Children's Voice September/October 2007

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Other Voices

Preparing Youth for the Real World Takes a Team Effort

Karen J. Pittman

There was a time when youth development enthusiasts and child welfare advocates openly competed against one another, much like two advertising agencies pitching different ideas for the same campaign. The stakes were high for both teams: Not landing the account meant not being heard.

Now, although different opinions remain over how to prioritize things that should not have to be prioritized--emergency services funds versus more afterschool coverage, for example-- the intense competition has passed. The frameworks that guide planning, advocacy, and action have converged, and increasingly there is room for both perspectives within the same campaign.

This convergence is clear when comparing the frameworks guiding both CWLA and the Forum for Youth Investment. Our visions for the well-being and development of all children and youth are almost identical and offer a comprehensive list of supports necessary to ensure young people are safe, healthy, thriving, learning, and connected.

Both frameworks emphasize strengthening these supports in all communities by candidly assessing what exists and securing long-term commitments from key stakeholders. Both express the importance of creating community leadership teams and giving champions and change makers tools to understand research; analyze data; assess programs, policies, and public will; mobilize community support; and create and implement plans. Most importantly, both convey how important a comprehensive approach is.

Ready by 21, the Forum's comprehensive approach, is a call to action that can work for both teams. The phrase, "ready by 21" operationalizes the broadest shared outcome we as a country can hope for--that by age 21, if not well before, all young people will have the full complement of skills and strengths needed to be ready for post-secondary education and training, full-time career-focused work, and civic and family life. The language is simple but intentionally reinforces the need to make early and sustained investments in children and youth, at least until they reach young adulthood.

Ready by 21's power stems from its specificity. To ensure young people are ready by 21, we give state and local leaders conceptual and practical tools to define and collectively own
  • an integrated set of indicators of child and youth progress that cuts across age groups, outcomes, and states of well-being;

  • an integrated set of supports, services, and opportunities that must be present across systems, settings, and time periods; and

  • an integrated leadership strategy that requires key stakeholders to assume shared accountability for planning and progress, and to play roles in creating change.
State and local leaders can use these tools to define and assess supports necessary for children and youth to thrive, as well as to address outcomes and service disparities among specific groups due to differences in neighborhood conditions, family circumstances, or individual capacities and behaviors.

We are encouraged. This "big picture" approach is working. State-level children's cabinets and other coordinating bodies are using these tools to create common goals; build common vocabularies and databases to track populations, services, and outcomes across departments; develop joint initiatives to maximize resources; and most importantly, assess intradepartmental efforts with a common lens. Locally, community-planning groups started by mayors, superintendents, advocates, business leaders, provider networks, and youth leaders are doing similar work.

Conceptions about the resources available also have changed. The well-being of children in foster care, for example, is no longer seen as just the responsibility of child welfare services, nor is doing well defined as simply aging out of the system. Expectations for youth outcomes and community supports have risen. Most importantly, the willingness and capacity to ensure that all youth succeed and all community systems perform on all cylinders--supporting the cognitive, social, emotional, physical, vocational, and civic needs of their participants, as best they can--are increasing as systems of shared accountability take shape.

The care of those most at risk of abuse and neglect by adults responsible for their well-being must be a top priority. The Forum shares the League's belief that this commitment must be firmly embedded within a continuum of services, supports, and expectations that are accessible to all children, youth, and their families.

To return to the opening analogy, by giving all leaders, including youth, the language and tools they need to define the big-picture challenge, youth development enthusiasts and child welfare advocate teams can jointly pitch their ideas to support the singular campaign of protection, preparation, and engagement for all children and youth, including those most vulnerable.

Karen J. Pittman is Executive Director of the Forum for Youth Investment, Washington, DC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps communities and the nation ensure young people are ready for college, work, and life by age 21. Visit www.forumforyouthinvestment.org to learn more.

"Other Voices" provides leaders and experts from national organizations that share CWLA's commitment to the well-being of children, youth, and families a forum to share their views and ideas on crosscutting issues.


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