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Disrupting Inequities through Youth Development & Career Readiness Programming

A group of students are sitting together and the middle student is raising her hand

Steve Walvig


Greater Twin Cities United Way views education as key to disrupting the extent to which income, race or place predict one’s economic and household stability as well as educational success. While Minnesota is one of the most educated states in the country, the racial gap in educational opportunity is among the worst in the nation. This disparity leads to lifelong gaps in educational attainment and wealth-building opportunities, which is why our work squarely focuses on better access for all to education.

Education is one of the most powerful strategies for preparing youth for careers and their future. Every young person deserves the opportunity to thrive, and investments in youth development and mentoring programs are some of the best ways to put more young people on pathways toward prosperity.

We recently hosted a panel of community experts to discuss current and future trends in youth development programs. Career and future readiness initiatives like the ones offered by United Way grantee partners St. Paul Youth Services (SPYS) and 21st Century Academy are critical to ensuring young people have the education, skills, experiences and relationships they need to succeed.

SPYS was also selected for United Way’s Equity Accelerator project, which enhances workforce development programs that support culturally diverse communities, and 21st Century Academy has received additional funding as part of United Way’s North Minneapolis Youth Initiative, which supported organizations providing out-of-school time and summer enrichment programming to students in North Minneapolis.

Empowering youth to help change systems

St. Paul Youth Services takes an innovative approach to career and future readiness and is a leader in reimagining how our community engages with and holds itself accountable for youth. When looking to develop new initiatives, Dr. Tracine Asberry, Executive Director of St. Paul Youth Services, asked youth in SPYS’s diversion and behavior intervention programs, “What type of program would you like if you could create it?”

After several workshops and meeting with youth and their families, SPYS developed YouthPower in 2017. YouthPower is a paid leadership institute that honors the intellectual capital, experiences and expertise youth already possess.

“We knew we could amplify these young people’s energy and use it to do something magical,” said Dr. Asberry.

SPYS recruits YouthPower participants from its restorative justice programs in schools, through the courts and other programs, and participants gain work and leadership experience by partnering with school superintendents, city leadership and SPYS staff.

“We honor the experience these young people have,” said Dr. Asberry. “They can help us solve a lot of problems and finally get it right… It’s about kids changing systems versus systems changing kids.”

Embracing a communal approach to decision making

21st Century Academy equips North Minneapolis K-12 scholars to be accelerated learners, game-changing global leaders and justice-oriented entrepreneurs. Led by Executive Director Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway, the organization takes an ethical, inclusive approach to its work, including analysis, reflection and active participation.

Youth voiced to adults at 21st Century Academy that “No decision should be made about us without us,” and their voice and leadership were transformational for staff.

“We thought we were making really great decisions,” said Dr. Galloway. “But unless you have the person in the room assisting you in making the decision, then you absolutely profoundly strip them of their humanity, their voice and their power.”

Through these conversations, 21st Century Academy adopted a “liberation” model. Everyone is part of decision making, and collective impact and interdisciplinary conversations focus on engaging everyone in the community to transform the system of power.

“We have to include every voice and every person – and not only include, but honor,” continued Dr. Galloway. “We have to be communal rather than hierarchical.”

Get Involved

  • See the full session video below and get more information about United Way’s career and future readiness work.
  • Join us for a Community Insight Session. See upcoming sessions.
  • To learn more about United Way’s Culturally Powered Communities initiative, watch this video of our first Community Insight Session.

About the Author

Steven Walvig is a Program Officer within the holistic grantmaking and equity team where his portfolio is focused on education in out-of-school time (OST) and career and future readiness. In this role, Steven supports youth, youth development programs and youth-serving organizations. Prior to joining United Way, Steven was the director of education at The Bakken Museum, leading nationally-acclaimed, award-winning STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education programs. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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