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Dan Lawlor: In 2013, It’s Time to Engage Young People

Monday, December 31, 2012


In the past two decades, young people have helped to build up some of the best community organizations in the city- New Urban Arts, Community Music Works, Young Voices, Youth in Action, City Arts for Youth, College Visions, Providence Student Union, AS220, Steel Yard, English for Action, Urban Pond Procession, and PRYSM. The dynamism of these groups has helped educated, organize, inspire, and motivate thousands of people in the city. Without the culture produced by Providence's best community groups, we would be a pretty boring and violent city.

The ventures above were started by people with ideas and a desire to build communities. Those ventures also responded to gaps in services provided by the existing neighborhood network. Today, alongside high performers like Federal Hill House, numerous community centers across the city have had difficulty fundraising and expanding programs - from the long storied John Hope Settlement House to the activist originated West End Community Center to the North End's Da Vinci Center. Each of those community centers has a long history of neighborhood engagement, but, with the economic downturn, all have experienced cuts, enrollment issues, and fiscal challenges. As a former colleague mentioned, "We're fighting for scraps." There need to be some new ideas to maintain and revive these community institutions.

The leaders of all Providence should move to tap into the amazing talent pool of young professionals and artists. From Blue Cross to Hasbro, from Providence College to Americorps alum, from RISD to Brown, from Textron to Bank RI, there are plenty of hardworking, hyper performing, eager and ambitious young people in Providence.

Note to Non-Profits: SCOOP UP THESE PEOPLE! ASK THEM TO JOIN YOUR BOARD (or at least an advisory committee!)

A decent number of twenty somethings don't yet have kids or major family commitments. Take advantage of that! I recall a good friend who worked at AAA for several years who felt like he had a new lease on life and new purpose once he began volunteering with a local non-profit in some of his spare time. "As corny as it sounds, I feel good," he mentioned.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy interviewed Angela White, of Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates on 20 and 30 something year olds and involvement with charity, "What we found is that there is a continuum of involvement that starts with communicating, then moves on to volunteering and leadership roles. They want real responsibilities and an opportunity to put their skills and expertise to work. They don’t want to sit at the kiddie table.”

According to the Millennial Impact Report, 75% of young people give to charity, usually in small amounts. Additionally, 77% of young people are interested in leadership opportunities in organizations, but only 20% are on boards. The top two reasons that young people cited for not participating in leadership are Lack of Time (62%) and Never Being Asked (40%). In order to save and rejuvenate our neighborhood recreation and community centers, we need to better engage the young people of Providence- like tomorrow! Furthermore, we should cast the net a bit wider - and try to not just engaged those already engaged with everything else in the city.

Twenty and thirty somethings help power the downtown economy - from cafes, bars, book stores, art galleries, and restaurants, many support, staff, manage and run the establishments that create the downcity and West End buzz, as well as generate tax revenue for the city (not to mention parking ticket fees). There are a lot of smart people, dreamers, and hard workers in Rhode Island. Many are frustrated because they don't feel like they're living up their potential, are surrounded by an insular who you know political class, and are struggling with debt. Yet, we are willing to do so much to build this place up- and places all over the country.

This is my memo to the City, to the non-profit leaders, to the struggling community centers: find ways to ask and engage the pool of young professionals in Providence to strengthen and build up our community organizations. There are a lot of good people who will give back if asked to.


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