Working Together to See Change: CSSP Susan Notkin’s Keynote Address at the Youth Thrive 2019 National Convening

To kick off the fourth-annual Youth Thrive National Convening held on November 11th to November 13th, Senior Vice President of Systems Change Susan Notkin delivered the first keynote of the 2019 conference to a room of youth activists, experts, and advocates working in child welfare, juvenile justice, youth homelessness, public and behavioral health, education, and after school programs—all of whom share the common belief that all youth deserve the supports needed to thrive.

Over the next two days, she encouraged attendees to share experiences from their communities and systems, learn from the intellectual exchange of cross-sector efforts and interventions happening across the country, and unite under a new narrative to recognize the clear potential of youth.

 “I believe we need a compelling new narrative that will unify us in valuing youth and their contributions and understanding them, not as “problems” or “problematic” but as powerful and promising,” said Notkin in her keynote address.  “This new narrative recognizes that our country’s future will be determined by the activist contributions of young people.”

Below, you can read Susan Notkin’s full keynote speech presented at the 3-day National Convening.

“Good morning.  I’m Susan Notkin and my pronouns are she, her, hers. First, I want to thank Arthur [Fidel Argomaniz] for guiding us through the land acknowledgment. Arthur, that was both moving and grounding. Thank you. And thank you, Carol [Spigner], for your leadership and for inspiring us every day by your humanity, wisdom, and urging for us work smarter on behalf of our nation’s children, youth and families.  Welcome everybody to New Orleans and to the fourth National Youth Thrive conference.  I hope you all enjoyed yesterday’s learning sessions and last night’s amazing band! We couldn’t do NOLA upright without a brass band to get us in the mood. What an inspiring kick off!


As I was looking forward to being with you here at the birthplace of American jazz, I realized that jazz was a perfect metaphor for the work we all do to help youth thrive. Let me explain. As with the music, our efforts are often improvisational and experimental. There’s no linear path to reform that we are following. We perform best when our own work, our voices, links to that of others. We use whatever instruments we can lay hands on to create the contagious rhythm of our beats. Occasionally we employ those “deliberate distortions” to the status quo for fashioning new harmonies and new directions. Together we are Jazz for Youth—is there a hashtag in our future?

Thank you for joining us and I’m grateful for your generous choice to leave behind the demands of personal and professional life… to spend three days with us to learn, share strategies, and take on new challenges.

This meeting reflects a kind of going public for Youth Thrive. After working with child welfare and juvenile justice agencies over the past several years we’re eager to share what we’ve learned about helping these public intervening systems to build the scaffolding necessary to ensure that youth realize their goals. This meeting also reflects our awareness that it will take people working with different populations and different change ideas to ensure that all youth are provided with the supports needed to thrive, prevail through adolescence and prepare for a productive, satisfying adulthood. As I know you agree, it will take all the energies of all parties to ensure that our nation’s youth are equipped to shape both their own and our society’s future.

This gathering brings together efforts underway in schools and afterschool programs; in systems and in communities; and in partnerships involving faith communities, parents, and especially youth themselves. And we celebrate this communion of all who play a critical role in providing youth with the skills and supports that are essential to thrive.

Recently, I was talking with colleagues at CSSP who work on initiatives to ensure that babies and young children are born healthy and become developmentally ready to learn by kindergarten. They shared with me early efforts underway in communities that are trying to weave together early childhood programs, early intervention, head start, home visiting and pediatric care into an integrated system of supports for these children and their families.  While these efforts have a long way to go, they talked about the progress they are making in building both a common vision of this critical period of childhood and the broad public will to act in securing young children a promising future. This inspiring and necessary momentum around early childhood got me thinking. Despite all that we know from experience and research about adolescent development, and despite all our collective efforts, we have yet to achieve a similar critical mass motivating a comprehensive call to action on behalf of youth. 

And that reflection raises further questions. What would be needed to declare that every locality has the foundation all youth deserve to thrive in their homes, schools, communities and jobs?  What’s required for youth who have known adversity and marginalization—either because they’ve been in foster care, juvenile justice, or experienced the ordeal of homelessness—to be afforded opportunities to thrive? Lastly, what’s needed—what kind of seismic shift is necessary—for every young person to be treated with justice and equity by our service systems and society at large regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, ability level, and legal status?

This conference showcases a wide range of interventions and efforts that propose answers to these big questions.  Each workshop, each speaker, each of you here today are all moving parts working to promote a better future for young people. Some focus on helping youth succeed in school or ending the school to prison pipeline.  Others focus on building preventive services to help youth avoid foster care, homelessness or juvenile justice involvement in the first place.  Some are working in intervening public systems to promote youth well-being and healthy development.  Some help youth with behavioral and health needs access services in their communities. And many, in the process, mobilize youth to lead the way for crucial changes in policies, systems, and communities.

We are all about dreaming of the something better, right? Where efforts could co-exist in communities all across the country in an integrated agenda focused on thriving youth? That may be an ambitious dream, but it isn’t too much to hope that over the next two days each one of us will learn about something happening in a different space than the one we traditionally operate in. That an “aha” moment here will become an inroad to connect with colleagues back home in different systems to find opportunities for a common local agenda on behalf of youth. So how do these cross-sector conversations get started?

The answer to that question is obviously multi-faceted and complex but I’d like to offer some ideas for how we can get started down this path.   To do that I believe we need a compelling new narrative that will unify us in valuing youth and their contributions and understanding them, not as “problems” or “problematic” but as powerful and promising.  This new narrative recognizes that our country’s future will be determined by the activist contributions of young people. 

Slide 3.

Look at these inspiring images, or better yet look around at the amazing young people with us at this conference.  All of them are calling attention to inequities and what can be done about them, all voice their commitments to making the world a better place, and all bring their insights, creativity, energy, and passion to demand social change. The new narrative recognizes that youth are our innovators, our change agents, some of our best communicators and our future leaders. As Robert Kennedy said, “This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.” It so happens he really was championing “a time of life”—namely, youth, for they are the ones who excel in these virtues.

This new narrative must also be grounded in a basic understanding of adolescent brain development. Through that we would then be able to view aspects of adolescent behavior—the risk-taking and challenges to authority for what they are—developmentally appropriate to a young person’s coming into one’s own. We need to spread the message that the adolescent brain is a ‘work in progress’ with its ability to change, grow and heal.  By understanding what is going on during this period of development we could look at through different eyes a young person’s thirst for taking in new information, testing limits, exploring new relationships, trying on new identities. In fact, this awareness would allow us to see the incredible power that these skills, insights, and energy will inevitably play in challenging the way things have always been done in the past.  By fully appreciating what happens in the adolescent brain we would not only grasp the disruptive role that adversity plays in that development, but we would also appreciate the role that adults play in providing opportunities for positive experiences, learning, transformative relationships, and healing. Unfortunately, though despite this research being known to us for over two decades far too few teachers, police officers, coaches, child welfare and juvenile justice workers have even a basic understanding of this critical period of development. To move forward with a new narrative about youth—to be able to sing from the same song sheet, if you will, we need to ensure that we share a common understanding of adolescent development. Because only through that can we advance a conversation about youth potential and how we as a society can go about delivering on it.

This new narrative must also emphasize that every young person’s contribution is necessary in shaping a more just society. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind because of where they live, the adversity they have experienced or the opportunities they have been denied. And so, this narrative must clearly call out and fight the role that racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia have played in ensuring that some young people have been excluded from fully participating and realizing their potential.

And finally, our unified narrative about youth must stop perpetuating stereotypes or blaming youth for bad outcomes when we should be holding our systems accountable for failing our young people. Obviously, our thrust here is indebted to the groundbreaking theory on damage imagery put forward by Darryl Michael Scott and Khalil Muhammed (who you’ll be hearing from over lunch).  We need to be careful in how we share data that creates a picture of youth in our country. Consider the low graduation rates of youth in foster care or in detention. If we present a context for this, it’s clear how our education, mental health, and child welfare systems share responsibility for the data—multiple moves from placement to placement disrupting continuity of education; inadequate access to transportation to get back to one’s school of origin despite the passage of the Every Student Success Act; inadequate mental health services in schools and zero-tolerance policies that result in suspensions and expulsions that disproportionally impact youth of color.

Taken together such a new narrative can build bridges across diverse settings and with diverse populations.  It can open doors for people to find a common purpose and to recognize where they fit in with regard to promoting youth success.  Ultimately it can also provide the framework for a national call to action and upon which we can develop a comprehensive youth policy agenda.    

Now, I started by reflecting on the beauty of jazz.  Let me end by conjuring up the image of another related NOLA grand tradition: the second line parade. 

Slide 2.

You’re all undoubtedly familiar with this celebration of life, love, history, and community.  What separates the Second Line parade from other traditional parades is that everyone gets to participate.  Yes, the band leads the way but then the second line joins in—the friends, neighbors, family, community all dancing to the same rocking sounds of the brass band.  Well, in our case, young people are our first line. It is up to all of us—the teachers, faith leaders, legislators, advocates, youth workers, coaches, business owners, service providers, judges, and parents—to follow their lead, back them up and fight beside them in creating a society committed to delivering on youth power and potential.  We are the second line. Now let’s go and follow the band!   Thank you.”

To find out more about Youth Thrive, visit the initiative’s page here.