Before the District’s Child and Youth Investment Trust made headlines last year in the embezzlement scandal that has landed former Council member Harry Thomas Jr. a prison sentence, it was a quietly functioning nonprofit that provided critical grant support to hundreds of youth programs across our city.
While it may seem politically expedient to do away with the trust, such a decision would not only be misguided, but also costly. Absent political manipulation, D.C.’s trust leverages millions in private and public dollars to support programs that operate on the barest of margins.
The programs operate in the neighborhoods and in schools (both D.C. Public Schools and the charters) and they are valuable community resources. Funders, especially the large national foundations that invest in whole systems of youth development, will not invest in the District without an efficient intermediary to ensure that their investments will have a measurable impact.
In fact, D.C. has already lost significant private funds as a result — not of a lack of faith in the mission and value of the trust but because of political meddling. Our local philanthropic community, despite having been a committed partner through the years, has made it clear that it simply does not have the resources to keep struggling programs afloat on its own.
Without the trust, thousands of children and youths in the highest-need communities across the city may be left with nowhere to go when school lets out. Trust-funded after-school and summer programs such as Higher Achievement, Beacon House, Martha’s Table, Kid Power, Brainfood and New Community for Children and Families teach important leadership and academic skills, provide exercise and recreation and keep kids safe and out of trouble. Many of these programs, including those at schools, also provide nutritional snacks and meals for children who may otherwise go hungry.
Indeed, the trust must be restructured to boost accountability, but it should also be strengthened to maintain its own integrity and to be more effective. First and foremost, voting board members should not be politically appointed, as they are currently by the mayor and Council, an arrangement that practically invites corruption.
The trust should also develop a community council or board made up of advocates, program providers, youths and parents to ensure that the community’s needs are being heard and met. Finally, the trust should be required to publicly report its data on outcomes and impact on a regular basis.
Across the country over the past two decades, youth funding intermediaries similar to D.C.’s trust have evolved in their structure and scope to become much more efficient, stable and outcome-driven. By instituting protections against undue political influence but maintaining a high level of coordination between community partners and government, youth intermediaries in cities such as New York and Baltimore are able to attract significant private investment and blend multiple funding sources to expand and improve youth services.
This is the value of the trust. Even today, D.C.’s trust serves an important role beyond grant-making as a coordinator, a capacity builder and quality control for youth-serving organizations and agencies. But this function should be expanded as one of the trust’s core responsibilities.
Under Mayor Vincent Gray’s Cradle to Career Initiative, the District is moving in the right direction to promote a more robust and coordinated system of services for children and youths. Instead of reinventing the wheel, the District should take this window of opportunity to rebuild the trust so that it truly serves its intended purpose of enriching the lives of our youths — not lining the pockets of politicians.
Maggie Riden is executive director of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates , a citywide coalition that works to ensure policies, programs and practices within the District of Columbia that promote and propel youths into a productive and healthy adulthood.
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