Challenging Education and Nonprofit Systems through Youth Leadership

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Challenging Education and Nonprofit Systems through Youth Leadership

Liz Moulthrop, Executive Director, El Sistema USA

Liz Moulthrop.

Recently, I was asked, “What are your hopes for the El Sistema field in the future?” All the obvious answers came to mind—grow the field, serve more students, increase funding. But what really excites me about the future of El Sistema and the larger equity-based music education field is the potential for our students to take on leadership roles within the field—both now and as they begin to enter the workforce.

This is an exciting time for our field. Many El Sistema USA programs are celebrating ten-year anniversaries and just now celebrating their first graduating high school and college classes. These are happy milestones, to be sure. They’re also opportunities. It’s no secret that our field struggles with teacher recruitment and retention, with a lack of diversity and community leadership among teachers and nonprofit leaders, and with a need for more culturally responsive curricula and classroom practices. If we can equip our students at a young age to be leaders within the field, then they will be more likely to engage with the field and with their communities in a variety of capacities as students and adults.

Not all students will choose to go into arts education or administration, but all can benefit from learning to use their voices to shape the world around them. Providing paid leadership and training opportunities to young people and creating intentional pathways to college and careers directly support our goals of equity, inclusion, and belonging. To be clear, youth leadership shouldn’t be the only way we address these challenges, but it is an integral part of creating shared power within nonprofit structures, promoting community leadership, and diversifying the field of teaching and nonprofits.

The Imbalance: Community Leadership and Shared Power

Let’s take a closer look at the nonprofit system in which many of our programs take place. The nonprofit sector at large struggles with diversifying leadership and creating authentic connections with the communities they serve. And this manifests itself at all organizational levels; according to the Board Source 2021 Leading with Intent Report, “Almost half (49%) of all chief executives said that they did not have the right board members to ‘establish trust with the communities they serve.’ Only a third of boards (32%) place a high priority on ‘knowledge of the community served,’ and even fewer (28%) place a high priority on ‘membership within the community served.’” How can nonprofits possibly meet the needs of any community if they don’t prioritize knowledge of the community served or retaining board members who live in the communities served? Isn’t this integral to our missions?

Source: The Conversation

Additionally, the Leading With Intent Report (see graphic above) shows that 87% of CEOs and 83% of Board Chairs are white, whereas only 60% of the U.S. population is white. This imbalance is even more stark when we examine the racial demographics of the populations being served. For example, within El Sistema USA, member programs serve a majority of students of color, yet our programs are taught and run by majority-white leaders. According to the ESUSA 2020 Census, 30% of teachers and 33% of Executive Directors in ESUSA member programs identify as Black or Hispanic, whereas 70% of students identify as Black or Hispanic.

While there is meaningful work being done in the field to address this imbalance, it continues to undermine the work we aim to do. We must establish new paradigms of community leadership if we want to create shared power and counter the pervasive realities of white saviorism within the larger nonprofit field. To ensure that our students, families, and community leaders are in the room when decisions are made, let’s invite our young people to the table early on and then give them the tools and the space to advocate for themselves and their communities.

Youth Leadership Plans Emerge Nationally

Youth leadership and peer mentoring have always been at the core of the field’s identity, and more ESUSA programs are formalizing these ideas on the local level through paid mentoring, administrative, and artistic positions. El Sistema USA has its own plans to develop youth leadership programming on a national level, with the first cohort of Youth Ambassadors being announced this year; Ambassadors will be paid to receive leadership training and curate sessions on youth voice and EDI at the 2023 National Symposium at Butler University.

The goal of prioritizing youth leadership—and youth apprenticeships (work-based learning programs)—is gaining traction nationally across other sectors as well. This year, the National Governors Association published a “State Policy Playbook To Advance Youth Apprenticeship” that urges states to develop workforce training and paid jobs for young people through state funding, partnerships, and policy. According to the report, “The largest share of youth workers are employed in low-wage jobs within the leisure and hospitality industry, and more than half of those youth do not have and are not making progress towards a postsecondary credential or degree to advance their career. In particular, disparities in the availability and quality of youth employment and postsecondary education opportunities persist along gender, race, ability, and socio-economic lines, mirroring trends across the broader workforce.” The report asserts that quality youth apprenticeship programs have a huge return on investment, offering the potential to develop pathways for young people into postsecondary education, providing access to higher-paying jobs and creating systemic impact.

Developing pathways for young people requires thoughtful mapping that doesn’t always yield instant gratification. It takes years for these pathways—from leadership programs into postsecondary education into careers—to play out. We must invest in and support students at all points of their journeys. If we are intentional about it, this investment in youth leadership has the potential to influence our field at all levels. Alumni who choose to remain involved with our field can take on a variety of roles, including arts administration, arts policy, community development, or teaching.

Again, this is an exciting time for our field! As arts leaders, we have the ability to flip the traditional education narrative on its head and put students in charge. The first generations of El Sistema USA students are graduating, entering the workforce, voting, and making an impact. As we enter the new year, let’s continue to challenge traditional nonprofit and educational structures and, in doing so, compound the impact of our organizations and our work.


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