BLOG: A Community Worthy of Continued Investment, August 2016
“Community of Practice” is a term of art, not science. Many times these networks are deemed to exist, but are far from communal and not grounded in practice. In my career, I learned that you know a Community of Practice when you see one, even if it is sometimes hard to articulate why it's one.
While at Making Cents International in 2006, we knew we did not see such a community in the youth economic opportunities space. There were communities built around financial inclusion, education, and entrepreneurship, but most did not focus on youth and few took a holistic view.
Led by Fiona Macaulay, we decided to change this and discovered how many individuals and organizations shared a commitment to promoting youth economic empowerment. It was enlightening (even frightening) to learn how little was known about what was working in the field. As Making Cents and the now robust community of Youth Economic Opportunities (YEO) practitioners and partners look back, we have a lot for which to be proud.
In 2009, I left Making Cents for RTI International, a deeply capable institution looking to form a global workforce development practice. My first order of business at RTI was to convince leadership that we should invest in the YEO community of practice. Here’s why:
Invest in Community– Practitioners need a community of peers where they can build networks for implementation, receive support or critical feedback, and share learnings to advance the field. Such a community cannot be a once in a while gathering, but needs to be a dynamic place for continuous exchange. YEO provides this through its annual summit, periodic webinars, monthly newsletters, and social media. I have met some of my closest colleagues (and some of my current staff) through YEO and RTI regularly implements projects with partners gained through this network.
Just this summer, I attended a YEO webinar, prepped with panelists for the September Summit, read through and shared reports found in the newsletter, and planned a side event for January with a group of YEO regulars. Our community is rich and dynamic––constant in its presence and beneficial to me and RTI beyond what we invest.
Invest with Practitioners– Making Cents’ YEO took an early focus on practice, evidence, and the “apply it” mantra. Post-conference reports are full of ways learnings inform practice and the list of conference participants grows each year. Yes, it is true that donors, private sector partners, and academics are an important part of YEO, but to me, it is the hundreds of large and small NGOs committed to collectively moving the field forward that make it work.
For example, in 2014 I chaired a panel with Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, a social enterprise in South Africa on track to impact the employment status of 700,000 marginalized South Africans by 2020. I marveled at the data they collected and how they used it to drive ROI-based proposals to their myriad of private sector partners. But I was even more impressed by their knowledge of the real barriers youth face, those of transport costs, delayed wages, ill-preparedness for work, and a reliance on engrained tropes of low self-worth and even lower expectations. Harambee meets youth where they are, but also takes them to where they deserve to be. Their practice is deep, and partnership in YEO is valuable.
Invest in Innovation– During the last six years, RTI has heavily invested in YEO through staff time and financial support. We are a proud sponsor and plan to continue doing so. Further, we were pleased to join with Making Cents to launch the Global Center for Youth Employment (GYCE), a community of practice based on the YEO principles of transparency and collective action. GYCE focuses on seed funding and learning from co-created solutions; it represents the next frontier for these communities. If interested, come to our next meeting during the first morning of the summit.
Continue Investing– Looking back, and perhaps looking at the list of 500+ people attending the summit this year, it is easy to be complacent. But we cannot afford to be. Although we have succeeded in building our community, growing the evidence base, and advancing shared solutions, much remains to be done. Our field is still too fragmented and lacks the depth, breadth, and power of similar networks, in health, agriculture, and education––and, of course, too many youth lack opportunity. We may need another 10 years, but I am certain we will get there and our investments will matter.
Andrew Baird, Program Director, Workforce and Economic Opportunities
Andrew Baird is a senior economic growth specialist with more than 20 years of experience in economic growth initiatives, and particularly with workforce development, microenterprise, livelihood, agriculture, local capacity building, and new business development. Before joining RTI, Mr. Baird was the director of International Programs for Making Cents International, and developed programs and tools to promote economic growth in Nigeria, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal, Armenia, Paraguay, Togo, Sierra Leone, Philippines, and Mongolia.