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Tennessee Leaders Gather Tools to Get Youth Ready

Patrick Long escaped his office recently to spend a few days in the woods, and came home with new tools to drive “a paradigm shift in the way we think about working with youth.” Long, vice president of community impact at United Way of Bradley County, joined 37 other state and local leaders from around Tennessee for a two-day summit on using Ready by 21 strategies to align and improve services and supports for young people.
Information Update
October 17, 2012

The late September gathering at Montgomery Bell State Park was part of a Ready by 21 Challenge – an opportunity that the Forum for Youth Investment offers to city and county leaders across the nation.

Through the Ready by 21 Tennessee Cities Challenge, five communities are getting tools, coaching and technical assistance from the Forum in partnership with the National League of Cities. Teams from each community – made up of elected officials, department heads and leaders of local United Ways – learned about assessing their community goals for children and youth, then building their capacity to deliver a single, cohesive set of community-wide supports for children and families.

“That’s a dramatic shift from the way most counties and municipalities provide services and programs,” said Elizabeth Gaines, senior director of policy at the Forum. “Policymakers face daunting challenges in trying to make lasting change for children and youth, but many of those challenges – like lack of data, redundant initiatives, low-quality programs and insufficient participation by key organizations – can be overcome through innovative approaches.” 

Among the approaches they explored: forming lasting coalitions of stakeholders; setting bigger goals across a range of developmental areas (social, emotional, cognitive, physical, cultural and civic); using key indicators to track goals more efficiently; making better decisions based on comprehensive data; improving the quality of their programs for children and families; and deeper engagement of youth and families in the development of solutions.

Those discussions showed leaders how to go from theory to action.

“Organizing in a way that produces meaningful change is a daunting task for even the most visionary and experienced leaders,” Long said. “We are walking away from this experience with practical strategies to move us from focusing on individual programs to considering the systems and environments that our young people exist within.”

So is City Councilman Dick Pelley of Athens, who participated in the summit with “a disparate group of leaders” from business, government, education and nonprofits from his community. Each of them, Pelley says, “came away with a greater understanding of assessment, planning and programming” for youth services and supports.

Leaders from the five communities – Nashville/Davidson, Jackson, Athens, and Bradley and Gibson counties – were joined at the summit by directors of the Tennessee Children’s Cabinet and the state’s Early Childhood Advisory Council.

“Local officials can help their communities see the ‘big picture’ as they advance holistic approaches for supporting children and youth,” said Clifford M. Johnson, executive director of the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families. “Ready by 21 strategies can offer critical guidance to these efforts and help local officials improve the lives of young people throughout Tennessee.”

To ask the Forum about carrying out a Ready by 21 Challenge in your state, contact Elizabeth Gaines at