Youth and Foundation Partnerships: A Conversation with Chris Covington

Photo used with permission from The California Endowment

This blog is adapted from an interview with Chris Covington, former member of The California Endowment’s President’s Youth Council, by CSSP staff members Laura Kreeger and Anand Sharma. Chris Covington offers reflections related to a recent CSSP Learning, Equity, and Power (LEaP) session, “Supporting and Embracing Youth Power: Lessons from The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative.” Learn more about LEaP here and watch a recording of the session here.

Laura Kreeger (CSSP): Can you tell us a little bit about how you first got involved with The California Endowment’s (TCE) Building Healthy Communities (BHC)?

Chris Covington: I first started to get involved in TCE or BHC back when they had a community meeting. At the time I was working as an intern for the council person of my neighborhood, and part of my role was to support community initiatives, so I wanted to check out this TCE meeting. And the meeting had about 50 stakeholders, mostly executive directors of non-profits, and department heads. They were all coming together to talk about how they would like to see a multimillion-dollar commitment into the Central Long Beach area. I sat through the meeting and wondered why all these stakeholders were making these huge decisions without any community members there. Why was there no outreach to include community residents in this meeting?

I got involved in BHC ever since and was committed to really having a voice in the process to make sure that those who are most vulnerable and often forgotten have a voice in this conversation and to constantly remind everybody of that. Through that commitment, there was an opportunity with TCE’s President’s Youth Council (PYC) and I applied and was accepted into the PYC.

Laura Kreeger: How has your time with TCE shaped how you view and understand community engagement and youth power?

Chris Covington: My time with TCE really allowed me to see all the levels of impact that community has. What I mean by that is the impact of resources, the impact of the community, the impact of decisions like policy, and then also the impact of institutions, what they can and cannot do based on policy decisions.

My time with TCE and the PYC really allowed me to have many different vantage points of how I can support my community. Is it community organizing? Is it advocacy? Is it policy development? Is it dollars? It allowed me to really have a full picture of the spectrum of support to my community or the spectrum of care. And even the spectrum of harm to our community to really be able to be an active player in the discourse, but also the policy or program development conversation.

Laura Kreeger: What is some advice that you would give to young people now who are just starting to get involved in work like this, working with foundations like TCE?

Chris Covington: One thing that I would say to young people is that these spaces were not developed for you, but if you find these spaces or hear about these spaces, crash them and take over. Oftentimes these meetings happen during school hours or on Zoom, and it’s all about who gets access to these spaces. What I would tell young people now is if you see something in your community that inspires you to take action, reach out in your community and see who is working towards the type of vision you want to see and ask, how can I support? How can I offer my skill set, my story to the space to make the vision that I want to see for myself and my community become a reality? And take up space.

Laura Kreeger: Where do you think philanthropy still needs to grow? How can foundations like TCE better support and partner with you?

Chris Covington: I feel foundations can improve by partnering with young people in an authentic and an intentional way. Young people have expertise and skills to share. If that means that a young person doesn’t have the tech equipment, provide the tech equipment. If the young person is sharing the emotional labor of telling their story or providing their skillset, just like any other partner or consultant, they should be compensated, just like any adult would. From my vantage point, TCE is one of very few foundations who are investing in youth in this way. My call out to foundations is to fund youth organizing because its evidence-based and proven to be successful in our communities.

Anand Sharma (CSSP): What else would you want foundations to know about what it means to be authentic and intentional?

Chris Covington: Meet people where they’re at. Depending on the young person that you’re working with, they have a full plate. They are in school. They are also possibly supporting their family in various ways. Offer either training, presentation, or understanding of what the opportunity is and how to show up in the space. Offer support and check in. Ask, “Hey, how did that meeting land? Was there anything that was confusing? Do you need any additional information?”

I call on philanthropy or adults to really challenge themselves and understand “adultism” and how “adultism” shows up in power and privilege in meeting spaces and how that plays out when working with young people. Do your homework of really understanding how these systems impact your way of working with young people and challenge those negative learnings, create new learnings of how to work with young people so that they are supported. When all folks are supported in the space and you have a culture and a practice of community care, then everyone is able to participate.

Laura Kreeger: Is there any other advice you would like to share with foundations?

Chris Covington: Foundations need to question who is in the room and who’s missing? Always open up a chair for someone who is missing from the conversation, and then ask who they think is missing from the conversation. Think about those who are left silenced, who are invisible, who are not at the table and make room for them.

Chris Covington is a former member of TCE’s President’s Youth Council.

Laura Kreeger is a program and research assistant at Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Anand Sharma is a senior associate at Center for the Study of Social Policy