibility of the shared opportunity youth agenda – through key activities and outcomes – in communities, as evidenced by an increase in conversations among stakeholders (e.g., employers, media, public officials) about improving the quality of systems serving these youth. There are also more conversations among stakeholders in which they share concerns about the number of opportunity youth in the community.

Circle 5_magenta_80xCollaboratives are increasing the number and types of opportunity youth pathways. For instance, they are implementing pilot programs to meet identified service gaps, and are scaling existing programs and services with a proven track record to reach more youth. Collaboratives are working on implementing policy changes and expanding funding streams to better support the scaling of opportunities and pathways.

Circle 6_orange_80xCollaboratives are reframing and rebranding the issues around opportunity youth, using an asset-based narrative.  Opportunity youth are encouraged to share their stories with external audiences and community stakeholders. As a result, stakeholders are now aware of the number of opportunity youth in the community, and are beginning to adopt language of “opportunity youth” (in lieu of “drop-out,” “disconnected,” etc.). Stakeholders are reframing the challenges of these youth as systemic, not individual.

Circle 7_blue_80xThere has been an increase in the quality of supports for opportunity youth in their communities, through programmatic, policy, and funding changes. New programs are being designed, and existing programs are being redesigned to better serve the youth. Recommendations from opportunity youth, as well as data and research, are used to inform pathway development and programming.

Circle 8_blue_80xAdvocacy and policy wins are emerging. The collaboratives are developing or strengthening relationships with public officials (e.g., mayor, city council, and/or state legislators) and institutional, agency, and/or organizational decision makers and policy makers to build support for their policy change agenda, as well as influence institutional policies.

Circle 9_purple_80xFinally, there is a more effective integration of programs and organizations in existing and new pathways serving opportunity youth. Collaboratives are sharing best practices for working with youth across sectors, particularly through shared intake and referral forms and co-locating services. In addition, partner organizations are increasing their capacity to provide complementary services, and are better able to seamlessly “hand off” opportunity youth from one organization to another.

The underlying theory of the OYIF evaluation is that systems must change in order to improve outcomes for opportunity youth at scale, and posits that communities need to build and strengthen collaborative infrastructure, build diverse stakeholder commitment, and instigate and sustain collective action among stakeholders. Taken together, the systemic shifts listed above will fundamentally change the ways in which opportunity youth are supported in communities across the country.

To learn more about how OYIF communities are making progress toward implementing these systemic shifts, check out the 2016 Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund Annual Report from the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions.

Author: Georgia Kioukis

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