Building the Next Generation of Community Leaders

Young people hold the key to progress. We see this in the protests of the last few weeks, and we see this in their record high intent to become community leaders. Yet, most of this intent is not translating to action. To unlock and sustain civic learning and engagement in young, working-age adults, we need to understand their frustrations with existing civic opportunities and design a solution tailored to their needs. GenUnity, a new community leadership program founded by Harvard graduate student and 2019 National Civic League-Pforzheimer Fellow, Jerren Chang, offers one possible solution.

GenUnity is a civic leadership program that focuses on local issues to personalize the civic learning experience to members’ interests and needs. Our unique approach addresses four frustrations that our research shows young people have with existing civic opportunities: accessibility, building diverse relationships outside of one’s social bubble, personal growth, and influencing systemic change. The program integrates a combination of immersive experiences that members can choose to fit their schedules and facilitated cohort meetings and is designed to take 1-3 hours per week over 4 months.

It works like this. Members opt into a program focusing on one of several local issues; for instance, eviction and housing insecurity in Boston—the issue for our September pilot. Based on their choice, they are placed in a cohort of 30-50 members selected to represent the diversity of the local community including, among others, racial, socioeconomic, and gender diversity. After a cohort-wide kickoff event focused on foundational training in self-awareness, active listening, and racial/social justice, members embark on a four-module progression featuring individual and cohort-wide experiences. In the first module, members build empathy by sitting in on eviction intake interviews, meeting with property owners who have evicted tenants, and observing housing court proceedings, before coming together at the end of the month for a facilitated meeting where they share their experiences and contextualize their learnings with the history of housing and racial injustice in Boston. In the second module, members learn about service providers by shadowing, touring, and having small group discussions with local direct service groups and government agencies. At the end of the month, members meet as a full cohort for a facilitated exercise to map service provisions to local needs. In the third module, members unpack the levers of power by meeting with local policymakers – city and state leaders, philanthropists, and advocacy groups – to understand how policy and funding decisions shape the status quo. In the final module, members directly affect change by allocating a $5,000-$10,000 grant to community partners and develop an action plan for after the program. Members exit the program with a deeper awareness of the diversity of lived experiences, the role of power – at both the systemic and individual levels – and their individual agency in influencing better outcomes. At scale, this model lays the foundations for people to continuously engage with the issues they are most passionate about.

There are two critical, embedded design choices worth highlighting. First, GenUnity provides stipends to low-income members who otherwise would not be able to participate, which ensures that the cohort is truly representative of the local community, improves learning outcomes for all, and creates an equitable leadership pipeline. Second, GenUnity compensates local community partners for their time and effort to host these immersive civic learning experiences, which they often currently do ad hoc and at their own expense. GenUnity supports these design choices financially by asking employers to sponsor employees to be part of the program; to ensure diversity, sponsored employees make up no more than 50% of the cohort. These design choices bolster individual development, support community partners by increasing their volunteer and financial resources, and benefit employer sponsors through improving productivity, retention, and community engagement among their employees.

GenUnity is piloting our program this September in Boston on the issue of Eviction. We are currently recruiting our pilot cohort members, working with local community partners, collaborating with facilitators, and securing employer sponsors. We are excited to share the results of the pilot with the National Civic League community and are deeply grateful for the League’s support through the Pforzheimer Fellowship. We welcome collaboration from those interested in or willing to provide feedback on the model or who would like to support our pilot effort either as a member, community partner, facilitator, employer sponsor, or simply someone willing to spread the word to others. We ask anyone who is interested to reach out to Jerren Chang directly at jerren.chang@genunity.org, sign up for our mailing list at www.genunity.org, or follow us on social media (Instagram, Facebook).

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