July 9 2015

When we embarked on the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) campaign five years ago, we pledged to enhance the participation and engagement of young people from underserved communities in the work that we do, drawing on their leadership to drive change.  Now that we are approaching the mid-point of our ten-year plan, I feel comfortable offering some observations about our progress on this front, and the value we have experienced in our work.

Our commitment to enhanced youth leadership has principally taken shape in three forms: 1) holding ourselves accountable to youth participation statewide, in many of our 14 BHC sites; 2) establishing staff and budgetary support for youth engagement in the “DNA” of our foundation; and 3) implementing the new idea of a President’s Youth Council.

A fourth, critically-related effort was to enhance the visibility and accessibility of our social media platform, which is central to any commitment to engage young people.

Here’s the CEO’s perspective on the efforts at the mid-point of our 10-year BHC campaign:

Youth Engagement & Organizing.  Along the course of our BHC work, we’ve done a few things well and a few things right, and a couple of things not-so-well – we learn along the way.  One of the “right” things we did was to insist on youth participation in each of the 14 BHC sites and our statewide policy work, and we deemed that important enough to measure.  In this way, our program staff, local BHC partners, and program evaluators all knew up front: we expect and will see the leadership of young people engaged and supported.  As President, along with our Board, we receive an annual report that includes the quantity and quality of young people involved with local BHC planning and advocacy.  Strategically, it was meaningful youth engagement that resulted in the very successful campaigns we have supported on issues of 1) school discipline reform and reducing school suspensions statewide, 2) our Sons & Brothers (Boys & Young Men of Color) work, and 3) health coverage for undocumented families (the #Health4All campaign).  We have seen statewide policy- and systems-change victories on all three fronts, and in each and every case young people were visibly engaged leaders and advocates in the changes.  We have supported the activism and advocacy of young people as they reach the halls of the state Capitol in Sacramento, where hundreds of young leaders influence state policy change during Advocacy Week.

Budget & Staffing.  Prior to the implementation of BHC, we were more effective at providing lip service about youth engagement than real and meaningful commitment towards it.  Over the past two years, for the first time, we established both a youth engagement staff position, as well as a line item in the organizational budget to support it.  Admittedly, the staffing and budget support is relatively modest from the standpoint of scale – but we recognized (nudged by young people themselves) that unless youth engagement lived and breathed as a budgetary item, we could not live up to our stated pledge and commitment.  So now, it’s in the budget.

The President’s Youth Council.  As the BHC campaign unfolded, I wanted to consider options for institutionalizing the advice and experiential wisdom of young people from our BHC sites.  We considered the option of adding a youth representative or two to our Board of Directors, but my experience with the solitary “youth representative” on a board or commission of adult representatives has been mixed: the young person is hopelessly outnumbered, they are forced to play by “adult” professional rules, and it is a tremendous amount to expect an adolescent/young adult to carry the voice of hundreds or thousands of young people in a boardroom or commission experience dominated by adults.

So we decided to create a President’s Youth Council, or PYC.  We embarked on a process to identify and invite one young leader from each of the 14 sites, and provide them with organized “face time” with me at least a couple times per year.  We are now in the third year of this “experiment” and I have learned a great deal about how to effectively support youth civic engagement, leadership and advocacy in the battle for health and justice in low-income, ignored communities.  Among the most salient lessons: the roles that matters of adversity, trauma, and stress play in the lives of young people of color, and how we must endeavor to strengthen social-emotional health and wellness approaches to truly build healthy communities across California.  At present, my staff are examining the design of a Youth Wellness Initiative proposed by the PYC, intended to strengthen the narrative of “wellness” and health for young people of color in California.

Social Media.  The matter of social media remains an area of growth and development for us, but as compared to five years ago, we now boast one of the most robust social media engagement platforms of any foundation in the country.  Blogging, Facebook, Twitter, video/digital content, and Google Hangouts are now all “standard operating procedure” at TCE, and we have staff (under the age of 40, of course), grantee partners, and youth leaders themselves all frenetically engaged in advancing the message of health justice.  Our social media reach now numbers more than 100,000 strong and growing.

The building of heathy communities requires energy, creativity, passion, and the will to fight.  Our Board of Directors and staff are thrilled with the value these young people have brought to our work.  I am well pleased with these developments, except for one nagging question: what took me so long to figure this out?

Dr. Bob Ross

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