Shifting Power to Young People:
Our Journey So Far

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund embarked on a learning journey to explore new pathways for supporting young people in the Bay Area to find the education and opportunities they deserve.

Our fellow travelers in this work were representatives of a community that philanthropy too often ignores — young people themselves. We wanted to hear from BIPOC-identified public school youth in Oakland and San Francisco about how they were experiencing the shock of the pandemic. More importantly, we knew that young people are the right advocates for shaping the solutions to the immense challenges facing them and their peers at a time of immense uncertainty, inequity, and unease.

Who Has Power? Who Doesn’t?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others have forced philanthropy, along with other sectors of society, to question longstanding practices and assumptions related to power. Who has power? Who doesn’t? And how can we truly shift power to effect change?

At the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, our answers to these questions have helped shape our decision to center youth in our youth-focused grantmaking. There is no denying the privilege and power that philanthropic organizations like ours have long enjoyed. At the same time, young people (and directly impacted people as a whole) historically have lacked power as decisions about their education, their communities, and their future have been made — and held tightly — by their elders.

How We’re Shifting Power

We believe philanthropy has an opportunity to help shift this inequitable balance, and we’re exploring how to do that. We are reimagining how our practices could be different if we took up the values and principles of the nonprofit partners we support. Here’s how we have taken action so far:

  • Hired young people to make grants to support youth-led change because their time and insights are valuable. Through our BAY Fellows program, now in its fourth year, 11 high school and transitional aged youth from across the Bay Area become part of our grantmaking team. We are paying Fellows as they learn about philanthropy and make decisions about how to allocate $1.5 million in Possibility Grants each year. Currently in its pilot/learning stage, Possibility Grants provide general operating support of up to $100,000 each for organizations nominated and approved by young people in our community, with a focus on groups serving BIPOC and LGBTQ+ populations. This grant program prioritizes smaller organizations whose organizational or youth organizing program budget is equal to or under $500,000 annually.
  • Partnered with a youth development organization to support our Fellows to succeed. We partnered with youth development nonprofit Youth Organize! California (YO! Cali) to train and support Oakland and San Francisco young people as part of our grantmaking team. As we entered this work, we recognized that we are not a youth development organization ourselves and have limited capacity and skill in this regard. That’s why we are partnered with YO! Cali. They build youth leadership pathways and serve as a youth organizing hub, with directly impacted young people at the forefront of a bold, multi-issue movement for liberation, healing, collective power, and justice.
  • Organized five learning labs where young people join as equal partners with adults from the community to explore key questions about COVID-19 recovery, reopening and reimagining our schools, and supporting girls of color to find equity, joy and opportunity. Youth are key participants in these conversations; they are neither tokenized nor expected to defer to adults. These learning labs are deliberately structured to drive concrete action by the Fund, educators and others.

In all of this work, we’re trying to shape a new model for what it looks like to truly engage and support youth — not just as advisors but as full partners and leaders in our grantmaking on issues affecting them and their peers. In the process, we are also exposing young people to philanthropy as a material expression of power in our society and activating them to see how it can be a vehicle for transformation by moving money and resources to communities.

We’ve been able to gain new connections and fresh perspectives from the Fellows, the questions they’ve asked us, and the teach-ins they’ve led for our staff. We are eager to continue sharing stories and lessons from our ongoing journey in youth-led grantmaking and learn more about how other funders are thinking about this urgent topic for philanthropy. We’re also looking forward to sharing the experiences of the young leaders we’re working with in the months ahead. In 2024, we will be publishing the writings and reflections of young people who have participated in the Fund’s BAY Fellowship; stay tuned.

Please also join us as we and some of our BAY Fellows reflect on this journey in October at the Grantmakers for Education conference. Two of the fellows will participate in a “Get Ready for Gen Z” panel of youth grantmakers from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and the Skillman Foundation to reflect on their experiences and how philanthropy can lift up the power and voice of young people in our work.

Together, we can make youth-led grantmaking a new norm across philanthropy and a means for shifting power and voice to young people in our communities.

Economic Well-being, Blog

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