Readiness as a Right Part 3: In Pursuit of Equity, Themes from the 2015 Ready by 21 National Meeting

Karen Pittman
April 22, 2015
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This year’s Ready by 21 National Meeting was the biggest, broadest and boldest yet.  Over 450 Readiness Champions from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii came together in New Orleans March 31 to April 2 to learn, share, eat, meet, dance, and be inspired.  These champions represented the spectrum of initiatives – GradNation, Cradle to Career Partnerships, Grade Level Reading, 21st Century Systems, Afterschool Networks, School to Work Intermediaries, Opportunity Youth, Boys and Men of Color, STEM and SEL (social emotional learning). They were comfortable with collective impact, committed to continuous improvement, and believers in community engagement.  All of those themes, and more, were explored in forward-pressing pre-sessions, workshops, and peer roundtables. 

The passion was also evident in the plenaries. Paul Schmitz, founder and former CEO of Public Allies, told the powerful story of precision planning behind what history books still describe as a spontaneous act:  Rosa Park’s decision to sit in the front of the bus.  Paul, now a Fellow with the Collective Impact Forum (of which we’re a founding member) made sure we all understood how everyone can lead and follow in successful collective impact efforts.  

Roy Austin, the deputy assistant to the President for the office of urban affairs, justice and opportunity, was at the podium the day after two powerful local examples of what I describe as institutional activists – Orleans Parish Juvenile Court’s Chief Judge, Ernestine Gray, and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Ken Polite – both African-American, who offered short but powerful testimonies to the work they are doing to address inequities and promote readiness for young people who have the odds deeply stacked against them.  Roy’s passion emerged from the fact that he grew up as a middle-class black student in a university town, well-prepared for school and work, but not-fully prepared for inequitable treatment.  He was joined, after his remarks, by a Michigan state legislator, a Hawaiian nonprofit executive, and a local New Orleans city leader who explained the work they were doing in their communities.

The final words of the conference, literally, were among the most powerful.  Each of the panelists was asked to offer a few closing words. Erika Wright, representing the New Orleans Health Department, paused.  She recounted the specifics of her first parent-teacher conference for her 3-year old son, Gabriel, who was described by his teacher with words like” confident, caring, curious” and acknowledged that she had been ruminating on the teacher’s response to her question.  Delighted by the description the teacher offered of Gabriel, she asked the teacher what she could do to contribute to Gabriel’s progress. The teacher answered, “Let Gabriel be Gabriel.” 

Erika had been pondering this response, and on the stage, seemed to find the words to describe its unintended power. Erika found the statement troubling rather than encouraging because it made her realize how quickly forces beyond her control were going to pressure Gabriel to not be who he is.  Not to delight in learning. Not to show emotion. Not to make eye contact. Not to appear confident. Not to hug or show empathy. 450 champions went home pondering Erika’s question: How long will Gabriel be allowed to be Gabriel?

The beauty of the meeting lay in the fact that I posed Erika’s question, without knowing it, in a different way in my opening keynote, delivered more than 24 hours before this panel discussion. I had never met or talked with Erika.  I had not heard the story of Gabriel.  But I knew, and recounted, the stories of minority and low-income young people in other communities who, through the Forum’s efforts, found the courage (yes courage) as high school students to ponder and then research the question of whether their readiness pathways had been prematurely narrowed by the forces that Erika, as a middle class parent, feared were haunting Gabriel, and even more insidiously narrowed by inequities that she and her family had escaped.

I made four bold assertions in my opening keynote:

  • First, that the time has come to declare readiness as a right and strategize for its achievement with the understanding that this may be the biggest civil rights challenge of our time.  Readiness is not a credential, it is a state of being anchored in the confidence of being prepared for what comes next.  Readiness is competence.  Agency.  It is a personal resource we have to ensure young people have at their disposal to close the outcomes and opportunities gaps that distress us. Making readiness a right, not just a goal, forces us to define what it is (not just what it is not, e.g. non-academic skills) and articulate specifically what it takes to achieve it in ways that everyone, including young people, can understand and assess.
  • Second, that the most expedient way to advance this goal is to advance readiness in the pursuit of equity rather than continue to advance equity as a stepping stone to readiness.  We need to actively engage young people, families, practitioners, program managers and other adults in the assessment of what it means for them to be ready and what readiness requires of their families, schools and communities. This is the only way to move from the generic, global constraints that we know have a stranglehold on youth and communities (e.g. poverty), to identify more specific and more malleable strategies for making practical end-runs around these constraints that a) increase youth readiness and agency and b) change immediate conditions in ways that may have longer-term consequences.  Our experiences in East Nashville and other communities suggest that this flipped model accelerates and sustains change efforts.
  • Third, that the best way to empower young people, families, and practitioners is to define, discuss, and make baseline assessments of readiness abilities and readiness practices that both cut across and speak deeply to the multiple systems and settings where young people find themselves trapped.  Our research leaves us convinced that these definitions and tools can be research-based, system-neutral and intuitively relevant to youth, families, and practitioners, reinforcing common sense and commonly highlighted good practice. 
  • Fourth, that the most powerful and practical way to activate this strategy is to assess whether and when the official practices public systems (e.g. education, child welfare, youth employment)promulgate as requirements designed to help ensure official outcomes actually support, diminish or contradict the developmental practices research suggests are needed to help youth develop the skillsets and mindsets needed to achieve these outcomes.  Our research suggests that the developmental practices associated with offering consistently supportive environments (i.e. caring, competent staff; structured, stimulating experiences; and adequate time for individual engagement and reflection) while explicitly pursued by after-school programs, are not unique to them.  There are staff in every system who use these practices to create learning environments that engage youth, build skills, and achieve official outcomes.  The question is not whether promoting these practices can be done.  The challenge is documenting that this is worth doing, at scale, in every classroom, training center or group home and demonstrating how.

The Readiness Project is the Forum’s commitment to provide our staff and our partners with stronger lenses and sharper research-based tools for naming and claiming these critical readiness abilities and practices, for assessing the extent to which they are supported in any of the places where young people spend their time and for starting important discussions about how to better measure and manage what really matters.

Karen Pittman, a sociologist and recognized leader in youth development, is the cofounder, president and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment.

readiness is a right

This article is part of the Readiness is a Right blog series, posted under The Readiness Project, a joint effort of The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction. Find more blogs and expert views in The Readiness Project Insights section. 


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