Juan Martinez, Senior Program Manager, Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, Director, Fresh Tracks
Cynthia Weaver, Senior Associate, Evidence-Based Practice Group, The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Interviewer: Miranda Wesley, Communications Specialist, Grantmakers In Health
In 2019, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Equity and Inclusion unit hosted a convening with young people from Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) cultural affinity groups, along with adults who support the work and leadership of these youth and young adults. The young participants, many of whom were from the Aspen Institute’s Fresh Tracks program, expressed the need for young leaders to be the ones defining youth well-being and finding solutions that help their own communities support the well-being of young people.
Following the convening, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Evidence-Based Practice Group invested in the Youth Well-Being Project. Aspen Institute’s Fresh Tracks team is the primary organization moving that work forward. Aspen recently released the Youth & Young Adult Well-Being report to describe the work, including an overview of the seven core well-being themes that young design team members identified through their youth-led participatory action research process. In this Q&A, Juan Martinez of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and Fresh Tracks and Cynthia Weaver of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Evidence-Based Practice Group discuss the importance of being an adult ally, how to actively put youth voices at the center of research and action around their own well-being, and the project’s next steps.
Tell me about your background and the general narrative of this project.
Cynthia Weaver: The overall goal of the project is to develop three culturally responsive toolkits that help Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American young people ages 16 to 24—along with their respective communities—to understand, support, and measure well-being. The project centers youth voice using a youth participatory action design approach to develop the well-being toolkits based on the lived experiences of young people.
Additionally, short- and long-term objectives of the project support the development of young leaders who are prepared to turn this new well-being data into action by making the case for investments that help young people of color thrive.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation invests in improving outcomes in five broad areas. These are areas that are critical for young people to thrive—basic needs, such as housing, food, child care, and mental health services; permanent relationships; financial stability; education and credentials that lead to employment; and community and youth leadership.
The youth leadership aspect of this work unfolds in two sequences. The young people on the design teams that you’ll hear from in your follow-up interviews to this piece are the first wave of what I like to think of as “young data warriors.” In the future, there will be additional waves of young people who will access and leverage these culturally grounded well-being toolkits to collect and make meaning of data about youth well-being in their own communities.
Juan Martinez: At the Aspen Institute, we drive change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the greatest challenges of our time. At the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions (AFCS) we envision a future where communities create their own vibrant and lasting solutions to the social and economic problems that they face. Fresh Tracks, which is a project that I cofounded, is a part of the AFCS and centers the healing power of culture and the outdoors for civic action.
One of the values or mottos that we hold close to the project is [that] those closest to the pain should be closest to the power and solutions. This project really centers that value of who gets to ask the question, who gets to define well-being, who gets to do the work, and who gets to arrive at the solutions.
I come from a grassroots organizing background. Rule number one of grassroots organizing [is to] work yourself out of a job. We’re building a generation of researchers who understand the cultural implications of an environment that is very Eurocentric, and we’re challenging a lot of those boundaries and stepping away from the extractive model that has been so long a part of how research has been done in this country and in this world.
There was that old saying you do research for research’s sake [and that] research will lead you to more research. That’s something that we’re dismantling with this project because YPAR—youth participatory action research—centers the action part of research. How do we move towards that action with the research and the young people leading us towards that action?
Cynthia Weaver: In terms of my background, I’m a social worker. Our social work motto is also that we should be working ourselves out of a job, so you can see one of the many points of connection Juan and I share. Long before I came to Casey, I was a social worker in the Deep South for over 20 years. In my more recent professional past, I was a social work professor at the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Social Work, where I taught research methods and policy.
I remember standing in front of a class of master’s level social workers, teaching research methods, and saying “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” I like to say I’m atoning for that now. Because if you can’t measure it, but it’s important, then it’s time to develop that measure. That’s really what the heart of this project is about.
Why should philanthropy support youth-led initiatives and give agency to the youth receiving grants or conducting research? How can philanthropy best support and show up for American Indian/Alaskan Native (AIAN), Black, and Latinx youth well-being?
Cynthia Weaver: When young people are the protagonists of their own stories, they will tell us what they need to begin their well-being journeys. For too long, we’ve valued data that focuses on what systems do to young people. Did you graduate from high school on time, were you arrested, adjudicated, incarcerated, were you placed in out-of-home care? While these indicators are important, they are poor proxies for well-being.
Health is more than the absence of disease. Continuing to focus on these indicators exclusively is like putting the wrong address into GPS and expecting to arrive at your destination. Now is the time for investment strategies that center the voices of young people as they develop new definitions for the well-being they want to achieve—and the pathway experiences and opportunities they need to begin that well-being journey. They will provide us with a roadmap for investment.
Explicitly centering equity within this work shifts the narrative. When we respect and listen to young people, the paradigm shifts. Who gets to tell the story of well-being, who gets to update culture as a behavioral asset, who gets to make meaning of the data, and who gets to turn that data into action?
The current zeitgeist offers opportunities for young people to generate solutions—not just solutions for their generation, but solutions for all of us. So imagine, when young people become the protagonist of their own stories, we can finally put a meaningful destination into our GPS.
Juan Martinez: Philanthropy does a great job at supporting a lot of different parts of the work around well-being. It’s a beautiful catch-all for what we’re trying to address. This is a silo-breaking strategy for systems change where we can approach societal issues across the board.
Our seven areas of well-being: Mental Health, Healthy Environments, Cultural Connections, Financial Stability, Inclusion & Safety, Community Self-Efficacy, and Healthy Relationships, are and can be their own philanthropy affinity group. The difference here is that our vision is defined by youth from the very get-go. Youth are navigating, curating, and digging through a lot of the static that can sometimes get drowned out when defining well-being. If we want to get to the core of how to change paradigms and change the way philanthropy has done this work, we need to listen to those closest to the pain and solutions.
The fact that [Cynthia] trusted us to steward this project and work with young leaders from the beginning is a sign of what we can influence and partner with philanthropy. We have to train and center the leadership of young people from the very start on how to be researchers. Investing in these young leaders has created a generation of data warriors that are going to go out there and influence the field. We just presented at the American Evaluation Association. They might be some of the youngest people that have ever had a workshop proposal accepted by AEA.
Some of them aren’t in school, or they’re not the A+ students. We purposefully invited a diverse cohort, so it wasn’t just the students that raise their hand, but [included] young leaders who wouldn’t normally be brought into a space like this. We have made this an effort to bring as much of a variety of perspectives and representation of the communities.
Philanthropy is at the moment supporting meaningful systems change by embracing the best, brightest, and innovative solutions found in every young person. We just have to listen, be good allies, and trust this process.
Cynthia Weaver: The seven constructs of well-being that the young people have identified align with the five priority investment areas that Casey had already identified. Those investment areas have the potential to galvanize other funders to find themselves in this work. It also lifts up opportunities for philanthropies to co-invest in supporting these experiences that young people are telling us they need to thrive.
Tell me about being an adult ally. Why is it so important to address ageism, share decision-making power, and employ a trust-based distribution of funds with youth?
Juan Martinez: [Being an] adult ally comes down to being a good follower and a good leader. There are values of community organizing that I carry with me into everything that I do. One of those is learning to listen and hearing everything that’s said—and unsaid. One of my superpowers is that I’m a good listener and am able to follow young leaders [on] what they see as the most important part of this project.
That is a shared value across each adult partner of this project. We are all passionate about community- and youth-led solutions. This is one of the many ways that an intergenerational approach that is long-lasting and sustainable can look like, and we are eager to learn and share what we have learned along the way.
A lot of this is also going back to Indigenous practices, fighting some of the Eurocentric and colonial ways of thinking about how we approach solutions, and not holding up one person or one organization as the holder of all the solutions, history, and knowledge.
We understand that this is a complex approach and issue. To build a cross-cultural silo-breaking approach to systems change always is complex and should be. One pathway forward is to embrace that complexity and name it. The resilience in each one of our cultural affinity communities is attributed to the ability to listen across entire generations, name the trauma, and lean into the joy that can carry us forward on a path to well-being.
The distribution of funds has been one of the best parts because that is ultimately a redistribution of wealth and power. Our team approaches this in partnership with our young leaders [by] being transparent about where the budget is, what the budget goes to, and how we arrive at certain numbers. For many of them, it’s also an education about what philanthropy and the universe of nonprofit organizations look like and expose them to a career path that they might be interested in. Being able to give them that transparency and full accountability is a value in practice.
If we’re going to study well-being and research well-being, we have to prioritize our own creation of community well-being.
Cynthia Weaver: Change moves at the speed of trust. That’s a two-way street. Certainly, I trusted the Aspen Institute to move this work forward. Yet, this was a group of young people who weren’t even assembled yet [and] were going to come together and be at the heart of this design, in the middle of a pandemic. To say that trust went both ways is an understatement.
There is a village of adult allies here. There were other Casey grantees and partners who are contributing mightily to the work—Native Americans in Philanthropy, Algorhythm, the Network for the Children of African Descent, the work of Sarah Zeller-Berkman and the Youth Studies Program at CUNY, the Center for Native American and Alaska Native Health at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health, and the Center for Indigenous Health at Johns Hopkins University. There is such an amazing group of adult research navigators and peer research mentors working with the youth design teams; they bring expertise, but also understanding and openness to new ways of thinking.
Juan Martinez: In philanthropy, you find your community. You find people who are willing to embrace social innovation. We need more risk-takers in the philanthropy space to step out of the comfort zone because right outside of that zone, that is where growth and magic happens.
From an outsider’s perspective, relationship building and networking within philanthropy is sometimes very cut and dry. There’s a lot missing between the words, [such as] the breakfast walks, calls, and conversations that happen outside of conferences in the halls. There’s this richness of culture and relationship that happened within both the philanthropy and the partnership level.
Every time that I approached a partner or a funder, I felt more in love with the project and the idea. It is such an activator and a catalyst for conversation. People will come up to us and are excited and energized because we put young people as the researchers, not the research subjects, and that is powerful.
This year we are aiming to pilot our tool, the Youth and Young Adult Well-Being Measure, which will be a platform of methods aimed at identifying core themes of well-being as influenced by cultural affinity. When this project is completed, these methods will be compiled into an adaptive and interactive framework of well-being within each community to identify the well-being narrative, core values, and advocate for concrete support and solutions to increase well-being. This will be an online platform/tool that is responsive and adaptive to community input via assessments that will determine cultural affinity as well as individual/community needs.
Cynthia Weaver: The piece of this work that the three youth design teams are leaning into now involves working and partnering with another Casey Evidence-Based Practice Group partner, the 3C Institute.
Young people from each of the three design teams are working closely with 3C to customize 3C’s Quest survey platform to support open-source access to the three culturally grounded well-being toolkits. The platform will include automated data analysis and data dashboard visualizations for young people, organizations, networks, and coalitions that use the well-being toolkits to better understand the state of youth well-being in their community and how they can most effectively support and advocate for that well-being.
Based on basic survey logic and how a respondent answers initial demographic questions, respondents are directed to constructs or life experience themes and survey items that value culture as a behavioral asset. Maybe you’re directed to the Black Expressions room, the Latine Bienstar room, or the Native American room. Each “room” or set of survey questions and resources will have a unique look and feel designed by the young design team members, including music and art to increase youth engagement in the survey process through cultural relevance and representation.
[There are also] open-ended survey questions that will ask, “What are we missing? Are there things that need to be added? As data is disaggregated, are there subgroups within the three cultural affinity groups? How do things look different there?” There are so many opportunities for this to continue to be dynamic rather than static. As the young design team members always remind me, when our conceptualizations of well-being are static, too many folks get left behind. So again, I encourage us all to imagine: What can happen when we finally put meaningful destinations into our GPS for youth well-being?