Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Shayla Young won a prestigious Gates Millennium scholarship just before graduating from Central High School in 2008 that paid for all of her post-secondary education. After earning a doctorate in education from Michigan State University, Young will now play a key role in a new effort by KConnect, a nonprofit that convenes cross-sector partners to address inequities where she will help build a common policy agenda that closes the “unacceptable achievement gaps for children and families of color in Kent County.” Alongside assistance from the Michigan League for Public Policy and local experts Kathleen Bruinsma and John Helmholdt, Young serves as the postdoctoral fellow who will convene community members to craft policy objectives around issues such as education, housing and family stability, to name a few. This policy agenda will then be communicated with local, state and federal lawmakers, and also help to inform KConnect’s internal and external policies around advocating for legislative issues. Young recently discussed her role in KConnect’s new policy initiative and how her background prepared her for the job.
What will be your role as the postdoctoral fellow focused on engagement policy and advocacy with this project?
One thing that’s very unique about KConnect is this notion of backbone support for collective impact. KConnect has the ability to provide more context to some of the bigger issues here in Kent County because they’re able to pull the data and convene partners across sectors. I’ll be facilitating some of these cross-sector meetings. As we build the policy agenda for KConnect, we have a commitment to equity work in Kent County, specifically for Black and brown children and families. What that looks like at a policy level, the network has yet to explore.
I anticipate this being a long-standing thing. These things are long standing because the issues that we’re trying to address are deeply rooted.
How did this need and effort around a common policy agenda emerge?
What (KConnect was) finding is that there was a lot happening at the local, state and regional level — policy-wise — that we weren’t necessarily a part of. We were adjusting our work based on the policies, but we weren’t necessarily influencing policy and we weren’t having a shared political agenda as a network. I believe that this is just a deeper attempt to strengthen the KConnect network around shared and common purpose, and that’s to have that shared and common political agenda. Additionally, with some of the nonprofit organizations that are a part of the network with KConnect, we have started to try to take some inventory of who’s doing what at the state, local and regional level around policy, and there’s not too much that’s happening. We’re wondering why that is: Is it that our partners are needing support in engaging in political work? Is it a knowledge gap around how to engage in political work? The Michigan League for Public Policy is providing technical assistance … to help jumpstart some of our nonprofit, grassroot organizations into the political advocacy space.
So this is about building up advocacy around legislative issues?
Yes. Full transparency: We received a request to sign on and advocate for a certain policy (to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit in Michigan). And we were like, this is a no-brainer, but as an organization, what is the decision-making structure for this?
Not to predetermine any of the initiative’s work, but what are some potential policies that KConnect might organize around to address achievement gaps in Kent County?
There’s this balance of having these experts around the table and ideally building a workgroup or advisory group that has people who have been in the political space and could help us maneuver, as well as people from the community. The policy agenda has to come from the ground up. It has to come from those who are doing this work daily, who are part of the network, or who are being affected by the policies in terms of lived experience. So that definitely includes policies as it relates to education — K-12 into post-secondary education — and policies related to employment, housing and family stability.
Is there any concern about venturing into this political space and encountering partisan politics or political disputes?
I think that with the leadership team that we have currently and the technical assistance support from the Michigan League for Public Policy, I am not seeing that as a huge concern for us as a network, especially because the people who are a part of this network see the issues and we have unspoken alignment around some of these issues. We just are really developing this space in a networked world. I don’t think that’s an issue that we’re seeing as a large barrier to our work.
How has your experience growing up in Grand Rapids and as a Gates Millenium Scholar shaped your work in this space and prepared you for this role?
I’m asking myself that on a daily basis. I was in the post-secondary education community space prior to this role, and I was a partner of KConnect. When you talk about the relationship between how we engage the community and what our political agenda becomes, my experience is that I am the resident that I serve here. I am representing that voice as a Grand Rapidian. I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, left for college, came back, and then committed myself to post-secondary support for graduates and public school students. Just being able to highlight my lived experience, but also the lived experiences of those that are my neighbors, is just informing me every day and how I maneuver and navigate some of these conversations that can be tougher or can be disconnected from those that we’re serving. Being able to have that relationship between the workgroups and being actively informed and actively engaged is so important for me. And then just being a new mom and having things like child care and employment and things like that pop up for me in my life. It just gives me a totally different lens sitting around this table and bringing people together. I guess I am the resident I serve in this case.
Interview conducted and condensed by Andy Balaskovitz.
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