THE BLOG

A Civil Right for America's Youth: Being Ready for Life

05/08/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated May 08, 2016

For more than a decade, I and my nonprofit organization have pursued the goal of getting all of America's children and youth "ready" -- ready, as we say, "for college, work and life." I thought we were acting boldly: We defined the abilities that young people need to meet life's responsibilities; we developed strategies to help communities provide the cradle-to-career supports all young people need to succeed; we worked with leaders in scores of communities and states to implement those strategies; and we promoted the goal of readiness through articles, blogs and speeches.

Now I see that I've been too timid. My organization has been too timid. The entire field of youth work has been too timid.

Readiness is not just a universal goal for America's youth. We must position readiness as one of the toughest civil rights issues of our time. I'm committed to doing what it takes to fulfill that right.

That's what I declared from the podium as I opened the recent Ready by 21 National Meeting in New Orleans, which brought together more than 450 leaders from all over the country, across all sectors that touch the lives of children and youth: from education, government and business to philanthropy, afterschool and academia.

Our two days together included lots of excitement about The Readiness Project -- the Forum for Youth Investment's new commitment to dedicate its time and talent to:

  1. Shine a spotlight on the common "readiness traps" -- the often-unintended conditions and demands in youth systems and settings that contribute to growing gaps in young people's readiness

  • Advance cross-system and sector commitments to name and nurture the universal abilities and practices that get young people ready to meet life demands and responsibilities
  • Here is why we needed to make that commitment.

    What Is Readiness?

    Readiness is not a credential like a diploma or a certificate of course completion. It is a state of being and doing, anchored in the confidence of being prepared for what comes next. Readiness is competence and a prerequisite to well-being. It is agency. It is a personal resource that is cultivated with support, that helps young people close those achievement, skill and opportunity gaps that derail them and distress us. We must make sure they have this resource. That's why the time has come to declare readiness a right and to strategize for its achievement. Positioning readiness as a right forces us to define it and spell out what it takes to achieve it in ways that everyone, including young people, can understand and assess.

    The best way to advance this goal is to advance readiness in the pursuit of equity. That's flipping what most of us have been doing: advancing equity as a stepping stone to readiness.

    We need to engage young people and the adults who support them (such as families, practitioners and program managers) in assessing what it means for youth to be ready, and what it requires of their families, schools and communities. This is the only way I see around the constraints that have a stranglehold on youth and communities.

    (Read and hear the reflections of one New Orleans mother about her preschooler.)

    The best way to empower young people, families and practitioners is to define, discuss and measure the readiness abilities that all young people need at each life stage in any setting or system. At the same time, we must identify and assess the practices that support young people in developing these abilities and avoiding potential "readiness traps."

    (See the Readiness Abilities and Practices here.)

    The most powerful and practical way to activate this strategy is to assess the practices that public systems (such as education, child welfare and youth employment) require or encourage to help ensure official outcomes. Do these practices support or contradict what we know about the developmental methods that are needed to help youth develop the skill sets and mindsets they need to achieve these outcomes?

    Case in point: After-school programs routinely employ developmental practices associated with consistently supportive environments: caring, competent staff; structured, stimulating experiences; and adequate time for individual engagement and reflection. But there are staff in every system who use these practices to create learning environments that engage youth, build skills and achieve official outcomes. The challenge is documenting that this is worth doing at scale, in every setting -- be it a classroom, training center, group home or juvenile facility -- and demonstrating how.

    This is why we started The Readiness Project, which is the Forum's commitment to providing our staff and our partners with stronger lenses and sharper research-based tools for naming and claiming these critical readiness abilities and practices; for assessing the extent to which they are supported in any of the places where young people spend their time; and for starting important discussions about how to better measure and manage what really matters. I encourage you to check out the resources and commit to making readiness a right for all young people.