Karen Pittman is an award-winning leader in youth development and has made a career of starting initiatives and organizations that promote positive youth development—including the Forum for Youth Investment. In addition to her work at the Forum, and roles with America’s Promise, National Urban League, Education Reimagined, and countless others, Pittman served in President Bill Clinton’s administration as director of the President’s Crime Prevention Council. She has served on numerous nonprofit boards of directors, including the board for Children’s Funding Project where she served as the inaugural chairperson. Currently Pittman is a partner at KP Catalysts, where she focuses on synthesizing research, policy, and practice resources about where, when, how, and why learning and development happen.

Children’s Funding Project CEO Elizabeth Gaines recently spoke with Pittman about her career and leadership in the field of positive youth development. You can watch the full video interview and read an edited version of their conversation below.



Gaines: Karen, I always value our time together. Thanks for joining me today. I really can’t even believe how long we’ve known each other. It’s almost 20 years now! You’ve really been a mentor to me, and I’ve learned so much about what positive youth development is and how the policies work and how the programs and services should be seamlessly knitted together for young people to be successful.

In many ways our work together at the Forum [for Youth Investment] is what helped me to launch Children’s Funding Project. I wanted this organization to expand on the foundational work that you and I did together and really laser focus on how are we going to fund this? How are we going to pay for the programs and services that we know young people can benefit from? Given that you’ve spent your career focused on these things—and are the one that taught me—I wanted to just give you some space here to talk about what it really means for children and youth to be physically, emotionally healthy, socially and civically connected, academically and vocationally productive. Talk about what that looks like for you.

Pittman: What that looks like—when you put all those things together—it means that young people are thriving. It means that they have a broad set of competencies that they can use, a strong sense of agency that they can actually accomplish what they want to accomplish, and a really strong sense of identity of who they are both individually and collectively as a part of a group, of a community, or racial ethnic identity. The challenge that we’ve always had, in this country in particular, is that when we slice that broad set of competencies and outcomes into little pieces, we lose the opportunity to actually work with them as full people. That’s not just an abstract idea. That really is what positive youth development is about.

And so, 40 years ago, when I was working at the Children’s Defense Fund, it really hit me that that if we come at this from a policy perspective of working on one problem at a time, the organizations that are most successful at working with young people said, “OK, I’ll take your money to prevent pregnancy.

I’ll take your money to help kids not drop out of school, but what I’m going to do is build relationships with them. I’m going to find out what their interests are. I’m going to work on their strengths and assets and then I’m going to help them solve the problems along the way. But I’m going to lead with an asset-based approach.”

And that’s essentially what positive development is. It’s an asset-based approach that’s applicable in families, in schools, in community organizations, in peer groups. It assumes and trusts that young people really do want to use their assets and strengths to be connected, productive, and healthy, and what we have to do is help them get stuff out of their way. So that’s what positive youth development is. There’s a formal official definition of it that the federal government adopted in 2008. But that’s essentially what it is.

Gaines: And I feel like those of us who’ve done it on the ground, we know what it is intuitively. I think that the message gets lost sometimes when we try to translate that knowing to policy and how to move resources out to children and youth and the programs that support them and to those providers who really know how to reach them. So, what does positive youth development look like in practice from a policy perspective?

Pittman: That’s always been the tough question, to get it from policy to practice, because policies by design are tiny little pieces of things. We don’t move big policies in this country. We don’t have a positive development agency. We have a definition. We have a little interagency working group.

But when I went to run the children’s cabinet in 1995, [President Bill Clinton’s Crime] Prevention Council, the first thing I did was say, “How many federal programs are there that are supporting children and youth?” At that point, they were like 357 different federal programs across 13 plus different agencies focused on all sorts of tiny things. So, you had so many tiny programs, and that’s the problem. How do you get from a program that by the time it specifies this is the audience, this is the solution, this is who should do it, and you pull that down to the community, it’s their job to try to put all that stuff back together, and that’s where we fall apart.

Our policies have to come into communities that are strong enough to have an overall frame and vision for their young people that’s holistic but specific enough that they then can take the pieces and knit them together. That’s where the Children’s Funding Project becomes so important because you are putting out that vision and you’re testing it with the public. If the public doesn’t get the fact that you have to knit this stuff together, they’re going to be complacent about having it come in as a hundred different programs that serve kids.

Gaines: I’m reflecting, too, on some of the things that we landed on organizationally. Yes, at the state and community level relationships matter. You have to do this coordination across the different systems that support children and youth. That’s the people lane. Then, the adage that what gets measured gets done. We need to know how kids are doing, where they are, and how programs are doing and intervening. That’s that data piece.

Then, as we went off to form Children’s Funding Project, not thinking that it’s just about the money, but certainly what gets budgeted is actually what gets done because there’s not really any other way of motivating big government actors to prioritize things unless there are resources that go along with it. That’s where we see Children’s Funding Project nesting in the larger ecosystem of positive youth development in this country. We want to focus on the money, but we know there are folks who are actively focusing on bringing the people together. We know there are folks who are actively focusing on having the data that’s necessary. What do you think it’s going to take for us to get there and get ourselves organized as a field? I’m curious if you have any advice for our field about how to get ourselves working in the same direction better.

Pittman: I’ve got lots of advice in that area. To activate it, I’ve really gone back to 20 years ago when positive development really was sort of in its heyday trying to get policy connected to practice at some level of scale. The challenge that we had then was that we didn’t have schools involved. Positive youth development was what we were doing around schools. So, we got child welfare people, general justice people, youth employment people. We had all those second-chance organizations and obviously health prevention. But schools were not in the mix very much, or if they were, they were just there for their secondary purposes. We’ll do wraparound services. We’ll let you in the building to do stuff to get the kids ready to learn but they hung on to learning.

What we have a chance to do now is go back and pick up the very powerful framework that Michelle Gambone and Jim Connell put out 20 years ago, The Community Action Framework for Youth Development, which basically took that positive development idea and said if we have a definition of young people, of young adult success that we can measure, it’s basically that young people need to be productive, they need to be healthy, and they need to be connected. [Gambone and Connell] went to the trouble of saying, “How many young people actually are productive, healthy, and connected by a definition we can understand?”

And it wasn’t a rocket science definition. In your 20s, you’re productive if you’re in college or a training program or employed. You’re on your way toward economic self-sufficiency. You’re healthy if you’re managing risky behaviors and you’ve got healthy relationships. You’re connected if you’re connected to something outside of yourself—a church, you’re voting, you’re in a civic organization. You’ve got some connection to a community.

With that basic definition of doing well as a young adult in your 20s, they found only 4 in 10 young people were doing well, and 2 in 10 were really struggling. And we took that data out to the communities and said what the heck is going on? We’re spending all this money on young people and we’re getting this really crappy result. And they said, well yeah. If you give us a definition, we don’t think our kids in our communities are doing that much better than this national study. So, you got people outraged with that very simple definition of we want them to be productive, we want them to be healthy, we want them to be connected—all three. What they found was, it didn’t matter which ones. [Young people] just had to be doing well in two of those areas and OK in the third.

So, the idea that it’s all about academic success wasn’t there. A kid can be mediocre academically. They had to get out of high school or get a GED [diploma], but then they could be doing well if they were healthy, if they were really connected. They could be building their skills and competencies in other areas.

So, what Gambone and Connell did, which was so powerful, was they said, “If that’s the outcome that we want, what do we need to be doing to get that outcome as a community?” And so, they backed up to say, “Well, what does a kid look like coming out of high school who actually ends up doing well as a young adult?” That kid coming out of high school first of all had to graduate. They had to graduate with some reasonable C minus, B plus, B minus average. They had to come out with good navigational skills and a sense of purpose for where they were going. That was it.

And they said, “Well, if that’s what they need to do, what are the supports that we need to get them there?” And that’s where the magic comes in because what they found was kids need to have strong relationships throughout high school. They need to be challenged, to get challenging experiences in instruction, and they need to have a chance to contribute. All three of those things were the juice that would push them into coming out ready to be young adults. Then the big question was, if we gave every kid those basic supports—healthy relationships throughout their high school years, chances to contribute, challenging experiences—could we change that 4 in 10 number and the research said, yes, we could change it from 4 in 10 to 7 in 10. There are not many policy bumps that we can do that get that kind of a boost for putting in such simple supports.

So that comes back to the question of if that’s what kids need to have, the community as a whole has the power to do that stuff for kids—not just a school, especially if academics is only one of the assets that young people need to have. How do we get the community oriented toward the fact that they really can change the odds for young people? That’s where the Children’s Funding Project comes in.

Yes, we have to have the people coming together to say we can hold forces and do this together. You’ve got to have the data that doesn’t chop kids up into slices and gives some very powerful data the way Gambone and Connell counted how many are doing well in this holistic way. Can we get it down to a simple number of how many kids are doing well?

We’ve got families and communities working with kids. We’ve got lots of public systems doing stuff. We’ve got activities for kids in their communities. But nobody is organizing that. And the juice is not more stuff. The juice really is creating policies and aligning resources in public and private sectors to support opportunity strategies. That’s where you come in. It’s the Children’s Funding Project, when you’re coming into communities and building up that community capacity to actually activate for change, you’re not just saying we need more programs, you’re saying we need better leadership. We need more coordinated services. We need a better and a different infrastructure that’s got to have more flexibility to it, more customizability to it. But it’s got to be equitable. That’s where the public dollars are so important to come in. But it’s not just for more services; it really is for more intelligent infrastructure.

Gaines: As a person who is parenting three boys between the ages of 17 and 24, coming out of this pandemic, I really appreciate the healthy, connected, productive. Anybody who has young people in their lives, that’s the three things [you want].

Pittman: Yeah, on any given day you prioritize those things differently depending on where they are and you’re lucky if they can get to two out of three. That realistic goal and then having the clear steps to back up toward that goal is really what can motivate communities. And why I’m so optimistic right now is that even before the pandemic, parents were realizing this. [The nonpartisan think tank] Populace just put out a Purpose of Education Index, and they just show that parents could care less about where their kid goes to college. They want them to have a strong set of skills and competencies. They want exactly that. They want them to be healthy, have empathy, have positive relationships, and take care of themselves. They want them to have a sense of purpose and future. They want them to have character, whatever that means for them. That’s what they want and there’s no disagreement on that at all.

Gaines: Sort of a great equalizer, I think, in this country potentially.

Pittman: Yeah. Parents, teachers, and youth workers—people in the community youth workspace—all agree that kids don’t get enough out of school. All of them agree. Teachers are very strong that they want kids to have after-school experiences so that they can do things they’re interested in, so they can find their own sense of self and competency.

It’s a sad statement that teachers are saying, “You’ve got to take your kid out of the school and go find something that you pay for to give them the things that help them become themselves.” But that’s where we are. So, the challenge that we have right now is how we can get parents to recognize that the flexibility and the customizability of what they get in communities, which is highly inequitable because everybody can’t afford to get it and every community doesn’t have it, that could be what we ask the public education system to do. But right now, the public education system is where I don’t have high hopes for my kids in terms of learning, but it is a reliable functional place where I can send my kid every day. They can get a hot meal. They can make friends, and so we work around it.

Gaines: And those schools are excelling when they’re able to bring in all those community players that want to have an active role in that positive youth development.

Pittman: Absolutely. And this is not to damn schools, because people in schools—teachers, administrators—they know this is what’s going on. They just can’t break the system. The system is so tightly integrated to do what it does that we need this community mobilization to happen. The best way to do it is the way you’re doing it—getting people to understand this basic definition of what success looks like for kids, getting to really believe that it’s the community’s responsibility, not in an abstract way, but with the dozens of organizations that are out there working, and then asking them to challenge the infrastructure.

Gaines: Thanks, Karen. Even today, 20 years later, I learned all kinds of things from you, so I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. What are you doing now?

Pittman: I left the Forum for Youth Investment, which I co-founded with Merita [Irby] 20 plus years ago, and I left primarily because I realized I was doing a terrible job as a CEO because the time was so right to move these ideas, I just needed to be in a nimble place to move ideas and not worry about how to fund 50 people.

So, Merita and I are now both a part of Knowledge to Power Catalysts, KP Catalysts, with Katherine Plog Martinez, and as the three partners we are just blending our skills together to be accessible to young people. We are amplifying ideas, which is what I do. We are advising initiatives, which all three of us do at the national, state, and local levels, and then we really are aligning partners, which is always where Merita has excelled. How do you get the people to the table to think differently about this work? So, we’re not very powerful as three people and two staff. But we are working with organizations that have the power to be able to change this if they can do it together and that’s our job to be catalysts for getting people to do this work together.

Gaines: Awesome. Thank you so much, Karen.

To learn more about Children’s Funding Project and view additional resources, visit childrensfundingproject.org/resources-start.