Using Collaborative Inquiry to Support Growth in a New Field: Ecnouraging youth participation in civic life

Some years ago, a grantmaker began noticing that more and more community organizations were establishing projects designed to encourage young people to participate in civic life. The idea was relatively new at the time, and not much was known about it. “People were out there trying to do it,” she said, but few of them seemed to be talking with one another. “There was a lot of practice, but not much theory. Nobody was writing about youth as civic actors.”

Her foundation, like many others, encouraged program work that brought grantees together to learn. But the results had been mixed. She had watched other foundations create forums where community organizations were invited to give input, but without any clear message about what output was intended. Participants couldn’t always be sure who was intended to benefit from the discussion, for what purpose, or what risks the exercise might create for those who participated. The grant maker was interested in acquiring knowledge for herself and her institution, but she was equally interested in assembling knowledge for the field. “I wanted to legitimize youth organizing as a practice within youth development,” she explained, but that meant getting help from practitioners and observers who were not used to sharing information even with one another, much less with a funder.

How did they build a common learning agenda?

The grantmaker started by assembling a group of practitioners, consultants, and other grantmakers into an early design team to create a new initiative. “We wanted to surface the broadest, best, widest thinking” and “build a field around practice.” Ultimately, a diverse group of a dozen organizations from around the United States and four organizations in South Africa and Kenya were invited to participate in a three-year learning network. “We were key groups coming together,” one grantee explained, “to bring about learning that could be thrown back into our work through an experiential process. We designed the framework together, developed the key learning questions together.” The foundation brought in an intermediary organization to distribute grants, manage the initiative, provide technical assistance, and take responsibility for gathering and disseminating field knowledge. A team that included grantees selected the researcher-evaluator.

Participating organizations received operational support — an important component, according to the director of the intermediary, who noted, “You have to pay people to reflect.” The inquiry process included annual learning group meetings, site exchanges for peer learning, annual site visits for training and technical assistance by the managing intermediary, assistance from the evaluators in asking questions and collecting and analyzing data, and individualized mini-grants to support such things as strategic planning, self-evaluation, and leadership development for youth. “We were there,” said a participant, “to identify our assumptions, answer questions, find good practices. Each group had its own proposed goals and deliverables.” The intent, according to the intermediary’s director, “was to be truly learner-focused, to have every organization learning what they needed to learn, while contributing to the common learning.” That agenda entailed seeking answers to two questions: What organizational strengths are required for grassroots youth activism organizations to do quality work? And what does youth activism contribute to youth development outcomes?

What was accomplished?

Evaluators’ written reports and testimony from participating organizations suggest that the process achieved at least four important outcomes:

  • Improved program performance. As just one example, the initiative helped participants survey young people to pinpoint ways to improve the quality of their services. As a staff member from one group explained, “We looked at the gaps and developed a plan to make leadership opportunities more available to youth who have been here less than a year, to help them feel more engaged.”
  • New relationships and wider networks. “It was exciting and invigorating for our staff and youth to be exposed to diverse, passionate people doing things 14 or 15 different ways around the country,” said a participant. Strong relationships were built, and many of them have stuck. According to one grantee: “We still stay in touch with several of the organizations, sharing information and resources.”
  • A stronger field. The learning initiative helped spur the creation of the Funder’s Collaborative on Youth Organizing, and articles on youth participation and leadership appear far more regularly in the scholarly and practical youth development literature. “Success,” says the program officer, “is seeing the idea of youth activism being inserted in so many places.”

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