LAYC’s inclusion as one of eight pre-selected grantees in President Obama’s Social Innovation Fund administered by the Corporation for Community and National Service got me thinking about the word “innovation.”

How did LAYC from its humble grassroots beginning forty years ago find its way into a prestigious and challenging national social movement? Thinking about this question, the first thing I did was look up “innovation” in the dictionary to make sure I really understood what it meant. “Something new or different”; “the act of introducing new things or methods”: having read that fairly simple definition representing an incredibly important process, I am confident that LAYC belongs at the table when any group of thought leaders reflects on the meaning of this word.

Since the day I wandered into the LAYC, we have been in constant motion. In many ways, LAYC’s constant is innovation. Introducing new things or methods is the foundation of our success. As a regional community-based multi-service organization, our passion is to respond to the needs, challenges, and opportunities of the community around us, one that we are a part of and that we serve. As a youth development organization connecting to the huge force of nature known as “young people,” we know that they thrive on the energy and movement that innovation requires. Yet, innovation is a continually moving target and concept: LAYC’s innovative methods and practices in the ‘70s were different from those of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we continue to create new ways of meeting young people needs in today’s aging new millennium. As I have guided this journey, I know that LAYC’s doors would have been shuttered many years ago had we not been constantly “innovating”!

LAYC’s innovations over the years have been out in front of social movement trends, catching the front end of the wave a bit before anyone else. Our innovations have also been developed based on the needs of our community.

  • In the ‘60s and ‘70s, LAYC painted the first murals in the District of Columbia capturing the protest movements and social messaging of those tumultuous decades in Latin America. LAYC had to beg people to give us a wall to paint; today, LAYC murals and those of many other organizations in the District of Columbia are beautifully commonplace.
  • In the ‘70s and ‘80s, LAYC created the first Latino and African American youth theatre focused on AIDS. The illness was just becoming known; disinformation was rampant in communities of color where the infection was high. LAYC’s groundbreaking work was filmed by the Centers for Disease Control and distributed throughout the country.
  • In the ‘90s faced with a community in distress, LAYC responded to the Mt. Pleasant riots and the exploding needs of youth and families through innovation. We were on the front end of the national charter school movement, maintaining our community-based perspective while founding one of the first schools in the District of Columbia to receive a charter: Next Step/El Próximo Paso, which thrives today as drop-out re-entry public charter schools. LAYC YouthBuild, our second drop-out re-entry public charter school, is also flourishing, as is the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Charter School, an innovative Montessori bilingual public charter school, one of the first of its kind in the country. LAYC was the first to bring AmeriCorps to our community, recruiting neighborhood youth to serve as volunteers. This program continues to grow and last month was highlighted as a “best practice.”
  • More recently, many of you who read this blog supported LAYC’s experiment in social enterprise through eating ice cream at one of our Ben & Jerry scoop shops.

These innovations and many more over the decades have kept LAYC fresh and on the front end of trends. Innovation has kept youth streaming through our doors. Most importantly, innovation has helped us get our desired results: engaged and healthy young adults who contribute to family and community.

Along the way, as innovators, we have had hurdles to jump. I often hear that LAYC does too much, that we have mission creep, that we should limit our passion for innovation as we have gotten too big–or that we are not big enough. Several years ago, we were told that all of our anecdotal success stories were good, but we needed to go much deeper to prove that our innovations led to results. As innovators always do, we tackled that challenge, which leads us to today and our exciting achievement to be included in the Social Innovation Fund.

LAYC’s Promotor Pathway, the innovation highlighted by the Social Innovation Fund as a part of Venture Philanthropy Partner’s winning application, comes with new and additional requirements aligned to the trends of the current decade, which are informed by business models and strategic plans. Impact, return on investment, evidence-based research, and potential for replication are today linked to the definition of innovation. Is innovation best served by these criteria? That’s an on-going and extremely important conversation-and a discussion for a different time.

In typical LAYC fashion, undaunted by this challenge, our most recent innovation, our trailblazing Promotor Pathway, is designed to transform the lives of the highest-risk and highest-need youth while seeking to prove its value through a long-term evaluation focusing on results. Today the Promotor Pathway is known as a promising model. When the 40-month external evaluation with random control group is completed, I anticipate that the Pathway will join a group of evidence-based models with proven impact and replicable outcomes. LAYC will be proud when that day comes, when our innovation of today proves to be tomorrow’s “high impact, evidence-based, return-on-investment” model that others throughout the country and world may want to replicate.

Forty months is a way off, and the young people and communities we serve continue to face new challenges. So, stay tuned: LAYC will keep innovating and leading the way.

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