SparkShare: Identifying positive opportunities for at-risk youth in the Boston area

I. Introduction

SparkShare focuses on increasing youth opportunities based on understanding individual and group experiences that they see as holding them back, helping them realize that they are in charge of their future, and forming strategic partnerships to support them and build change. This case study describes the basis for establishing a new organization in Boston, the steps that were taken to establish it, and how it began developing its innovative and effective programs. The goal is to empower young people to be change engines in their lives and in their communities and to have collective impact so they can see a more positive future.

II. Background: Youth Development and Boston Communities

The Boston area has tremendous resources: outstanding educational institutions, thriving corporations, innovative programs, and organizations that promote social change. The young adults in our communities want to succeed, and they want to lead meaningful, productive lives. How can it be then, that so many young people can’t see a path forward for themselves?

According to the 2016 Gallup Student Poll, only 47% of students are hopeful for their future. Too many of them don’t have access to resources and/or the skills they need to create a firm foundation for the life they want to lead; specifically, they are unable to build, maintain and strengthen what research shows to be fundamental building blocks of opportunity::

  • Support networks
  • Community engagement
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Financial assets

In comparing Boston’s landscape for youth development to the research on what actually supports improved outcomes for youth, SparkShare identified three critical gaps:

  • First, the ideas, tools and resources to create opportunity for youth exist in Greater Boston, but they are not effectively shared or distributed equally among or within communities. This creates barriers to reaching all of our young people. Because there has been no regional group focused on this issue, there was no context in which urban and suburban communities and organizations could readily share solutions.
  • Lasting solutions must ensure that youth have both access to the building blocks of opportunity and the skills required to make the most of them. Jobs are important, but other key ingredients also have to be there for the youth to be successful.
  • Existing programs for youth usually have been top-down, designed by social service professionals and often poorly attended by the teenagers they were meant to serve. Research suggests that for teens, as for other populations, a more effective approach to meet their needs is to engage a program’s target population on multiple levels. Most of these organizations do a good job for their youth but joining forces and developing a common vision and goals provides opportunities that are out of reach for individual groups.

The SparkShare Approach

SparkShare was founded by Neil Silverston, also a co-founder of City Year and founder of WorkSource Partners, a welfare-to-work and workforce development organization. The idea of providing new opportunities to inner city and suburban youth coincided with the efforts of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that was founded soon after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. It focused its efforts on strengthening gun laws in Massachusetts and finding innovative ways to prevent gun violence. The Coalition focuses on five priorities, one of which is Primary Prevention, an umbrella term for efforts to head off violence by working directly with at-risk youth. The Mobility Project worked with the Coalition in the area of Primary Prevention.

To do this work of primary prevention more effectively, Neil undertook four steps:

  1. Establish a regional center for youth development that could connect people doing this work across communities in Greater Boston;
  2. Engage local partners, both social service providers and employers and other economic actors, in local communities who wanted to work together on opportunities for youth;
  3. Engage young people themselves, so that what mattered to them directly would be represented in the project’s work in each neighborhood; and
  4. Support those networked actors in choosing and implementing local projects that could begin making change in individual neighborhood communities. This is not just listening to young people, but partnering with them to implement change; and transforming youth voices to action.

III. Establishing a Center, A Community of Collaborators, and An Engaged Youth Population

A. Establishing a central address for youth development.

SparkShare began its research and design effort as “The Mobility Project” in 2014, and originally was housed at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. The Mobility Project’s public launch came at the Youth Summit held at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston in 2015 and brought together youth leaders from 13 communities around Boston and over 15 community organizations, corporations, and state and local agencies to identify issues facing youth in their communities and to develop action steps that could be taken to help them.

Having established this base, SparkShare was ready to begin enlisting youth and organizational collaborators in targeted communities. They use this graphic to describe their work process in the next stages:

B. Engaging organizational partners in local communities

Beginning in the months after the Youth Summit, the Project engaged with several communities and organizations in each stage of the process. Some local groups have held their own “summits” to follow up on various aspects of youth empowerment and to engage youth and agencies on more local aspects of their efforts.

To begin the process of engagement, SparkShare reaches out to community organizations, such as Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA to identify levels of interest and readiness to engage in the broader effort that SparkShare envisions. The effort is opportunistic, going where organizations and people are interested and see SparkShare as bringing a positive impact to their mission. There are three key aspects of this effort:

Listen/Understand: Beginning with a core group of about 20 young people between the ages of 15 and 20 and with the cooperation of 3-4 community organizations, youth and adult leaders begin identifying barriers to opportunity and community resources, and begin to talk constructively about challenges they face. All the youth already are engaged with a local organization.

Connect: Following the initial stage, SparkShare helps the youth bring in new partner organizations that can work with them to create a vision of change for the community and begin learning how to use their own voices and experience to identify solutions. After six to eight months, SparkShare brings youth and organizations together in meetings and summits to commit to their shared goals, further develop the partnerships, and set out action items.

Build/Implement: Following these efforts, SparkShare helps the youth and organizations move toward specific actions to implement their plans. The key is to ensure that the youth begin developing the skills they need to succeed, to monitor progress and continue planning for next steps.

C. Engaging youth as partners in building projects they need and want

The means to achieving change is supporting youth to take action on their own behalf; mobilizing and convening existing resources; and bringing communities together to have collective impact. The goal is to provide youth with agency, the ability to take charge of their lives and experiences; to become active citizens; to feel empowered to seek out help and to move from feelings of isolation in their communities, a feeling which many young people have expressed. SparkShare’s efforts are a 50/50 partnership between youth and adults, focused on solving youth-identified issues that affect us all. Both youth and adults must be ready to work, ready to learn, ready to listen and ready to change. At every SparkShare summit, training, working session and meeting, everyone must bring his or her “50 percent” to the table.

Building stronger community and support networks.
South Boston is the best example of how this process works. SparkShare helped the 4th Presbyterian Youth Organizers build a partnership in their community, identify specific actions, and begin to move towards them. As a result, the teens at “4th Pres” have more skills and more relationships, and the community is mobilized now towards their goals of building a stronger, more connected community. Over the coming year, the goal is to work with another 700 teens in South Boston. The Youth Organizers from Fourth Presbyterian Church are focusing on building a “Safer and Stronger Southie.” This means reducing violence and building a safer, stronger community by creating stronger connections between and among youth and adults by better engaging youth in programs and services and more organized community events. A stronger community will build trust, reduce violence, and increase opportunity for young people.

D. Building stronger regional networks

In addition to local work in individual neighborhoods, SparkShare hosts regular meetings and summits, where youth and agencies from across the Greater Boston area can exchange information and experiences, provide a sense of community across geographic boundaries and find that they have common challenges in suburban and urban settings.

SparkShare sees five key, often overlapping elements that will lead to achieving their goals and contributing to the notion of agency. These are building blocks to opportunity/agency, but the social change is activated when young people see one or more of these building blocks as being out of place. SparkShare has used this building block concept as a way to frame the conversations with young people.

  • Employment: Helping youth get ready for jobs and creating networks with employers and mentors is essential. In one sense, a job is a job, whatever it is, but SparkShare is trying to address both skills and access. A job at Primark, CVS, or anywhere else is important, but research supports a focus on developing workplace and life skills to be successful; the key is how to get employers and youth organizations to think collaboratively about these issues. In May 2017, SparkShare hosted a youth forum where the conversation among 40-50 people included employers, youth-serving organizations and others. In a small table setting they talked about skill challenges and access challenges for youth and employers; they brainstormed on needed skills and thinking about ways to improve their skills. They saw a need to develop a better articulation of skills by employers and what counts as valuable experience, including volunteering and networking. The discussions included racial barriers in Boston inside and outside the workplace. They discussed the need to build contacts and sources that enable them to have a sense of agency to control their lives. The goal is more about getting youth into a position where they can develop skills and build relationships and networks in addition to getting employed. The goal is to enable them to progress in a professional life.
  • Assets: Part of creating agency for youth is developing savings and financial literacy. The Boston Federal Reserve, for example, studied the value of college savings accounts and found that just having one increases your chances to go to college irrespective of the amount in it. SparkShare is working to expand this idea. Having a sense of financial independence enhances individuals’ notion of self-value.
  • Education: SparkShare has not done a lot of work on this topic yet, but it appears very important to get a high school diploma and additional training to be job ready. Going to college adds to the potential for jobs and security. SparkShare is looking to better understand the role of education and how it fits in with these other items. It is expected that as youth develop a sense of agency, they will understand the value of achievement in education; SparkShare sees its role as more “upstream,” meaning there is work to do before youth realize the value of education and how it fits in to their developing goals. The Gallup student suervey shows that students who are more hopeful about their future are more engaged in school.
  • Support networks: Youth need expanding opportunities to be involved in their community and with employers, mentors and coaches so they can know they have people in their lives they can go to for advice, whether it deals with school or life issues—pregnancy, death of a friend, depression, etc. Many youth have said they experience a sense of isolation, which can be debilitating. Having peer support and adults they can go to is an important component of agency. Mental health issues, or perceived mental health issues, often are involved.
  • Community engagement: Creating safe, supportive spaces in their communities is essential for kids to take advantage of the other key issues described above. Being an active member in the community, being valued in their community and participating in community activities also appears to be strongly correlated with getting jobs, based on research by Opportunity Nation and others who have looked at youth employment and its relation to other factors.

These last two items together are considered “social capital.” To create and expand social capital, SparkShare is bringing together youth organizations to collaborate, create events with young people, such as a basketball tournament, and other events, with follow-up evaluation of these activities by the kids and the organizations. Key responses from recent evaluations have included a need to focus more on relationship building and other skills, to enable young people to work together more effectively and involve other groups, adults, schools, and other community resources. This all goes toward building civic engagement and social networks.

Building stronger community and support networks.
This issue emerged as a follow up to the April 2016 “Community Support Summit” in South Boston. Staff spent time working with the youth organizers to help them identify and prioritize the issues holding them back. More importantly, they were helped to develop a clear vision for change in their community. Through community summits at Fourth Presbyterian Church, at organizational and youth meetings, they have begun to build a coalition of youth and organizations in South Boston committed to their mission of strengthening community — organizations that typically have not collaborated, including youth and adult staff at Boys and Girls Club (South Boston), Doc Wayne, Boston Housing Authority, Old Colony and Mary Ellen McCormack housing developments (public housing), and South Boston Community Health Center. In this way SparkShare plays an important role as a convener of groups that have similar missions but previously have not worked together to achieve their common goals.

At the Summit in October 2016, the partners developed a long-term plan for how to create more community connection and mobilized on two specific action steps for the next 12 months:

  • Organizing a community-wide basketball tournament that will provide youth and adults a chance not only to play basketball, but also to expand their relationships and practice core communication skills. This event took place in April 2017.
  • A South Boston Community Field Day focused on forging relationships among teens from segregated parts of South Boston

There is much work still to do in South Boston, and these ideas are just the beginning. Going forward, the youth and adult partners in South Boston are committed to working together more collaboratively – in partnership with youth – to expand and develop the core youth leadership team, and create programs and events that continue to expand the network or meaningful connections. SparkShare has succeeded in mobilizing youth and organizations in the South Boston community to strengthening community — together. Equally important as creating access, the approach at the Summits also focused on identifying the critical skills that youth and adults would need to develop in order to support these programs and thrive in their community.

SparkShare is partnering with Opportunity Youth United (A national collaboration led in Boston by YouthBuild and Teen Empowerment) to launch a Youth/Employer Roundtable. Consistent with the other programs, the Roundtable will bring together youth, employers, and youth-oriented organizations to work together on specific, actionable, measurable ideas for improving employment outcomes for youth and employers.

During the initial May 9th Roundtable, SparkShare brought together 50 people, including employers and institutions such as CVS, Spaulding Rehab, Boston Federal Reserve, and Primark, along with young people from organizations such as MassVOTE, Teen Empowerment, and Boys and Girls Club. As a single group, and in small breakout groups, teens and adults worked together to explore skills and areas of growth that youth and employers need to address to break down barriers to employment and committed to working together on specific, actionable, and measureable ideas for improving employment outcomes for youth and employers.

From the May Roundtable, they created three smaller youth/adult working groups (6-12 people) that have met this summer to craft solutions to addressing racial and cultural biases in hiring, expanding networks for youth and employers, and increasing skill development. These solutions range from creating a Dorchester-based network of teens and community organizations to increase awareness of education and job opportunities; creating training for employers to address “name bias” in hiring; and developing a network of employers to support each other in improving their capacity to hire and develop youth.

Later in 2017 SparkShare and its partners plan to reconvene the larger group so that each of the working groups can present their ideas to the full group, prioritize, and select 2-3 ideas that employers, youth, and organizations can work together to implement during the first 6 months of 2018.

Social and emotional wellness
Many of the youth and organizations have cited achieving social and emotional wellness as the key challenge for them. This includes communities as diverse as Somerville (Teen Empowerment), Newton (AWARE), Jamaica Plain (Hyde Square Task Force), Needham (Own Your Peace) and the South End (United South End Settlements). This issue is much less defined than the others: social and emotional wellness is a part of everything SparkShare does. Yet so many communities are raising this — both urban and suburban — that SparkShare is working with them to better understand what they mean by mental wellness, how they define their challenges, and what are the conditions they believe need to be in place in order to ensure that all young people are socially and emotionally well.

IV. Analysis: Central Support, Local Effectiveness, Ongoing Challenges

This is a new organization, and it is still refining its mission and vision and clarifying how it will operate and gain feedback on its effectiveness. There are no resources currently available to do a proper evaluation. The website will go live only at the end of September 2017. SparkShare is developing a plan to work with the Boston College School of Social work on metrics, and continues to seek foundation and other support for this and other initiatives. Nonetheless, some outcomes can be described.

There are measures at two levels. First are the community level metrics, determined by the individual communities. In South Boston for example, it may be the number of teens that are engaged in programs with South Boston organizations. Or, it may be reduction in violent incidents. Second are the process measures being used, the number of organizations involved, the number of teens, partners, etc. Measuring macro change (e.g. increase in teens that believe that have opportunity, or “hope”) is a longer conversation that will have to wait. However, some early impressions suggest reason for optimism.

While at this point, SparkShare has touched about 150 young people through the Summits and individual community meetings; young people have been involved at different levels. In thinking about the “pilot” issue of strengthening community and support networks, SparkShare has been directly engaging with about 30-50 young people. South Boston is the farthest along and in many ways it is considered the “proof of concept” project.

Ultimately, SparkShare doesn’t envision working on the details (as in South Boston) for all the sites. Rather, through the summits and ongoing activity, the goal is to invite more youth organizations into the SparkShare network and support their work in creating change in their community. SparkShare will continue to provide support at multiple levels.

V. Key Takeaways and Contact for Additional Conversations

SparkShare’s improvements to youth development in Boston have depended on these key points:

  • Listening to young people and leveraging their voice and experience as true partners in community change.
  • Establishing a regional network of youth-oriented community organizations and youth leaders;
  • Within local communities, bringing service organizations, commercial actors, and youth themselves into discussions about challenges and goals;
  • Taking on local projects, but keeping those projects networked regionally through regular meetings and summits.

Organizations interested in learning more about SparkShare’s ongoing work can contact:

Neil Silverston, Director
50 Milk Street, 15th Floor
Boston, MA 02109