A Vision for Systemic Change in the Twin Cities: An Interview with Marcus Pope

marcus pope youthprise

A Vision for Systemic Change in the Twin Cities: An Interview with Marcus Pope

marcus pope youthprise

JK:We’re celebrating your new role as President of Youthprise! Can you tell us a bit about Youthprise?

MP: I’ll start by sharing Youthprise’s mission, which is to increase equity with and for Minnesota’s Indigenous, low income, and racially diverse youth. We take the “with and for” very seriously; half of our board members are young people between the ages of 16 and 25. We seek to authentically engage young people in everything we do – from governance and program development to grantmaking and evaluation of programs. In its simplest terms, Youthprise is a champion for young people throughout Minnesota.

In strategies focusing on inclusivity or equity, young people are too often left out of the equation when they should be at the center. When we had an opportunity to be a part of Living Cities’ Year of Reckoning cohort, we were excited about recognition of the role young people should play to contributing to shifting the trajectory in our community towards equitable outcomes.

In strategies focusing on inclusivity or equity, young people are too often left out of the equation when they should be at the center.

 

JK: You mentioned your role as a representative for the City of Minneapolis in Closing the Gaps, which brings together leaders from cities across the country who are committed to imagining what an anti-racist society might look like, and to playing an important role in building it. How do you see the role of nonprofits like Youthprise coordinating with city government to close racial wealth gaps?

MP: To be a good partner, it’s important to provide mutual support, accountability, and a shared goal. We share a commitment to promoting racial equity, and at Youthprise, we believe good equity work includes young people. We can be a partner in ensuring that inclusion is done well and authentically, because it isn’t easy!

As a youth-centered nonprofit, we are both a partner and a bridge. With the way cities and systems work – and when confronting big issues like racial equity – we won’t change everything within an election cycle. We need partners who are willing to be connectors and carry on the work in the midst of the political turmoil that may ensue! Nonprofit partners can play an inside and outside game as we navigate difficult terrain. As a nonprofit outsider, we can push in ways that the government can’t, and vice versa. It’s good to have that partnership to leverage the types of influence and capital that each entity has.

Any strategy around promoting equity must center those impacted by the problem. Oftentimes when you have big systems, institutions, or government agencies that have been part of the problem – even if they want to change – there’s a lack of trust and interest in engagement from folks who are critical to supporting change. In these situations, nonprofits’ can play an essential role as a bridge! We have better access and trust with young people and diverse communities that view the government as the problem. It’s an important relationship in order to move the work forward.

 

JK: The Year of Reckoning served as a foundational year for building racial equity competencies and deepening relationships. The Year of Reckoning cohort includes five other cities, including your “twin city,” St Paul. In your experience, what are the benefits of doing this work alongside folks in other cities?

MP: The cohort offers the opportunity to connect with other leaders who are facing similar challenges in another context to learn from what they are experiencing and share wisdom of what’s worked. The biggest benefit is access to a learning community of peers.

It’s also a very diverse network of folks from different communities. It’s helpful – and therapeutic in ways – to be in conversation with others who have similar backgrounds, but in different contexts. You know you’re not alone and you feel a sense of validation, because others are experiencing it as well. That’s needed! We are in deep challenging work, and we’re doing this work during a time when trauma is coming at us in ways I’ve never experienced before. I think about what we went through, and we continue to go through, in Minneapolis with the murder of George Floyd. And the recent murders of Black elders in Buffalo, NY – a city near the cohort city of Rochester, NY. To have a group of colleagues who share your challenges and experiences, to bounce things off of, to affirm them and be affirmed is really wonderful. It’s necessary to be there for your friends and colleagues.

 

JK: What lessons from your experience participating in Year of Reckoning are you carrying into your role as President of Youthprise?

MP: I started participating in the Year of Reckoning cohort around the time that it was announced that I’d be assuming the role of President. There was a transitional period where I had a lot of time to consider my platform. We had a great founding president. We pushed the boundaries. We transformed how the state thinks about leadership, opportunity, and the voice of young people. As I considered how I wanted to build on that legacy of great work, Living Cities’ Year of Reckoning has been one of the most influential pieces for that.

Ownership, wealth, and power will be the platform for Youthprise to dig into for the next ten years. That concept derives from learning as part of the cohort and seeing where Living Cities is digging in. Ownership, wealth and power are huge levers for equity building and systems change. We’ve always been focused on systems-change at Youthprise, but I’ve been clearer in my role as President that although programs are important, we cannot program our way out of inequity. We have to be direct and intentional about promoting equity.

We want youth and young adults to have early ownership opportunities, for example, using cooperative economics as a vehicle and entry point for young people to build ownership. Recognizing the barriers that they face early on, how do we give them a head start? Sometimes we can find ways to grant funding to help them get started. In many ways, young people from privileged backgrounds get support from their parents to own a home or business. We are structuring it so we can incubate ownership opportunities where young people can take equity out to build independent ownership, whether it’s for a business or a home.

In regard to power-building, we’ve done a lot of work with youth leadership and governance. We’re pushing for young people to be on big city boards. We will be more intentional about advocating for young people to engage in the highest form of city engagement– voting! We want to lower the voting age. At age 16, youth should be able to vote in school board elections. This is not unprecedented in the US, there are other communities that have done this. We need to emerge as a leader over the next ten years in terms of promoting voting for young people, and we’re strategizing around how to do that!

 

JK: That’s exciting to hear! I love the framework you offered of ownership, wealth and power. I’m thinking about the relationship between power and gatekeeping. A central element of the Year of Reckoning was an extended version of the Undoing Racism workshop, led by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Their analysis empowers us to become “liberated gatekeepers” who leverage our power to open doors for people and communities most impacted by racist policies and practices. How does understanding your role as a gatekeeper inform your approach to organizing?

MP: I’ve spoken quite a bit about Youthprise as a bridge, but we’re also a gatekeeper. We play the role of funder; and we are a formal organization with deep partnership within big systems. How do we do that in a way that is true to the goals we have as an organization, which is to break down inequitable systems?

I’ve spoken quite a bit about Youthprise as a bridge, but we’re also a gatekeeper.

When we think about the highest level of governance, we include those who are most impacted. When I speak to my boss—the body that oversees my work– it includes diverse young people across the state of Minnesota that challenge and push me to be accountable to our mission in a way that advances the people impacted by the problem.

It’s unrealistic to not acknowledge my privilege as a man, leader of an organization, older adult, working in a space with young people who are marginalized. To all extent possible, I must be a voice to young people for resources to be distributed and allocated in a way that meets their needs. There is a mural in our office that says, “Nothing about us without us is for us,” and that’s something that sits with me every day and in everything I do as an adult leading a youth-centered organization.

 

JK: In practice, what does it look like to center youth in conversations about closing the racial wealth gap?

MP: Centering young people in these conversations means ensuring they have voice in the process and that they are direct – not indirect – beneficiaries of the resources designed to solve their problems. Oftentimes across the spectrum of anti-poverty, the folks most impacted are the least direct beneficiaries. We’re asking: How do we get resources directly to young people in ways that benefit them?

For example, young people were concentrated in industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 shutdown and they were first to be let go. When they lost their jobs, they weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits or federal unemployment benefits. We worked with young people to advocate for their benefits. Together, we reached out to the governor’s office and congressional delegation but found we couldn’t fix it through legislative strategies. In 2020, we sued the state for denying benefits to young people across the state and we won! Because of that lawsuit, over 35 million dollars was paid out to young people across the state. But we didn’t stop there. Once we got young people access to the federal benefits, we made a case that state law had disproportionately impacted our youngest, most diverse, lowest paid cohort of workers. In 2021, we changed that law, and it went into effect on July 3 of this year. We’re celebrating this victory on July 19th with an event at the State Capitol.

We did this with young people! This represents a value at Youthprise: People impacted by the problem are part of the solution – and they are actively engaged as leaders in developing the solution. The young person who was the lead plaintiff in the case against the state is now on our board. If our board was populated with corporate CEOs, for example, they may not have seen the urgency. And they may not have been willing to take the risk of suing the state – which was our largest funder during the pandemic. But we did it, because we centered young people and centered those who were impacted. It’s a value of ours that we live out in how we are structured.

 

JK: That’s a beautiful example of organizing and leaning into the systemic change work that you do at Youthprise. What’s your vision for the future of your work and how it will contribute to closing racial gaps in the Twin Cities?

MP: We’ll focus on leveraging ownership, wealth, and power for young people! We think young people are brilliant, amazing, and resilient. We need to create the supports and opportunities to truly realize the potential of the diverse young people in our community.

Youthprise will continue to be a fierce advocate for holding people accountable to create an environment where all young people can thrive. Out of concern for the prosperity of our community, when we encounter circumstances and situations that are detrimental to young people, we will  stand with and for them in the spirit of our mission.

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