In July 2015, three months after the Baltimore Uprising that drew national attention to our city, the Corporation for National and Community Service approached Strong City with the unique opportunity to host a group of AmeriCorps VISTA service members in Baltimore. This goal of this group would be to build capacity and improve the effectiveness of, and connections among, youth programs and services in Baltimore to address youth violence prevention and workforce development, with a focus on the tenets of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
This resulted in the creation of the AmeriCorps VISTA Impact Taskforce, an initiative unlike any other in Strong City’s more than 20-year history as a VISTA sponsor. For the last 18 months, VISTA Program Coordinator Kate McGrain has been the Strong City staff person most closely involved in the work of the Taskforce: identifying its primary partners, recruiting its members, overseeing their work, dealing with challenges that cropped up along the way, evaluating the program, sustaining relationships, and working on next steps.
Now that the Impact Taskforce members have finished their year of service, we asked Kate to spend a few minutes reflecting on why the Taskforce was created, what it accomplished, and what’s next.
Q: How did you decide on an area of focus for the Taskforce?
A: In the initial planning process, I conducted informal interviews with over 30 local community organizations, government agencies, and other interested stakeholders who were serving youth. From these interviews, organizations indicated that they needed increased staffing resources – program development, volunteer management, curriculum development. More even than a desire to receive the support of a full-time volunteer for a year, the partners we met with expressed a desire for increased connectivity. “We’re doing good work,” they all told us, “but I’m not sure anybody knows what we’re doing, or how they can get involved with us.” Similarly, many of these groups were interested in getting involved collaboratively with other groups who were working in their sector. So, this idea of connectivity among youth service providers became a central focus of our Taskforce.
Q: What was Strong City’s response to this need for greater communication and awareness?
A: We identified 15 partner organizations who agreed to engage in a collaborative exercise over the next 12 months. A VISTA member would partner with each individual organization, working toward specific goals unique to each site, and also to bring their lessons learned and their organizational perspectives back to a collaborative group discussion.
Q: Can you give a few concrete examples of how the Taskforce’s work made a difference?
A: Sure! The Taskforce member partnering at the Inner Harbor Project helped develop a year-long leadership curriculum for eighth-graders, and she then leveraged partnerships with fellow VISTA members and Strong City programs to recruit students. Another example: The Taskforce member at Strong City’s Adult Learning Center developed a new volunteer program, the Learner Advocate Program, to provide learners with wrap-around and barrier-removal services, as well as important soft skills through one-on-one relationships with professionals with whom they were matched. In addition, VISTA Taskforce members supported Strong City in leading the community engagement effort of Baltimore’s Participatory Budgeting pilot process for the new City Council-managed youth fund, connecting with over 300 individuals and youth-focused organizations.
Q: Are any of the Taskforce members remaining in service beyond the initial year?
A: We have one member who is doing a second year of VISTA service to continue the work of the Taskforce. Another Taskforce member will be joining the team at Strong City in the coming month as an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader. Several other Taskforce members, although they will not be serving as VISTAs, indicated that their year of Taskforce service was transformative, and that they are committed to continuing to serve and give back to their communities, which is awesome.
Q: Now that the Taskforce’s year of service has ended, what’s the plan for making the work sustainable?
A: Sustainability is all about making sure that the impacts the VISTA members made are put to good use for the long term. We are closing out the Taskforce right now by documenting their findings on collaboration, synthesizing the data they collected at their individual sites, and maybe most importantly, we will be producing a database and map of all the youth service provider partners with whom the Taskforce interacted. This information will be shared with the existing network of 250 organizations and individuals, as well as an emerging network of stakeholders who are interested in continuing this collaborative conversation, helping to increase the capacity of youth service providers and programs by providing tools and resources to support collaboration.
Q: You mentioned the creation of a map of youth service providers. Can you tell us a little more about that?
A: Yes, the VISTA Impact Taskforce developed an initial map depicting the youth programming services and providers they identified or interacted with during their service year. Moving forward, our goal is to use this map to further foster interconnectivity among programs, organizations, and individuals. The map will be in an accessible format so that organizations will be able to easily access its information and locate similarly focused potential partners, to increase collaboration. We are also excited that the collaborative stakeholders are interested in pooling their data to increase the breadth of resources represented on the map.
Q: What is Strong City’s role going forward?
A: Strong City has the resource of one full-time staff member and one VISTA member during 2017. We hope that our work will support the development of a shared agenda among youth service providers to identify and connect with one another. While Strong City will serve as a support to this network, we will not be leading the effort; our goal is that our partners become the leaders and decision-makers. Our ideal vision is a dynamic and inclusive network of youth service providers that will identify and help to implement a citywide agenda, and corresponding strategic plan, for youth service providers in Baltimore.
Q: What additional outcomes are envisioned?
A: We anticipate that the benefits will eventually include less duplication of services, more high-quality programming, and more effective use of funds from donors, philanthropies, and government agencies in supporting youth. We also anticipate increased connectivity among providers of services to the benefit of the youth being served, and to the City of Baltimore as a whole.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced as Taskforce coordinator?
A: Collaboration is hard; you’re managing different perspectives, backgrounds, passions, and interests all while keeping the work at the center and moving forward. It takes time to build relationships, to coordinate schedules and often, to let ideas marinate before action can happen. There’s discomfort, ambiguity, and things are changing constantly. But ultimately, that’s how collaboration is successful: Acknowledging the time it takes, seeing the value added by different perspectives, being flexible, and knowing when and how to take next steps.
Q: What was the most rewarding (or surprising) thing for you about leading this program?
A: It has been an honor to connect with and learn from people every day – the VISTA Taskforce members, my coworkers, and most significantly, the incredible network of youth service providers in Baltimore. There is so much good work happening in this city. I am grateful and humbled to be in a position that allows me to meet and connect with the folks doing this important work.
Q: Did anything interesting arise from your recent meeting with people around the city who are doing similar/related work?
A: The group of stakeholders expressed shared interest in working together to continue to connect people and organizations at all levels throughout the city. We’re taking next steps under their guidance.