Collective impact in rural Maine: Helping disconnected youth become self-sufficient

blogimage_DisconnectedYouthCross-sector approaches have increasingly gained traction in attempts to address some of the most pressing social issues of our time. High youth unemployment and school dropout rates are two examples of these types of complex, interrelated issues that require equally complex and comprehensive responses to solve. It is estimated that there are 6.7 million such “disconnected” youth in the United States. Leaders from all sectors agree that these rates have lasting repercussions for state and national economies. But more so for the lives of youth who are transitioning into adulthood lacking the skills and support they need to succeed in the workforce and lead healthy, self-sustaining lives.

In Maine, one collective impact initiative has been working to carve out pathways and develop systems of support for youth who are transitioning out of foster care. The Maine Youth Transition Collaborative (MYTC) is one of 21 sites nationwide funded by the Aspen Institute’s Opportunity Incentive Fund to engage youth who are disconnected from school and the workforce. It is estimated that 11.8 percent of Maine’s youth between the ages of 16 and 24 do not attend school and are not employed. Additionally, it was reported that in 2012, 1,800 youth were in foster care, 2,014 were involved in the juvenile justice system, and 2,103 were homeless. MYTC specifically targets these youth from Cumberland and York counties.

MYTC leads a collaboration that includes representatives from Maine’s education system, child welfare system, juvenile justice system, philanthropic community, and private sector employers. The collaboration focuses on creating pathways and opportunities for growth to help youth achieve economic self-sufficiency and post-secondary education and employment. MYTC organizes regular youth meet-up activities, such as day-long retreats and group meetings with college representatives and advisors. They also hold symposiums and community forums to disseminate information from local and national leaders who are well acquainted with the challenges youth face. Through these activities, the collaboration seeks to build the conditions that lead to collective impact by focusing on five areas: collaborating for impact, building and expanding effective programs and pathways, using data to guide decisions and assess impact, leveraging funding to support system innovation, and developing policy advocacy.

One of the collaboration’s most tangible outcomes is the passing of a bill that extends the provision of education benefits to former foster children until the age of 26. The bill was signed into law by Governor Paul LePage in April 2014 making Maine the first state to provide post-secondary education benefits to foster care youth beyond the age of 20. More time is needed to assess whether this initiative will have long-lasting systems effects, but collaboratively engaging sectors at the grassroots and the grasstop levels to tackle complex problems that have long remained unsolved when approached by one sector alone is a promising start.