Engaging Opportunity Youth

CICF’s new strategic plan includes strategies to engage “opportunity youth” (defined as those between the ages of 16-24 and not enrolled or employed) in programs that promote education or career pathways. In this episode of For Good, hear from local leaders about ongoing efforts to provide opportunity to young people in our community. These programs include:

  • Community Action of Greater Indianapolis, which provides youth enrichment services, housing assistance and community outreach programs working toward the reduction and elimination of poverty in Central Indiana.
  • Groundwork Indy, which operates two youth development programs: the Green Team, which employs in-school youth ages 14-18 and is focused on building leadership skills, environmental awareness and life skills; and GroundCorp, which employs out-of-school youth ages 16-24 and is focused on job training and preparedness.
  • YES Indy REC, formerly the Pivot Re-Engagement Center, at Boys and Girls Club of Indianapolis, where service providers engage “opportunity youth” to build confidence and connections with education and employment resources.

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Transcription of episode available below.



Welcome to For Good, Central Indiana Community Foundation’s podcast highlighting stories about passion, purpose, and progress in Central Indiana. At CICF, we believe in opportunity and equity. We believe that our communities and neighborhoods are stronger because of our diversity. And we believe that with innovation and boldness, central Indiana can be a place where everyone can reach their full potential, no matter their place, race, or identity.

This is our community. And these are your stories.

You’re listening to For Good, Central Indiana Community Foundation’s podcast highlighting stories about passion, purpose, and progress in Central Indiana. At CICF, we believe in creating a community where everyone can reach their full potential, no matter their place, race, or identity. This is our community and these are your stories.

ANDREW:  Hello, and welcome to For Good. I’m Drew Black, a director of community leadership at Central Indiana Community Foundation. Today, we are recording just north of Central Library from Comida, where owner and head chef Lance George uniquely fuses Mexican and barbecue for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Thank you to Chef George and Pinnacle Catering Group for their hospitality today.

Today on For Good, we’re talking about opportunity youth. It’s a phrase you may have heard as part of CICF’s strategic plan for Marion Country. These are young people, aged 16 to 24, who are not enrolled or employed. With me today are three individuals working to reengage this population in different ways. I’d like to have everyone introduce themselves. Who are you and where do you work?

VAL:  Hi. Thank you, Drew. My name is Val Tate and I’m a coaching and learning development director at Community Action in Greater Indianapolis.

ANDREW:  Thanks for being here, Val.

ERIK:  My name is Erik Davenport. I am currently the director of the Boys & Girls Club Pivot. The Pivot program reengages throughout the Far Eastside.

ANDREW:  Thanks for being here, Erik.

PHYLLIS:  I’m Phyllis Boyd and I’m the executive director of Groundwork Indy.

ANDREW:  Phyllis, thank you for being here. I’m going to start out with a softball question and just ask you a little bit about the demographics of opportunity youth and the type of young people that you work with every day. Val, can I start with you?

VAL:  Great. The work that we do is with 18 to 26-year-olds and currently those folks who are from high impact areas of trauma, so you can look for 46218, 226, 235, 205, from that area. We work mainly with African American males that have a juvenile record or an adult record, may or may not have graduated from high school, may be a father, in that areas, and really having some hiccups in life.

ERIK:  Well, I work with the 16 to 24-year-olds who are on the Far Eastside through the Boys & Girls Club, and so we use the Boys & Girls Club, the Pivot, as a draw and, with that, we have a vast variety of individuals who come in. All of my young men are not African American. All of them are usually in that same socio-economical area. We have men of color, and we have Caucasians as well. We have females that come in as well, I have a lot of basketball players that are female, and we have the general crowd that comes in to just watch the games and whatnot. I have a pretty diverse crowd of individuals who come in, but our target focus are those individuals who are, as Val said earlier, are not engaged, who are not working, who may be indulging in some illegal activities, and we want to get those young men and women refocused. And so our job is to engage them and get them back in education, get them back in schooling. And so our area is as specific as Val’s and Phyllis’ as well.

ANDREW:  Thanks, Eric.

PHYLLIS:  Yeah. At Groundwork Indy, we have youth that overlap the youth that Val works with and also the youth at Pivot and the age range is 16 to 24, 25, 26 sometimes. And on that lower end of that scale, it’s youth that have probably dropped out of high school. And so, in general, all of our youth are low income, primarily African American, most of them are males, and we try to work with them to make sure that, if they haven’t graduated from high school, that we’re getting them into adult basic education and getting them reconnected to getting at least their secondary education completed.

ANDREW:  Thank you guys for sharing. Opportunity youth, it’s a buzzword now in town, and it’s essentially just describing disconnected youth. Val, you spoke to that some of these young people may be parents. Erik, you spoke to the fact that some may be justice involved at some point in time or have chosen to drop out of high school, but we know that a lot of things don’t always come down to choice and so disengagement could be due to a lot of different things. I think it’s unfair to put all young people in this bucket, that they made a decision to get off track, to leave school, to leave work. Can you guys just talk practically about, just from a high level, what are young people facing today that you’re seeing and what do you we need to be sensitive to when we think about this population and why they may have become disengaged in the first place?

VAL:  This is Val from the We Can program at CAGI, and what we’re seeing is a high incidence of trauma. And so what I mean by trauma, you might see kids who have never seen their father because their father has been incarcerated or they themselves have been incarcerated. They have had multiple deaths, that they see death on a daily basis. They see where people in their household have not graduated from high school and they live in high intensity, poverty-stricken areas of the city. And so we all know the stats for poverty in Indiana is very high, and so those are some of the traumas that I see for the folks that we work with. And so if there was a score on that ACEs chart, they would score-

ANDREW:  ACEs are Adverse Childhood Experiences.

VAL:  Correct, a tool that’s used to look at the trauma that a person has had to deal with in their lives. And so many of the people that we serve, Phyllis and the Pivot, would score the same, would score very high on that. And so, yeah, there are great ramifications for that for the community.

ANDREW:  Absolutely.

PHYLLIS:  Yeah. And just for an example, last week, we had a youth whose brother was shot and killed, and so she came back to work today because she likes to be there and it’s a place where our youth feel safe, but there aren’t many of those places around. And so, when those traumas happen, it totally disrupts your life. If you’re employed, you might not be able to get to work. You might not feel like going to school. Things that really can derail your ability to cope and to stay on track. It happens to these youth all the time.

ERIK:  Absolutely. I would say that, with the Pivot program, we’ve had some participants who’ve passed away. Getting to know the young men, engaging with them, I had a young man come into our facility yesterday and inform me that his brother was involved with an incident involving IMPD, but the result was he was found passed away here Saturday. And so these things happen to these young men and women all the time. I would say, from a professional standpoint, what we probably need to work with these young men and women is communications. We need to try to get them to be able to express themselves and we, as adults who have this good information, this good guidance, we need to learn how to disseminate that in a fashion that they can absorb it and respond to it.

A lot of times, each of us know that we were told as a child to do something, really it was the opposite thing we were doing, but if someone could explain to us the options and choices we’re making and let us go make them, we respect that individual more. We just have to learn to communicate with them more and try to get this information that we have and these resources we have to these individuals who really need it.

ANDREW:  What I’m hearing is that a lot of these young people, the stakes are really high, and they get even higher if they fall out of going to school every day or not employed. With it being that high stakes, this isn’t your standard population that most entities provide direct services to, and one thing to think about is, if young people are disengaged, how do we go about finding them in the first place? Can you talk about how you find them and also how programs might look a little different for someone that would be considered a disconnected youth versus a child that could be enrolled in school somewhere?

ERIK:  I would chime in on that by saying that what we need to do is a system. All of us at this table and all the people that are in our earshot, we need to do as a system is to look at how we are going to help that individual instead of how we want that individual to do what we want them to do. We need to look at giving you the necessary help that you need as an individual. If we can help that individual, then that individual can then help themselves. Maybe you need to tell me what you need instead of me just administering something to you.

ANDREW:  Cookie-cutter programs are not going to work. What’s your take on that, Phyllis?

PHYLLIS:  I would say that we don’t actually go out and do a lot of recruiting because the youth come to us, and the way they find out about us is from their friends and from family members. It’s not that we’re not out there talking about Groundwork Indy to youth, it’s just that they come and we have a wait list for youth that want to get into our program and work with us. And I think a big part of what they appreciate about being around our staff and the program is that we do try to treat them as whole people. It’s not just about providing a work experience, but looking at what do they need to be healthy in all the different ways that you need to be healthy.

And, yesterday, I actually had a discussion about how one looks at their place in the world, and I was telling them about this quote from a book by Paul Beatty called The Sellout, because we were talking about identifying issues in the community and then how you start to address them. And there were some youth that were feeling overwhelmed and other youth saying, “No, we can do this.” And my take was, “Well, of course, you can do this, but also ask yourself,” and this is from the book, “who am I and how do I become more myself?” Because there’s a lot of messages out there from whoever telling youth that, “You are this” or “You are that” or “You are not this” and “You are not that.” And so it’s up to them to decide what their potential is, what they want to do in this life, what joy they’re going to follow, and so we just try to help them do that.

VAL:  And I would say, the We Can program, we use a trauma-informed community-building approach. And so a part of that, we’ve learned some best practices and some lessons learned. One good best practice that we use is something that Phyllis does at Groundworks and that’s the morning check-in. We always want to check in with them and just see where they are, and we just ask them, “Where are you?” and “What’s your word for the day?” and “What’s going on with you now?” And that really helps us to focus in on them as individuals, as well as it also allows them to express something that they may not have been able to express all night until that day. It’s really leaning into listening to where they are in the moment and so that we can help them throughout the day.

Another thing that we do is, that this is something that Phyllis also does, is allow for them to do community-building work around the community. This is their community. They lived here. They’ve grown up here. And so it’s a different kind of feel for them to have done crazy stuff in the community and, all of a sudden, involved in something very positive.

PHYLLIS:  And have people say thank you.

VAL:  Yes. Yes, and acknowledge them as leaders-

ERIK:  And recognize their good work.

VAL:  … in their own community. This past year, our champions did, at School 103, Phalen School 103, a winter backpack. And so we worked with the community organizer there, community engagement person there, Miss Pope, to bring to the school 500 backpacks and filled with school supplies, because in the wintertime, we forget that the kids have probably gone through everything by the time the second semester starts. They were involved with packing those and bringing them over, they delivered it to kindergarten classes, to first grade, second grade, and they got a chance to talk to the kids. And so they got a chance for somebody to look up to them as somebody who is doing something positive in their own communities.

ERIK:  I think that you’re absolutely right. I think the other thing there is that, like with the program that I’m involved in, YES Indy REC, I have a bad habit of calling it Pivot because it’s been Pivot for a year, but the Yes Indy program now encompasses different units. We’re no longer just at Boys & Girls Club. Now we are at Eastern Star and at Mount Carmel Church. I think one of the things that we need to continue to do as facilitators and directors is to get this information out to our young people. That’s one of the founding aspects of the partnership between Employ Indy and Boys & Girls is to inform the Eastside of the CAFE and all the resources that they have in that location. As we continue to tell those 16 to 24-year-olds, they go home and tell others, and so we know how to continue to get that information-

ANDREW:  A theme that I heard in the last round of responses that I thought was really interesting was that you guys are looking at this in an asset-based way, when a lot of these young people, if their last experience with the system was one that was punitive, an expulsion, a suspension, you’re actually coming in and looking at each individual for who they are. Phyllis, you talked about the holistic approach to the individual and essentially acknowledging what their gifts are and giving them an opportunity to utilize those gifts. That is a transition though. I’m sure that doesn’t happen overnight. And so can you talk a little bit about the relationship building and the trust factor that has to be built to get young people along that continuum?

VAL:  Sure. This is Val with We Can and one of the things that we do is that morning check-in and we do also an afternoon check-in to see where they are, but we also do something called MRT, it’s a moral recognition therapy, with them and we usually do about 18 sessions with them. And so it is an evidence-based curriculum that supports their development and growth around how to be civic-minded people, their morals and their values, and it really supports them in understanding what has happened to them in the past and then helping them to create new pathways to being a better person, whatever their person … We don’t tell them what their person is. We allow them to see for themselves, “What kind of person do I want to be?” and let us do that, and so that’s just a couple ways that we do it.

The other thing that we do, which you’re probably going to hear them do as well, is we have lots of positive role models around them and supporting them and coaching them.

ERIK:  Yes. I think, with my program, the policy that I have implemented with my staff is that no one comes in my door without being acknowledged. No one passes you in the hallway, in the gym, in the cafeteria, no one passes you without you addressing the individual. We speak to everyone at all times. It’s the third or fourth time I speak to you that you may open up and tell me that real issue you have. If I only speak and say hello and keep it moving, I don’t give you any personal time. I think, in building relationships, the one thing is it has to be personal. A real relationship is something a person … you have to know that that person has a feeling. Yes?

VAL:  When you say that, one thing that you might hear them say, hear our champions say, is “We’re not seen.” They’re oftentimes not seen unless they’re seen in a negative way. And so for you to be able to just speak to them, say hello to them, how you doing, what happened, joke around with them-

ERIK:  Right, general conversation.

VAL:  … general conversations as if they were people, like they are, it’s a major milestone to creating relationships that you want.

PHYLLIS:  Groundwork Indy, I think the essential thing is creating relationships in small and big ways, and the small steps happen every day. Yes, and we do start with the morning meeting, our check-in, which gives each youth an opportunity to go around, say how they’re feeling that day, and, if they want to expand on why they’re feeling a particular way, they can. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. We can follow up with them later. We also do a fun check-in. Today it was, because we’re doing a workshop on pollinators, it was, if you could be an insect, what insect would that be and you could say why. And so we had people saying, “I’d be a dragonfly” or “I’d be a butterfly,” and if they could describe why, awesome, if not, no worries, we just went around the circle. But it gives us a chance to connect with each person and have them connect with everybody else and be playful. We need some of that every day.

ERIK:  Absolutely, absolutely. Absolutely. I have some joke to say to everybody that comes in my door. I will never let you walk past me and you don’t know that I didn’t recognize you. There’s no way someone can really express their problem to you if they don’t feel comfortable with you from the beginning. And so we’re trying to address issues or trying to address problems, we’re trying to deal with their barriers, and so we can’t get to them if we don’t create a relationship first.

ANDREW:  Based on your experiences in the last year or so, what is working? What are the programmatic pieces that are working in terms of serving the opportunity youth?

PHYLLIS:  For Groundwork Indy, the big piece for us with our work experience is that, going back to this idea of how you show youth and community that youth are assets, that a youth, no matter what they’ve done, has the potential to become someone that, if given the chance to pursue their hopes and dreams, can be become a community member that we want and need in our city. What kind of a city would we be if all of those youth really got to reach their potential? I think they get the message when they’re at Groundwork that we want them to reach their potential, whatever that is, whatever they decide that is, and they resonate with that, just like any other youth in our city. Youth that have the opportunity and the ability to lean on families that are stable and economically healthy, they’re no different from those youth. They just have all these challenges that really get in the way of them being able to do what they need to do.

VAL:  Sometimes we have to be line-steppers. That means we have to go outside the box or disregard the rules, in that one thing that you see, a lot of people put timelines on the development of the kids or the youth. Sometimes it’s going to take you more than nine weeks, it’s going to take you more than three months, it’s going to take you more than six months. There is no one prescription for everybody and so you have to leave the door open for them to come back if they stray away and always be holding out your olive branch and seeking them to come back, open for them to do that. I think that’s working for us because we might see them stray and we, okay, while yet, we texting them or getting on Facebook with them, “What’s going on with you? I haven’t heard from you. What’s going on?”

PHYLLIS:  That’s what family does.

VAL:  Yes, it does.

PHYLLIS:  And we’re extending that definition of family.

VAL:  Exactly. And I think one of the other things we do, getting to your point, Phyllis, about family, you find yourself doing it so well that they think you’re a parent, so much so that I have to tell some of them sometime, “I’m not your mom,” but those are the things that are working for us and they help to create the relationships. To me, it really is about, if they trust you, they’re going to try, they’re going to try, because they’re going to feel like, “This person has faith and confidence and me,” until they can have it in themselves. Sometimes we’re the bridge for that.

ERIK:  We have got to come out of these standard parameters, this standard of “This works.” That worked for him. What about the other 80 that it didn’t work for? We need to really look at each individual. We need to look at what their barriers are. We need to really address each individual. We need to really be aggressive about changing the way we do things for these individuals. If there’s 20 or 30 thousand, that means what’s already in place doesn’t work.

ANDREW:  If people are listening to this and they are fired up, which I hope that they would be, how could someone help?

ERIK:  My answer is really it’s not in the corporation, it’s not in the company, it’s not in any of our policies, it’s within each one of us. We’re driving down the street and we see that young man stranded, how many of us ever stop to check on him? I’m just saying think of that, how many times? The day you’re having a bad day is when you need help. You never know that particular day you stop to help that individual you may have stopped him from committing suicide. You may have stopped him from committing a murder. You have no idea the pressure that that individual’s under. It’s not just about our system, it’s about the way we operate within our systems. We, as individuals, have to actually step outside of what our jobs are, what we’re taught, how we were raised. All of us have some biases and we need to step out of that and just help the individual in front of us. Speak to the person in front of you, you’d be surprised how much that would help.

PHYLLIS:  We have a youth, this is Phyllis, who actually successfully moved on from Groundwork, got a job, and was then driving a car that had a broken headlight, was stopped, had a little bit of marijuana, just bits, in the backseat of a car, and the police officers, three cars that stopped him decided, and it is at their discretion, that he needed to be arrested. He was arrested. He lost three days of work. It was an automatic firing. His car was impounded. It had been paid for. By the time he was out of jail and able to pay for things, the charges never got acted on.

He was not prosecuted. He lost his job, he lost his car because he couldn’t afford to get it out of the impound, and he lost his apartment and he’s back at Groundwork. And so I think, at the stages or the places where different parts of our city can use their discretion and really look at, if our goal as a city is to get our youth ready to become productive and active members of our society, then let’s not put these roadblocks in their way when we don’t have to. That’s a really concrete thing.

VAL:  I think we have to be perpetual line-steppers. We have to do unorthodox things. We can’t do cookie-cutter stuff. We have to don’t be afraid to try new, don’t be afraid to fail, go after it. If it makes sense, it probably is going to work. Ask them what brings them and ask them what gives them … we go door-knocking, calling people’s family members and stuff like that to find out who is it in your family needs the most work? Who within your family needs some help in this age range? You’d be surprised. They’ll tell you about 10 people. Just from a phone call, you might get five or 10 people names to follow up with and you call them and they fit all of those, what they need. And so just try something new. Just do it differently.

ANDREW:  Truly appreciate your thoughtful responses. In closing, through all of the important work that the three of you are doing across these different sites and these different programs, can you just share what it is that you hope to accomplish long-term through this work? What do you hope that your professional legacy is here related to opportunity youth in the city of Indianapolis?

ERIK:  Big question, but I’ll hurry up and answer. I just would like to see this program, these two other programs, expand. I’d like to see IMPD along with some of these other entities out here recruiting and helping in our community. I’d like to see success, not just on the Far Eastside, but in all these communities that are negatively affected. I think my job is to bring the kids to the table, allow Phyllis and Val and all these other places to do the work that we have out here. I think we do have to realize, in our field, that most of the good work is done or received by individuals who want it and so we can’t force feed it. And so my thing is that, as long as I’m in a position to continue to allow these individuals to come forward and get the services, then I’ve done what I need to do here.

VAL:  I always start with what gifts, skills, and talents can I identify within that person and then what skills and knowledge and wisdom can I come alongside them and support them with having a deeper understanding of themselves? I think, after that, they’re better able to make the choices that they need to make to have a better future for themselves and their families. After that, I see a replication. We should be able to see them being able to be in the community, have success, and that be replicated. They’re going back and getting their cohorts and bringing them to us or, too, someone they can support in their development and growth. And so, in that way, we are developing leaders, we’re developing people who can do that work alongside us.

And then I want to see the legacy of the family structure in these quote-unquote trauma-ladened neighborhoods are better. The poverty in the community is getting worse. When you look at the community itself, you have the vacant abandoned buildings, you have the drug houses, you have the streets and sidewalks that look atrocious, people who are not able to or have not been advocating for themselves well enough to be able to do something about these things. The school system, what’s going on in the schools where our kids are getting kicked out? What are these things that are oppressive in our communities that lead to the community’s continuous poverty? And so, I would like to see what are the things that we can do to turn that around in our communities?

PHYLLIS:  I cannot improve on that answer, Val, so I will say ditto.

ANDREW:  Well, thank you guys so much for participating in this conversation. It has been an excellent one and I hope that people that are listening feel like they learned a great deal. I know that I did. On behalf of CICF, I just want to say thank you to Val Tate at We Can CAGI, Erik Davenport at the Boys & Club in Indianapolis, Phyllis Boyd from Groundwork Indy. And for those listeners today, if you are interested in what you’ve heard, we will be posing links to all of these great projects on our website, CICF.org, if you’d like more information. Thanks again to Comida for being our gracious host and we’ll be back next month with another episode of For Good.

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