An Intergenerational Career Pipeline

More agencies, including service providers, recognize the need to infuse young people with lived experience right smack in their leadership circle.

Solid commitments to intergenerational collaboration build a career pipeline to attract young people of color that serves as a model for other organizations. 

Maria Nuñez describes herself as defiant when she attended New Horizons in Pasco, Washington. School counselor Carolyn Cox’s Mindset Reset room is where any student could really blow off steam. Carolyn makes it clear that one’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score does not define anyone. Maria was determined not to follow the traditional path of working in the fields or the factory. Carolyn’s SPARK program at this alternative school introduced this rebellious student to the hope of a career in behavioral health. 

While working 2 jobs, being pregnant, and going to school, Maria got her GED at 19 shortly after having her daughter. She completed the training and state exam to become a Certified Peer Counselor (CPC) which is a Medicaid reimbursable service. Soon she was gainfully employed and then advanced to a Youth and Parent Certified Peer Counselor Trainer. The next rung on her career ladder was to join the SPARK Development Team as the Contract Manager where she explains the range of responsibilities.

“We plan out our classes, run the program, manage funds and deliverables, present to the community and across the state about the SPARK program.”

Maria shatters stereotypes. Her doctor could not believe that “I had this job with my bald head and tattoos.” At age 21, she just got promoted to fill a new position as SPARK Project Director for the Washington Statewide Youth Leadership Network.

Maria continues to defy expectations. She is the first Latina youth appointed to the Governor’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council. More agencies, including service providers, recognize the need to infuse young people with lived experience right smack in their leadership circle.

Organizational Structures Mandate Youth Involvement

A legal settlement and subsequent legislation mandated substantive youth involvement. A lawsuit required the state of Washington to build a mental health system for Medicaid-eligible children and youth age 20 or younger with complex emotional, behavioral, and social issues. Included in the agreement is licensed behavioral health agencies pay CPCs for their mental health and substance abuse peer counseling with Medicaid funds. 

In addition to SPARK’s partnership with the Washington Health Care Authority to provide services along with workforce development, many CPCs participate in other policy making structures that explicitly rely on input from youth and young adults. 

  • Maria and others from SPARK are involved in Family Youth System Partner Round Tables (FYSPRT) that meet monthly to suggest improvements for treatment and services at the local and regional levels. 
  • Recent legislation added seats for two youth/young adults with lived experience to serve on a new subgroup, Youth and Young Adult Continuum of Care (YYACC), to prioritize issues identified by FYSPRT. 
  • Another example of intentional youth infusion is the WA Behavioral Health Advisory Council that requires 51 percent community members, which include young people, who identify gaps and priorities in the federal SAMSHA block grant.  

Back when Maria was in high school, she never imagined these ambitious roles and responsibilities. SPARK provides a home with a solid foundation of intergenerational interdependence.

Creating a Collegial Culture

It is apparent that Carolyn Cox, co-founder of SPARK, has an infectious spirit and terrific sense of humor along with her own history that she knows peer support could have made an enormous difference when she was young. 

Board member Ahney King describes the “aura” that Carolyn creates because young people know “she really lets them be themselves, lets them feel, and lets them speak.” The attitude at SPARK seems to truly embrace new and untried approaches. 

Carolyn regards Maria as “my right hand man” and Maria reciprocates, describing how they “bounce off” of each other. Ahney credits her continued learning to her interactions with young people: 

“Maria’s courage inspires me to speak out rather than stay quiet.”

The power of peer-to-peer influence is undeniable and there are plenty of reasons why adult-run organizations lose out if they are not partnering with young people as colleagues.  

  • RACIAL DIVERSITY. In the field of behavioral health–which is dominated by older white women–the outreach strategies by Maria and her peers result in attracting many people of color including young men to pursue CPC trainings, paid apprenticeships and higher education. 
  • REALITY CHECK. Another obvious reason for enlisting people who are similar in age to those receiving services is to get informed, uncensored input essential for effective monitoring and evaluation.
  • SYSTEMS CHANGE. A team of SPARK Certified Peer Counselors now are co-designing a new program to reach current and formerly incarcerated juveniles that will differentiate from services for adults exiting the corrections system. 

This model program demonstrates that it just makes sense for professionals to work with other trailblazers like Maria Nuñez. As Carolyn Cox sums up her core philosophy with typical ebullience.

“The youth that I get to see and learn from bring so much to the table.  We want to continue to grow our programs for our youth with our youth. We couldn’t do this without their input.”

Could your organization learn from SPARK to build a career pipeline to remedy the acute shortages not only in behavioral health but other sectors? 

Could your organization change its culture and structure to hire more young people who grow into leadership positions?

Contact us about our online workshops that are designed to help you and your team achieve these objectives and more!

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Infuse “Y” in DEI

WITH = New Word of the Year

Like a tiger ready to pounce, several dozen youth-run organizations are demanding the Biden-Harris administration ditch tokenistic efforts of the past and build deep relationships WITH the rising generations–precisely what we call Youth Infusion.

Like a tiger ready to pounce, several dozen youth-run organizations are demanding the Biden-Harris administration ditch tokenistic efforts of the past and build deep relationships WITH the rising generations precisely what we call Youth Infusion. 

The YouthinGov proposal outlines succinctly: 

The Problem: “The systemic lack of sustained, youth-specific roles and Young Americans across the federal government limits young people’s agency…It was found that the consistency of youth-inclusive programming across departments has been largely dependent upon individuals and subject to turnover.”  

The Solution: “Young Americans are important stakeholders for every issue —and the need for formalized youth engagement work across agencies is pivotal to ensure the authentic engagement and advancement of the nation’s youngest constituency.”

Specific demands include the appointment of a Director of Youth Engagement, preferably a member of Generation Z, to oversee the Office for Young Americans and also sit on the Domestic Policy Council and engage with the National Security Council. 

This detailed blueprint is buttressed by a complementary proposal seeking institutional partnership WITH the U.S. Department of Education authored by the national nonprofit, Student Voice.  (Watch powerful 2/8/21 press conference.)

We really recommend reading these two carefully constructed and comprehensive documents. WITH needs to replace doing “to” and “for” citizens, constituents, clients, consumers, etc.  

Never has the preposition WITH been emphasized both by young people as well as elder statesmen like David Mathews, who served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1970s. He knows the individual and institutional dilemmas of bureaucrats collaborating with ordinary citizens but believes in “essential symbiosis.” In WITH the People, Mathews does not focus on any age group but he zeroes in on relationships which certainly are crucial when working WITH young people.

“And opening doors may have more to do with the character of relationships between citizens and institutions and the spirit in which collaboration occurs than it does with changes in organizational structure.”

Unlike efforts in prior administrations, these #YouthinGov represent a more diverse constituency, have experience dealing WITH bureaucrats, and can sniff out fake youth engagement. Will the White House and federal agencies respond to this call to embed young people throughout government?

This is why we believe…

A new operating system is necessary–especially when collaborating WITH minors. Even the involvement of young adults will demand a seismic shift in the minds of policy experts and other professionals.

Note: We want to share this comment we received by David Mathews, author of WITH the People and President & CEO of the Kettering Foundation: I am pleased to see that you’ve chosen WITH as your word of the year. The strategy of government working with the people—young people in this case—is important, not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because young people can do and make things that will allow government to do its work more effectively. When young people join forces to work together, they generate power. And that kind of power isn’t power over, it’s power with.

Our Youth Infusion workshop covers all aspects of achieving WITH. We hope you will contact us about our professional development training and consulting for government agencies and non-governmental organizations.