Part one of a guest blog series written in celebration of the 10th Anniversary Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit.
“Community of Practice” is a term of art, not science. Many times these networks are deemed to exist, but are far from communal and not grounded in practice. In my career, I’ve learned that you know a Community of Practice when you see one, even if it is sometimes hard to articulate why it is one.
While at Making Cents International in 2006, we knew we did not see such a community in the youth economic opportunities space. There were communities built around financial inclusion, education, and entrepreneurship, but most did not focus on youth and few took a holistic view.
Led by Fiona Macaulay, we decided to change this and discovered how many individuals and organizations shared a commitment to promoting youth economic empowerment. It was enlightening (even frightening) to learn how little was known about what was working in the field. As Making Cents and the now robust community of Youth Economic Opportunities (YEO) practitioners and partners look back, we have a lot to be proud of.
In 2009, I left Making Cents for RTI International, a deeply capable institution looking to form a global workforce development practice. My first order of business at RTI was to convince leadership that we should invest in the Youth Economic Opportunities Network Making Cents is leading. Here’s why:
Invest in Community–Practitioners need a community of peers where they can build networks for implementation, receive support or critical feedback, and share learning to advance the field. Such a community cannot be a once-in-a-while gathering, but must instead be a dynamic place for continuous exchange. The Making Cents Youth Economic Opportunities network provides this space through its online learning hub, www.YouthEconomicOpportunities.org, the annual Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, year-round Apply It! webinars, monthly newsletters, and social media. I have met some of my closest colleagues (and some of my current staff) through the Youth Economic Opportunities Network, and RTI regularly implements projects with partners gained through the community Making Cents has fostered.
Just this summer, I attended a Youth Economic Opportunities webinar, prepped with panelists for the September Summit, read through and shared reports found in the newsletter, and planned a side event for January with a group of Youth Economic Opportunities network regulars. Our community is rich and dynamic–constant in its presence and beneficial to me and RTI beyond what we invest.
Invest with Practitioners–Making Cents’ Youth Economic Opportunities Network took an early focus on practice, evidence, and the “apply it” mantra. The Network’s flagship event, the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit and its post-Summit reports are full of examples of how learning informs practice, and the list of Summit participants grows each year. Yes, it is true that donors, private sector partners, and academics are an important part of the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, but to me, it is the hundreds of large and small NGOs committed to collectively moving the field forward that make it work.
For example, in 2014 I chaired a panel with Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, a social enterprise in South Africa on track to impact the employment status of 700,000 marginalized South Africans by 2020. I marveled at the data they collected and how they used it to drive ROI-based proposals to their myriad of private sector partners. But I was even more impressed by their knowledge of the real barriers youth face such as transport costs, delayed wages, ill-preparedness for work, and a reliance on ingrained tropes of low self-worth and even lower expectations. Harambee meets youth where they are, but also takes them to where they deserve to be: their practice is deep, and their partnership in Youth Economic Opportunities Summit valuable.
Invest in Innovation–During the last six years, RTI has heavily invested in the Youth Economic Opportunities Summit through staff time and financial support. We are a proud Gold-Level sponsor and plan to continue to be a supporter of the Summit. Further, we were pleased to join with Making Cents to launch the Global Center for Youth Employment (GYCE), a community of practice based on the Youth Economic Opportunities principles of transparency and collective action. GYCE focuses on seed funding and learning from co-created solutions; it represents the next frontier for these communities. If interested, come to our next meeting during the first morning of the summit on Wednesday, September 28th.
Continue Investing–Looking back, and perhaps looking at the list of 450+ people attending the Summit this year, it is easy to be complacent. But we cannot afford to be: although we have succeeded in building our community, growing the evidence base, and advancing shared solutions, much remains to be done. Our field is still too fragmented and lacks the depth, breadth, and power of similar networks in health, agriculture, and education––and, of course, too many youth lack opportunity. We may need another 10 years, but I am certain we will get there and our investments will matter.
A special thank you to Andrew Baird, Program Director, Workforce and Economic Opportunities, RTI International, for his authorship of this blog. To learn more about the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, September 28-30, 2016, visit: www.youtheosummit.org