Policy Change is a Long Game. Afterschool Veterans are Sharing Their Playbooks.
Jennifer Peck, the founding executive director of Partnership for Children & Youth (PCY), a statewide afterschool intermediary organization in California, opened her remarks with a confession:
“I’m going to admit right up front, when I started in this work 25 years ago, I had no idea what an intermediary was.”
More than two decades later, the word “intermediary” can still draw blank looks. Intermediaries often do their work — bringing together various players to create more and better expanded learning opportunities for young people — out of the public eye. But increasingly their influence is being felt in communities across the country. Over its two-and-a-half decades, PCY helped create the conditions that eventually led the state of California to make a massive funding commitment to afterschool and summer learning — $4.6 billion in one-time relief funding in its 2021–2022 budget, followed by an additional $3.4 billion in permanent funding in 2022–2023.
Meanwhile, in 2020, Youthprise, an equity-focused intermediary in Minnesota, supported a youth-led grassroots organization and joined them in a successful lawsuit against the state government, which had been withholding unemployment benefits from high school students laid off during the pandemic under a law first passed in 1939. As a result of the suit, nearly $30 million in unemployment benefits have been paid out, with $70 million available to be claimed. Together, this coalition of young people and adult allies has convinced Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature to work together to repeal the law once and for all.
Peck and Marcus Pope, president of Youthprise, were two of the panelists for Playing the Policy Change Long Game: Insights from OST Intermediaries, a recent webinar hosted by the Wallace Foundation and moderated by Jessica Donner, executive director of Every Hour Counts, a national network of local and regional intermediaries to which PCY and Youthprise belong. They were joined by two of their counterparts in state government — Erin Gabel, principal consultant for the California State Assembly’s budget committee, and Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development — to talk about the role intermediaries can play in making the afterschool field’s policy goals a reality. More than 200 participants from communities as far away as Kenya joined the webinar to pick up some of the Xs and Os from the panelists’ policy change playbooks.
Bridging Policy and Practice, Government and Community
All of them spoke incisively about the tremendous value proposition that intermediaries represent. Peck described intermediaries as the solution to a “pervasive and longstanding challenge,” namely that “policymakers who create and invest in programs are often really disconnected from the realities of what it takes to effectively run these programs in communities.” Intermediaries, she said, could “be the translator of these realities to policymakers, the link between policy and practice.”
For Gabel, a member of PCY’s original team and now an ally in the state legislature, intermediaries have the expertise to see a policy through from the idea phase to the nitty gritty of putting it into practice. She said that the positions advocates stake out with policymakers are often “at the 10,000-foot level. ‘We need more out-of-school-time opportunities for children, period.’ But then what? Who writes the legislation? Who makes sure it is effectively linked to the right standards, to the research, to what’s working? And then who manages the continuous improvement cycle of implementation, professional development, technical assistance, to keep us tweaking it, so we’re not resting on our laurels?” High-functioning intermediaries can take on all of those tasks.
Another vital role intermediaries play is to galvanize program providers, youth, families, and members of the community to be active participants in the policy-making process, helping ensure their views are factored in to decisions that affect them. Youthprise has made amplifying the voices of young people in particular one of its core values. “We talk about ‘nothing about us without us is for us,’” Pope said of Youthprise’s approach to policy engagement. “We believe it leads to better policy when young people are…helping shape those policies.”
By bridging the gap between youth leaders and government officials, Youthprise provides an invaluable service to both sides. “A government agency will never have the same street cred that Marcus will have in the community with young people who trust and rely on him in ways that he has earned,” Commissioner Grove acknowledged. “When he can vouch for the department with a group of students, it melts some of the tension you might get traditionally between a group of advocates and a government leader.”
The result: An historic win for young people in Minnesota. “When I went to school, I had a youth policy course, and they talked about how you can spend your whole career trying to change a law,” Pope recalled. “We did it over the course of a year…I remember vividly being on a call with the governor and lieutenant governor where they were talking to young people and thanking them for their work to change the law and raise the visibility of the unemployment insurance issue.”
Making the Case and Cultivating Champions for New Intermediaries
The panelists fielded questions from webinar participants interested in following their example. On how to get a new intermediary up and running and establish a presence in the policy arena, Pope emphasized the importance of making a compelling case for what intermediaries bring to the table. “There is a huge return on investment when you have dedicated professionals thinking about field building, thinking about program quality, and putting things in place to make a difference in those areas,” he said.
Peck spoke of the need to identify “the right champion who has a very public and recognizable voice.” She explained that PCY benefitted early on from connections with influential figures in state government she had made as an official in the Clinton administration. “It was those relationships that helped me build every relationship I had. It’s like a snowball effect when you focus on that. So, I would invest a ton of time on the front end in finding the people who can help you build those relationships and get those people on board with you.” Gabel echoed that advice: “I always say, if someone tells you it’s not who you know, they don’t know anybody.”
Part of the work of Every Hour Counts is to connect fledgling intermediaries with credible advocates who can help them deliver a pitch based on real-world experience to potential funders and other stakeholders. Donner noted that leaders of intermediaries in the Every Hour Counts network have traveled to nearby communities to speak to foundation boards and at government hearings about what they’ve been able to achieve. She herself advised the board of the McKnight Foundation when it was considering founding Youthprise.
Navigating Politics (Across the Aisle)
In order to successfully make a mark on public policy, intermediaries need to know how to navigate the ins and outs of politics, and the panelists offered insights into what has worked for them. “We’re not doing our job unless we get into the political game sometimes,” Peck said, but that doesn’t always mean adopting an adversarial stance. “We absolutely have to challenge [policymakers] when necessary,” she said, “because in the end our job is to operate in the best interest of kids and programs. In my experience, you have a better chance of being successful with [that] strategy when you’ve already developed some credibility with the folks you’re trying to influence. I have definitely seen some circumstances where advocacy groups come in when they’re new to the scene in the state capital, and they come out swinging, trying to get something big done, and that can really backfire.”
Even in a state like California with a Democratic super-majority, Peck said, “our job as intermediaries is not to take political sides. At different moments and on different issues, we’ve had to adjust our messages depending on who we were talking to. That is a critical function of ours.” Gabel pointed out that state-funded afterschool was originally a cause championed by a Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it took years to de-politicize the issue. “Part of the beauty of the long game was getting to a place where members of the Democratic leadership stopped associating afterschool with a Republican governor,” she said.
In Minnesota, Youthprise and its youth partners convinced a divided legislature to work across the aisle to enact reform on an issue — expanding unemployment insurance — that could easily become polarized. Commissioner Grove said that one of the keys to their success was being good listeners. “You don’t just go in and say, “Here are my 10 points, this is why you should agree with me, and that’s your meeting,” he said. “Having an actual dialogue with someone who might initially be skeptical is really important.” He also highlighted the merits of a lost art in the age of Zoom: meeting face-to-face. “If you do it right and you get youth in a room, it’s very hard for politicians to say, ‘No, we don’t want to help you.’”
Pope advised city-level intermediaries to “think about regional and statewide coalitions. Youthprise impacts young people in 70 counties, and we have a coalition that is reflective of all regions of our state. So, when it comes down to getting bills to our legislature, we have a strong constituency of folks who can advocate on our behalf.”
Taking a Deeper Dive into How Intermediaries Effect Change
There was much more. The panelists also shared their thoughts on how foundations can better nurture the work of intermediaries (hint: think general operating support), reflected on occasions when their efforts to shape policy fell flat, and looked ahead to the most pressing issues for the afterschool field over the next five years. Video of the complete webinar is available for free on the Wallace Foundation website, along with the paper that inspired it: The Long Game: How One Afterschool Intermediary Organization and Its Partners Shaped Policy, Practice, and Perception in California. The Long Game takes a deep dive into the history of PCY and how it got to be so effective at promoting high-quality afterschool and summer learning opportunities for the young people of California.
For intermediaries looking to firm up their position as change agents in their states, both Pope and Gabel had the same simple tip, summed up here by Gabel: “Read the paper. Then hand it to some of your colleagues because it absolutely makes the case.”