Our Work

Opinion

The Paradox of Progress

Erin White

How do we accelerate progress for more young people in America? This is the question I have spent the last year helping America’s Promise Alliance answer.

As the lead author of Our Work, I interviewed 200 experts, received 300 survey interviews, and spoke with dozens of young people. My colleagues and I looked at 20 years of data, research, and the experience of the field.

What did we learn?

This exploration revealed a fundamental paradox: The American Dream is both real and at risk. 

Better outcomes for children and youth in education, health, and other areas are encouraging. There are many examples of successful programs and projects supporting these outcomes for young people, and increasingly, examples of systems and organizations collaborating to achieve them.

But for too many young people, especially young people growing up in poverty, and young people of color, the American Dream seems to be fading away- or even unavailable. Michael Petrilli and Darren Walker recently explored this tension in a thoughtful and frank conversation at the Recommit to Kids Summit.

 

Recognizing this reality, we identified two areas of learning that give us the best view of the road to greater opportunity for more young people to achieve their American Dream: 1) the study of child and youth development and 2) the study of economic mobility. While these disciplines may seem worlds apart, they both speak to the experiences of young people growing to adulthood, and how their homes, schools, communities, and the broader economic and social environment influence their ability to do so successfully.

All that we learned from practitioners and research convinced us that to create the conditions of success for more young people, we need to focus our collective work on three main areas:

1. Providing every young person with the opportunity to develop strong relationships—particularly with parents and family—and webs of support that provide the safety, expectations, guidance, confidence, and accountability. Relationships and the social capital they create can help young people learn, grow, dream, and stay on track to reach their goals. Science has confirmed our intuition that human beings, including children and youth, thrive when they are connected to each other and their community.

2. Creating clear, connected, and responsive pathways for young people to travel through education and other developmental experiences and into the workforce. Increasingly, jobs of today and tomorrow require education beyond high school, and young people need the skills to learn and adapt over time. While we often draw a “cradle to career” pipeline as a linear logic model, the reality is that young people often do not walk that straight line to adult success: they are unique, their needs are varied, and those young people growing up in poverty have particularly complex lives. Moving into modern adulthood- and especially moving out of poverty- requires a more dynamic logic model.

3. Enveloping young people in an engaged community and renewed civic spirit that demonstrates active support, investment, and belief in their success. These communities work together across sectors and ideologies, recognize the importance of service, and help their young people develop their own civic identify. Leaders of organizations and systems, neighbors, parents, and young people themselves must share in this sense of collective and individual responsibility for the well-being of their communities and each other.

Three focus areas

We cannot view Our Work only as a summary of what we’ve learned, but rather we embrace it as a framework to take that learning into our future action as organizations and systems touching the lives of young people. Together, we can create more opportunity for more young people to experience their American Dream.

In the months ahead, we will continue to explore these ideas with our partners through events, research, and online content. Stay tuned. And join us.

 

This story is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.