National Service and Grassroots Youth Organizing Groups: A Strategy for Building Diverse Nonprofit and Civic Leadership for New York

Thursday, January 14, 2010

By Carmen Balentine
Program Officer, Edward W. Hazen Foundation

The fiscal 2010 budget includes an appropriation of $1.49 billion for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the largest budget in CNCS history. (For example, AmeriCorps, a well-known CNCS-administered program, will expand by 233 percent over the next eight years.) A panel discussion held on November 12, 2009 at Philanthropy New York focused on the potential opportunities for philanthropy to support the development of national service as a vehicle for building a diverse leadership pipeline in the New York City nonprofit sector.

To build a diverse nonprofit and civic leadership pipeline, funders must consider how to support and involve grassroots youth organizing groups. Research from youth activism in education reform shows that organizing provides an avenue for leadership development, social analysis, and political engagement that lasts beyond high school. Youth organizing is a development model that provides opportunities for young people of color to be agents of change and often leads to continued involvement in service and activism.

Supriya Pillai, Executive Director of the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing, writes that “in the last decade, more than a hundred community-based groups have sprouted up across the country to engage youth (of color) around a host of issues from public school reform to environmental justice. These groups deserve…a national service plan that provides for youth organizing.”

Service is a strategy that is intended both to strengthen young peoples’ sense of civic engagement and to help them achieve their educational, developmental, and social goals. Commonly absent from traditional service frameworks is the development of a critical analysis that focuses on policies, laws, and institutions that purposefully (or inadvertently) maintain and promote systemic inequity in America, often resulting in an emphasis solely on individual development.

Youth organizing is a developmental and social justice strategy that trains young people in community organizing. Organizing assists them in employing skills to address systemic inequity in order to alter power relations and work towards long-term, meaningful institutional change while developing their own skills and capacities. Service and organizing are both important to civically engage youth in positive solutions for community problems—yet organizing has been shown to have particular utility for effectively engaging youth of color, those least likely to be involved in other more traditional service activities.

Grassroots youth and education organizing groups work effectively with communities that are most impacted by unemployment, lack of access to educational opportunities, and low civic engagement. Unfortunately, many grassroots youth organizing groups do not consider applying for national service grants because their community development work is often not captured and defined effectively within the parameters of “service.” Grassroots organizing groups also need support to identify and document the components of their organizing work that contribute to leadership development and civic education.

Private philanthropy could help build the institutional capacity of these groups—enabling them to access national service funds—and can also provide support to the national service field by backing efforts that expand the definition of community service to reflect all varying levels of civic engagement, including youth and community organizing.

At the November 12th program, Richard Buery, the former Executive Director of Groundwork, shared how AmeriCorps members helped build their organizational capacity and supported their mission (helping young people living in high-poverty urban communities through the use of effective experiential learning and work programs). They were able to leverage staff, recruit members of the Brooklyn community, and provide the opportunity for them to develop new skill sets and capacities, addressing the high unemployment rates in black and Latino communities.

A youth organizing group in Kansas, supported by the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, hired its first two AmeriCorps members in 2009. As an organizing group, they worked diligently to identify areas of their work that aligned with CNCS objectives. These included peer-led trainings, recruitment, history of social movements, power analysis, etc. AmeriCorps member participation was beneficial because the members were from the community the group worked with, they provided dedicated staff to support the leadership development components of the organization’s work, and they would be able to continue at the organization once their period of AmeriCorps service was complete.

There is also the possibility of supporting the identification or development of an intermediary that could provide administrative support and capacity for securing national service resources, conduct the monitoring work needed to manage service grants, and craft positions that are aligned with CNCS regulations. The development of an ongoing working group designed to address issues of accessibility for small, local grassroots-based youth organizing groups would be beneficial.

If national service resources are not accessible to these groups, we will be overlooking organizations that work effectively with communities most impacted by inequity, and that are essential for building leadership for the sector. Opportunities do exist for grassroots youth organizing groups to benefit from national service resources, and funders and philanthropists have an opportunity to support their development.

Philanthropy New York has created the Service for Impact working group, an ongoing space for funders to explore philanthropic opportunities and growth within the service field. If you would like to join the conversation or learn more about the group, please contact Roshni Melia, Philanthropy New York’s Professional Education Manager.

Carmen Balentine is the Program Officer of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, managing substantive components of Hazen’s youth development and public education grantmaking portfolio. He currently serves on the advisory board for the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing and is a fellow in the 2009-2010 Association of Black Foundation Executives Connecting Leaders Fellowship Program. Mr. Balentine is an alum and former staff member of Public Allies, a national leadership development organization, and a graduate of the Coro Leadership New York fellowship program.

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