Earlier this year, Irina Barrera began making plans to represent her organization, Youthprise, at a national conference on expanded learning. Youthprise is a Minneapolis philanthropy whose mission is to reduce the disparities among youth in Minnesota.
“We were planning on young people submitting videos for the conference [that showed the work they were doing],” said Barrera, the organization’s director of research.
But a young person on the Youthprise board asked: Why not take people rather than their videos to the conference?
Yes! Barrera thought. She realized — once again — something she already knew: You can lose sight of possibilities if you don’t have the perspective of youth.
Which is why Youthprise reserves half its board seats for youth ages 16-24. And why the board has dual leadership — one young person and one adult co-chair. In addition, youth are embedded in the organization as staff.
In 2018, this charity led by youth and adults provided $4 million in grants to Minnesota organizations and individuals. Through the Opportunity Reboot project, grantees created career pathways for young people disconnected from school and work, providing training, certification and jobs.
In partnership with Hennepin County, it has supported a teen health program that includes, at the behest of youth, an education group led by teen parents to provide resources and support to other young parents.
Another undertaking was to start the first YouthBank in the United States. YouthBanks are run by young people who raise money and make grants to other youth so they can address local issues affecting them.
It also makes grants to organizations for youth-led research projects. For example, the Asian American Storytellers project received funding to document the historical, political and cultural history of Asian American youth in Minnesota.
“For three years, young people have been the majority of the grant panel,” Barrera said. “They get to review what organizations are proposing.”
The people impacted by the problem are often the ones who have the best solutions, said Wokie Weah, president of Youthprise. “It’s important to have the perspective of the people who are receiving the funding,” she said. It’s important to center young people in decisions that impact their lives, she believes.
Racial equity and youth engagement are core values at Youthprise. Many of its youth are young people of color.
“They know what’s going on in the community,” Weah said. “It brings us close to the community. We start those conversations about ways … access can be a barrier. They bring those issues to us.”
Minnesota is a state with deep racial disparities. While about 7% of white Minnesotans live in poverty, 32% percent of blacks do. There’s a big gap in educational attainment. Youthprise intends to impact Minnesota youth who are experiencing the greatest disparities: indigenous, low-income and racially diverse young people.
Youthprise was created in 2010 with a three-year $11 million grant from the McKnight Foundation. The goal was to improve learning opportunities for young people outside school.
At the outset, “We got youth innovators involved,” Weah said. “In 30 minutes they came to the same conclusion the [then-]adult board took 12 months to get to,” she said.
The conclusion was: “This is not our money. It belongs to the community. Let’s not be gatekeepers,” she said.
Often organizations have a very adult-driven theory of change, Weah said.
“It might not work on the population you are trying to serve,” she said. “Let’s make sure the money gets to the community. Let’s not put up barriers.”
Young people starting their own businesses can apply to Youthprise for funding.
“But we think way beyond the funding,” Weah said. Youthprise offers them support and connection with other community entities.
Ideally, young people then take on a role in reshaping the systems that impact their lives.