Superman Isn't Waiting in the Wings, But Social Innovators Are

Effective, dynamic social programs are more common than you might think. The challenge is not finding them, it is unleashing their latent superpowers.
by , | October 14, 2010 AT 9:00 AM

Harlem Children's Zone and its founder Geoffrey Canada are famous.

Many know Harlem Children's Zone from Waiting for Superman, a recently released documentary which focuses on Canada's efforts to transform a failing public education system.

The same week of the film's release, the White House announced $10 million in planning grants under Promise Neighborhoods, a new Department of Education initiative based on the Harlem Children's Zone model.

Praise for Harlem Children's Zone is well deserved. But the temptation to attribute superhuman qualities to Geoffrey Canada and other social innovators who have been blazing new approaches to the hard task of rebuilding broken communities is dangerous. Cities may fall into the mistake of waiting for their own "superman" to fix their problems, or they might set themselves up for disappointment if the results are not as otherworldly as expected.

The real lesson of the Harlem Children's Zone is that government should be looking outside its own bureaucracy for determined, albeit human, innovators who will thrive with government support and partnership.

YouthBuild and College Summit

One of us started an organization that also works with young people in Harlem. For over 30 years, Dorothy has infused YouthBuild with important values such as taking personal responsibility for our lives and community; treating everyone with profound respect; and, as intangible as it may sound, believing in the power of love.

YouthBuild programs not only build about 1,000 units of affordable housing each year, they also engage about 10,000 students (40 percent are court-involved) in the process of completing their GED or high school diploma through a full-time, 10-month program. YouthBuild USA turned over its program model to the federal government, and now serves in a training and technical assistance role to charter schools and community-based nonprofits that receive federal grants from the U.S. Department of Labor to implement local YouthBuild programs.

I founded College Summit, which like YouthBuild, knits a positive peer and adult mentor culture together with a focus on leadership development. Designed to help high schools in low-income communities shift from being destinations to being launch pads for college and career success, College Summit works on two assumptions. First, young people are motivated to work hard in high school not by a diploma, but by a chance to create a brighter future -- better job, more money, better college and better life. Second, young people themselves are best situated to create a college-going culture at their high school.

The Challenge of Scale

The challenge with both of our innovations has been increasing their reach.

Every year, 273 local YouthBuild programs help 10,000 low-income youth ages 16 to 24 become productive members of their communities. College Summit reaches 25,000 students, helping 180 high schools in 12 states raise their college enrollment rates by an average of 18 percent. While we are proud of what we have accomplished, each only meets a fraction of the overall need.

We define full scale as not just replicating a good program in a number of locations, but really solving a problem or reaching the limit of need, demand or capacity. There are about 1 million low-income high school students who should be preparing for college, and about 2 million 16- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. who are out of school, out of work and therefore, eligible for YouthBuild. How do we get there?

To grow beyond a small percentage of people, innovators can access the primary source of funding of social programs: government. Or they can advocate policy changes that affect other providers across existing systems.

Both approaches to scale -- direct expansion and policy change -- require engaging government and entering the political realm.

A Few Lessons for Government and Social Innovators

Innovators looking to help transform communities must be prepared to build endless new relationships with both career public servants and political appointees. Innovators have to negotiate and constantly communicate the essence of what has made their innovation succeed.

Government can be a challenging partner. Ultimately responsible for the results of public service delivery, it imposes rules and expectations that often force social innovators to be accountable in new ways. Government is also subject to sudden changes in goals and/or methods due to changes in political control or priorities. It can be slow and can impose excessive burdens.

Many of our fellow innovators, unsurprisingly, are reluctant to engage government. But we press them to engage it. Structural barriers certainly exist inside government agencies, but so do highly dedicated and skilled civil servants who are equally eager to make a difference.

Government officials must learn how to partner with social innovators; they are untapped assets for affecting true change. Scale requires that government provides financial support, management and oversight. It also requires some caution to avoid the occasionally suffocating rules and structures or difficult delays that can accompany public dollars. We suggest government officials consider innovators as advisors and thought partners.

One more general principle: youth can wisely inform change and should be kept in the loop. College Summit works because it relies fundamentally on youth to transform the culture in schools. Young people serve on policy councils advising the directors of YouthBuild programs.

In East Harlem, the YouthBuild program encouraged young people to attend and participate in all public hearings on the budget. Encouraging youth to speak out transforms their identity and inspires them to take responsibility. Young people are also the first to know whether something is working or not, and how it needs to change to meet their and the community's needs.

Organizations like ours -- and there are many others out there -- are not going to swoop in from above and save your city by themselves. But effective, dynamic social programs are more common than you might think.

The challenge is not finding them, it is unleashing their latent superpowers. In collaboration with government, and funded at full scale, nonprofit innovators can decisively impact life in your city.