How can funders lift up individuals, facilitate systems change, and build a better future?

By supporting youth organizers.

Eric Braxton, Executive Director of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO), describes youth organizing as "a combination of community organizing and youth development" that "gets at both the systemic level changes to address inequity and at the same time it gets at the individual transformation of the young people involved."

Youth Organizing: More than Just a Moment

Youth organizing has come to the fore in recent years as protests erupted in response to incidents like police and school shootings. Braxton emphasizes that youth organizers and protestors are not "rabble-rousers" but that "young people go through cycles of analysis, of preparation, of action, and reflection."

FCYO works with low-income youth and youth of color who are "experiencing the most direct impacts of inequity." Youth organizing gives individuals a chance to grow personally while shaping their communities:

They are engaged in identifying in their community, developing solutions, and then organizing people in their community - young people and adults - to take collective action and create systemic change.

This is a healthy and productive way for youth to do what comes most naturally to them - "testing the limits of authority."

Youth Organizing in Action:

Braxton is quick to share the success of InnerCity Struggle, an organization working to improve the lives of the people of Eastside Los Angeles. In 2004, a major problem in LA public schools came to light: Students were graduating without the credits they needed to attend a public college in California. Even worse, some schools didn't even offer the courses that the college admissions required. InnerCity Struggle worked with a coalition to ensure that every school in Eastside LA offered college-prep courses. In 2005 the "A-G Life Prep" policy was passed in LA Unified School District (LAUSD), requiring exactly that.

But getting the policy passed was not enough. InnerCity Struggle continued to push in multiple directions.  In the following years, the coalition worked to make sure that the policy was maintained and enforced. InnerCity Struggle added tutoring and college access services to their own program so that students who worked on the campaigns would thrive academically.

As a result of this work, graduation rates have increased in LAUSD, and now more students are prepared for the UC system when they graduate. The youth organizers involved with the change have gone on to college and returned to InnerCity Struggle and other organizations, bringing the leadership and collaboration skills that they learned.

Research shows that youth organizers like and including those that worked at InnerCity struggle were integral in supporting DREAMERS, and accounted for momentum around the movement in California.

Philanthropy and Youth Organizing

While youth organizing has garnered headlines, Braxton laments that youth organizing is "massively underfunded."

Less than 1 percent of all funding that goes to youth development goes to youth organizing.

Which is especially small considering that youth organizing "is one of the best ways to get at some of the outcomes that youth funders care about" - including individual skill development and systems change.

But how does philanthropy play a part in youth organizing? Braxton points to recent events as an example. "Flashpoint moments" - like Ferguson and Parkland - inspire youth to rise up and protest injustice around them. But a moment is not a movement, and youth can drive change, but they can't do it alone.

We need to invest in the infrastructure and resources that support those young people to maintain their engagement in the long haul.

The good news is that "there are existing organizations in many places that can do that." But they need support and funding to make an impact. After the school shooting in Parkland, FL in early 2018, students demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the policies that had allowed the tragedy to occur. FCYO rapidly distributed funds to local youth organizing nonprofits to help them quickly build their capacity in order to support the students and transition the moment into a movement.

Resources for Philanthropists:

FCYO has a range of resources for funders including researchtoolkits, and webinars. Funders who want to get involved should start by educating themselves about youth organizing, then decide on a specialty area. Focusing in on a cause, group, and/or geographical area is a good way for funders to ensure that their donations make an impact.

Once you have found your area, identify organizations that are already working to support youth organizers and help them develop the capacity that they need to do their work.