“How can we make Denver a better place?” That was the question at the heart of Rose Community Foundation’s Innovate for Good grant program, initiated in 2015. But, instead of focusing on the nonprofit community, the invitation to problem-solve was submitted to the whole community with the goal of taking innovation to a new level, generating new, untried, untested ideas.
The Foundation decided to focus on youth in their 2016 cycle. “Youth are natural innovators, outside-the-box thinkers,” said Sarah Indyk, the Foundation’s Director of Special Projects. “They are not constrained in their thinking in the same way as people who have been wrestling with community challenges for years, decades, their whole careers. Youth offer a fresh perspective that is often overlooked, and there are few resources to bring their ideas to fruition. Including youth in Innovate for Good’s pool of grantees was an exciting opportunity to bring new voices to the table to do different work.”
As the idea developed, it became clear that giving dollars was one thing, but supporting youth to realize their ideas was something else entirely. The Foundation wanted to do more than invest in projects – they wanted to invest in the young people themselves as emerging community leaders. “We wanted them to go on to do many projects in their lives, and to use this project to the build skills and understanding of themselves and their capacity to do that. We knew instinctively that true youth empowerment would require training and youth-adult partnerships, but we didn’t have the experience.”
That is where YLI came in. Over the past 26 years, YLI has worked with thousands of youth, training them to design and lead campaigns that affect real change on issues that matter to them and their communities. This work has deeply impacted our perceptions of the value youth bring to social justice movements, as well as how to nurture their capacity for leadership. The result is a successful and evidence-based youth leadership model that meaningfully involves youth in policy advocacy efforts, action research, philanthropy, and organizational decision-making. This model has been shared through our Training and Consulting Service (TCS) with over 200 communities across the globe.
In 2016, Rose Community Foundation partnered with YLI to bring this model to their youth and adult grantees. Rebecca Chapman’s project, Stories Worth Saving, was funded by the Foundation. She described how the comprehensive series of workshops gave her the tools to implement her project: “I developed some really important skills that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” These workshops ranged from researching issues and conducting surveys, to pitching ideas and budgeting, to collecting data and presenting results.
But there is something more that YLI brings to these trainings. “I had the chance to sit in on the trainings,” said Indyk, “and Jon and Patty [YLI leadership and TCS trainers] just blew me away with their wisdom, energy, passion, and perspective. They built so much trust so quickly in the room. Youth felt safe to share, safe to take risks. Without that trust, it is hard even to get started.” At the heart of YLI’s work is creating youth-adult partnerships that empower youth with the support and confidence they need to take the lead. “With YLI, youth can make the difference that they want to make. We actually have a voice, we have the power to make a difference without being told what to do,” said Chapman.
“It is incredibly rare, the work that YLI does,” concluded Indyk. “There are so many amazing organizations doing great work with youth in the Denver community, but we don’t have a YLI here. YLI touches that ‘sweet spot’ of youth voice and empowerment, helping youth to move the needle on real community issues. They were a natural partner – their perspective and insight really informed our approach with youth.”