Looking Forward with Wokie Weah
As Youthprise looks forward to 2018, we sit down with President Wokie Weah to find out what’s changed with the organization and what’s next for young people in Minnesota.
Question: Youthprise was founded in 2011 by the McKnight Foundation to accelerate learning, leadership and systems beyond the classroom. From your perspective what has changed, and what has remained the same?
Wokie Weah: Great question. Let’s start with what has not changed. We believe now as we believed then that it is important to center young people in decisions that impact their lives and get their perspective on how to dismantle systems that impact youth. I am talking about the education, juvenile justice and health systems in particular. We have made positive strides in that direction with our board and organizational structure which includes intentionality around youth voice and racial equity. We have a diverse board co-chaired by a young woman of color, and an intergenerational racially diverse staff. What has changed is today we have an explicit focus on reducing racial disparities impacting youth, our geographic reach is statewide instead of the Twin Cities metro, and in addition to investing in learning and leadership, we also invest in economic opportunity, and health and safety. The decision to expand beyond traditional afterschool programming was partially based on what we heard directly from young people but also greatly influenced by where there were the most disparities impacting youth.
Q: Why was it important to broaden your focus beyond traditional afterschool programming alone?
WW: At Youthprise, we value innovation and risk, and as a result will sometimes swim in unchartered waters that looks different than what people might be used to. We make investments in initiatives that have the greatest potential to challenge deeply entrenched systems. For example, we invest in Youthbanks and YPAR and Youth Fellows because we want to raise up the next generation of philanthropists, researchers, and non-profit leaders and help them uplift the community. These initiatives center youth in systems that impact their lives, the focus is investing in youth with youth. Ultimately, our goal is to center the young people most impacted across all of our work because we know they have the best solutions to the problems they face.
The impetus for expanding beyond the afterschool programming was based on feedback from young people. They expressed to us that they needed investments that supported their holistic wellbeing including economic pathways to success and supporting their health and safety. We also felt that afterschool programming traditionally served up to high school-age youth, and we wanted to make sure that we were investing in older young people during a critical transition stage to adulthood.
Q: Recently the national media has been filled with stories about immigration reform. I know that a key target for Youthprise’s investments are immigrants. Why is it important to invest in that population?
WW: I can think of at least three good reasons. One: It absolutely aligns with our mission to champion learning beyond the classroom so that all youth thrive. Key demographic shifts make this an urgent priority. Two: Minnesota is an immigrant-rich state and the rich lessons learned from that population informs our work and can be adapted and applied nationally. And, three: We know that immigrants add great value to this country and to our work. It is critically important to remember that immigrants fall on both sides of the economic spectrum and not to apply blanket statements to all of them. Supporting the communities in Minnesota who are most impacted by disparities is a part of our racial equity agenda, so this aligns with our investments in communities of color and native populations.
Q: What is on the horizon for Youthprise?
WW: A Board Strategic Planning Retreat is scheduled for next month to develop plans in response to a recent stakeholder’s survey conducted by the Wilder Foundation. We will work with our Board to review our updated theory of change and refresh our mission and vision. We anticipate being more active around racial equity issues that impact young people of color in Minnesota. This includes more staff trainings and tangible organizational goals around racial equity work. We will also forge ahead with building the capacity of young people to use digital media to tell their own stories. One example of this is our 2018 Podcaster-in-Residence initiative that supports young people of color to tell their stories and a brand new Youthprise radio show that will highlight the voices young people in our communities and build their capacity to tell story. Additionally, our Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) team will continue the development of an interactive toolkit that features a board game and app to teach young people research principles. We will launch an interactive YouthBank toolkit that can be used to support youth-led philanthropy in Minnesota and across the country. Finally, we build on existing relationships with public and private partners to serve as a bridge and re-grantor of funds in areas relevant to our mission to continue to increase money coming in to support young people in Minnesota.
I am confident that as long as Minnesota’s future is in the hands of young people, we will be fine.