Our 2020 Legislative Priorities

Recently, the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Nan Roman, shared the three elements she’s observed in communities that have successfully ended homelessness: data, funding, and buy-in from political leadership. Throughout the year, we work hard to make sure communities around the state have all three of these elements. During the legislative session, we are zoned in on securing state funding that goes towards effective solutions and working alongside elected officials who support policies that benefit young people.

Our Advocacy Day in 2019

The 2019 legislative session was full of victories for the movement to end youth and young adult homelessness. The state budget included $8.5 million for the Office of Homeless Youth, which included $4 million for the Anchor Community Initiative. We saw important policy changes, like the end of juvenile detention for status offenses and the requirement that no public system of care discharges young people into homelessness.

In 2020, we return to Olympia to advocate for:

·       The Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF) – Our goal has always been to increase communities’ capacity, so when a young person says “Yes, I need help,” their community can say “Yes, we can help.” The CDF is a flexible fund that organizations around the state can access to help young people stay housed, whether that means helping meet a deposit on an apartment or helping with a car repair to help a young person stay employed and make their rent. To ensure the CDF launches with ample funds to support communities, we will advocate for our legislators to include $500,000 towards the CDF in the state budget.

·       Protecting Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) – Young people in the foster care system make up a high percentage of CSEC. We will advocate for the creation of two receiving centers to help CSEC receive treatment and return to their communities, and to keep youth from facing criminal prostitution charges.

·       Family Reunification Services Program – When families receive the support they need before they become involved in systems like child welfare or juvenile justice, we strengthen families and prevent homelessness. We will advocate for increased capacity and expertise in culturally relevant prevention and early intervention services.

·       Behavioral Health Funding – Our 2018 study found that 1,200 young people experienced homelessness within 12 months of exiting inpatient behavioral health treatment that year. We will advocate for funding to ensure that young people exiting treatment have safe housing and follow-up care.

·       Extending Children’s Mental Health Workgroup (CMHWG) – The CMHWG advises the legislature on improving behavioral health services and strategies for children, youth, young adults and their families. The work group has identified barriers and opportunities to ensure these services are accessible, effective, timely, culturally and linguistically relevant and supported by evidence. The group sunsets in 2020; based on its proven efficacy and leadership we will advocate to extend its lifespan.

In addition, we will keep advocating for the necessary budget to successfully implement the policies passed in 2019. We will also support our partners’ legislative priorities, like the Office of Homeless Youth’s request for housing for minors and The Mockingbird Society’s work to help youth and young adults experiencing homelessness access IDs.

We are deeply appreciative of all our supporters who contacted their elected officials in 2019 and urged them to champion the needs of young people. Sign up to our email alerts to stay up to date on all our advocacy actions!

Our 2019 Highlights

Our Executive Director, Jim Theofelis, has dedicated his life to helping young people, as an advocate, a clinician and a leader in the movement to reform foster care and end youth and young adult homelessness. He reflects on what 2019 meant for A Way Home Washington and the movement to end youth and young adult homelessness.

Throughout the year, the A Way Home Washington staff has been working hard to end youth and young adult homelessness. There are community leaders to meet, data to analyze, communities to coach and press releases to write. As 2019 comes to a close, I took a pause to think about what we’ve accomplished this year. I’m blown away by the dedicated, mission-driven people I am proud to call colleagues and partners. In no particular order, here are my top ten 2019 highlights:

1.       The momentum in the Anchor Communities. A year after we launched the initiative, we hosted update events in each community, and we got to see how much the movement has grown across the state.

From Walla Walla to Yakima, all the community updates were full of energy!

2.       A strong team. Our staff has grown to be nine people strong. I’m humbled to work alongside these bright, passionate and hardworking individuals every day. They keep me sharp!

3.       $8.5 million for the Office of Homeless Youth. We joined the voices of advocates around the state who believe in funding the Office of Homeless Youth. Our advocacy paid off when the state legislature included $8.5 million for OHY in the budget, including $4 million for the Anchor Community Initiative!

4.       The passage of SB 5290. Young people deserve services, not detention. I am in awe of all the courageous young people who advocated to pass this bill, and it was an honor to be in the room when Governor Inslee signed it into law.

We presented an award to The Mockingbird Society for their leadership in advocating for SB 5290

5.       Enhancing our public profile. You may have seen a lot more social media posts, blogs and newsletters from us this year. I’m pleased to see us flexing our communications muscle so that more people can learn about our work. Sign up to our newsletter for monthly updates!

6.       Strong partnerships. The Anchor Community Initiative has rallied communities around a North Star, and efforts like the Host Home Coalition have brought together key players around the state around important issues. I’m proud that we can help bring partners together and lead the charge against youth and young adult homelessness.

7.       Young people’s leadership. I’ve always believed that the perspectives and expertise of young people with lived experience are integral to finding solutions. Young people are part of all our Anchor Community teams because without them, we don’t have a movement.

8.       Funding the Anchor Community Initiative through 2022. Thanks to the generosity of our philanthropic partners, we can sustain the infrastructure of the Anchor Community Initiative through 2022. That means that whenever we receive additional funding from the legislature or donors, we can pour that money right into service in the communities.

9.       Convening our partners. In October we had our annual Anchor Community Initiative convening and State Table. Seeing our partners from around the state in one room, putting our heads together to end youth and young adult homelessness, was a true joy.

Taking a page out of Nonprofit AF and adding a cute animal picture from the picnic!

10.   Picnicking with our furry friends. Even though it was a busy year, it’s important that we find time to rest and recharge our energies. I enjoyed spending a few moments of camaraderie with my colleagues at our summer picnic, and meeting their families of the human and canine varieties!

This work we’re doing, it’ll have a monumental impact on the lives of young people. Sustainable change, the type of change that will last for seven generations, is not easy to achieve. When I think about what it will take to end  youth and young adult homelessness, I think about all the courageous individuals and organizations who have said “Yes” to the work. Thank you for all that you do!

What a Data-Driven Culture Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, trauma-informed practice and a data-driven culture. Our Data and Evaluation Director, Liz, writes about how data informs our work at A Way Home Washington.

You don’t count unless you’re counted.” It’s a common refrain in the data community, and for me it gets to the root of why we need data to achieve racial and LGBTQ+ equity. Data gives us the information we need to make informed decisions and to evaluate whether our initiatives are yielding equitable outcomes.

Data is the foundation of the Anchor Community Initiative. It all starts with a question that seems simple: “How many young people are experiencing homelessness in your community?” But we hear from our communities that answering this question is much more complex than it seems. It requires developing new processes to collect and analyze data, updating data infrastructure and building partnerships and protocols across all public systems of care. The first stage of the Anchor Community Initiative is about laying down the groundwork to answer this question in real time.

Liz taking her data expertise to the next level at the 2019 Tableau Conference

But the data work doesn’t stop there. It’s not enough to know how many young people are experiencing homelessness. We also need to know their race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity so we can address any disparities in their experiences. Are young people of color experiencing homelessness at higher rates? Are LGBQ young people returning to homelessness at higher rates? Are trans young people spending a longer time experiencing homelessness? Data will help us answer these questions and shine a light on equity issues within our system.

For this work to be effective, we need to ask critical questions of our data. Otherwise, inequities can hide behind the numbers, or a population may be entirely absent from our data set. This was the case at a national data conference I attended last year, where a Continuum of Care presented their data. I noticed that demographic data such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity was not included in their data dashboards. When I asked the presenter about it, she said that they had no LGBTQ+ young people showing up in their data. She concluded that the community “didn’t have any LGBTQ+ young people”.

I cannot stress enough that just because a population, or multiple populations, are not showing up in data does not mean that they don’t exist. In our coaching work with Anchor Communities, we are asking constantly asking: Is the data accurate? Is our system counting everyone? Are we collecting data in a respectful and responsive way? The answer to all of these questions needs to be “yes” because the next stage of our work will be using this data to drive towards an equitable end to youth and young adult homelessness.

I’m extremely proud of the work that Anchor Communities are doing to embed a data-driven culture centered on racial and LGBTQ+ equity. Recently, Yakima made the local decision to collect sexual orientation data at youth and young adult Coordinated Entry access points. This change is an excellent example of how starting with data can lead to community-wide culture shifts. Ultimately, these shifts will create safer and more supportive environments for all young people experiencing homelessness, and especially for young people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+.

What Trauma-Informed Practice Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Coaching and Improvement Manager, Ashley, writes about how trauma informs our work at A Way Home Washington.

“When you get housed, staff is constantly hounding you to get a job and make the rent. When I was on the streets I couldn’t break down and fall apart, I had to stay strong every second. Now I’m in housing and feel safe for the first time in years, and I just need to lock myself in my room and feel my feelings. But no, they kick you out for that.”

This is how one young person described their experience in housing programs to me when I worked at The Mockingbird Society. I got to work closely with young people who exited homelessness into housing programs, and I heard stories of young people who were continually kicked out of shelter and housing. One lost their housing for three days after they returned smelling like weed. Another asked for a night away to attend their dad’s wedding, had their request denied and then got kicked out for going anyway. Yet another was asked to leave for being behind on their “productive hours.”

Trauma is ubiquitous and ongoing for young people experiencing homelessness. Young people of color and LGBTQ+ young folks must also survive racism, homophobia and transphobia while experiencing trauma. Feeling unsafe for long periods of time causes people to stay in a state of hypervigilance, or what young people call ‘survival mode’. They need to constantly watch their backs and focus on surviving the next night, so situations that may not feel threatening to a person who has not experienced trauma may lead to bigger reactions than housing program staff expect.

These are extremely difficult experiences, and young people are not healed the second they get housed. They can’t just switch off from survival mode immediately. Yet our programs and services are constructed as if they could. We want young people working, paying rent and being “productive” as soon as possible once they’re housed. We aren’t prepared to respond to young people’s reactions when they’re still living in survival mode. We expect them to live inside, often in group settings, with no peer conflict and with totally new coping mechanisms.

A system designed to serve young people wouldn’t result in so much cycling through programs. The fact that young people are able to navigate these systems that weren’t designed with their needs in mind is a testament to their resilience. In many cases, young people are relying on their own strength to survive and thrive despite of the system, not because of it.   

The Adolescent Health Working Group provider toolkit on trauma is a helpful resource

We need to transform the system and stop treating young people like their trauma will abruptly end the second they’re housed. On the individual level, we need to work with young people in ways that take their traumatic experiences into account, and we need to recognize their trauma responses for what they are. At a societal level, we need to dismantle toxic systems, policies and practices that create environments primed for trauma.

At A Way Home Washington, we are committed to transforming our statewide system in partnership with young people themselves. We need a system that sees each young person as whole, capable, smart and deserving. We want to address the root causes of homelessness and trauma to create a Yes to Yes system with the capacity to support each young person in the way each young person needs to be supported.

Recently, I attended a Learning Session hosted by Community Solutions. During one of the workshops, the facilitator asked participants to list the barriers to housing people may experience. The answers were familiar: No job. Refuses housing. Mental illness. And then, the facilitator asked us to change the way we think about these barriers. Instead of seeing these characteristics as barriers that keep people from being housed, we should think about the barriers our systems put up to keep people with these characteristics from being housed.

The Anchor Community Initiative is working to actively identify the barriers keeping their local systems from being responsive to young people. Communities then address these barriers through coaching and support from experts. If a barrier is too big for a single community to solve, we work in partnership with the Office of Homeless Youth to advocate for policy and funding changes at the state level. Through this approach, we know that we’ll be able to build trauma-informed Yes to Yes systems.

Centering Youth Voice

Youth partnership is critical to ending youth and young adult homelessness, and it is one of our core values at A Way Home Washington. Sierra Phillips is one of our youth partnership consultants, and she shares how she has seen this work make an impact on youth and young adult engagement.

Adultism training. Being unafraid to fail. A high level of community participation. Funding for diversion programs. Accountability. These are a few of the things our Anchor Communities, Pierce, Walla Walla, Yakima, and Spokane, were proud of during the recent annual convening. And I am proud of working with an organization that consistently incorporates these values into the work we do.

Sierra presenting at the convening

I’ve been working as a consultant with A Way Home Washington for the past 8 months, and I’ve been helping the Anchor Community Initiative team make sure that youth and young adults are centered in activities like the annual convening. In preparation for the event, I was able to sit down with the team that works on the initiative every day, and with members of the local teams like Carla, an amazing young person from Walla Walla. Through this preparation, I gained the contextual knowledge I needed to make sure my recommendations helped the team come closer to their goal of centering young people in all activities.

The annual convening was a lot of fun. On the day of the event, I got the chance to connect with and meet some rad people, including the young people who are part of each community’s team. I learned what each community was doing and how their goals would impact their future work. And because we were intentional about creating a space where young people’s voices are heard, I believe this event helped each community better understand why youth and young adult engagement is so important in this work.  

I am encouraged to see that youth and young adult engagement is central to A Way Home Washington’s work, and that I continue to be consulted for my expertise on this topic. Over the past months, I’ve been called in to assist with interview panels for staff hiring at A Way Home Washington and work planning sessions for the Anchor Community Initiative.

I hope my future includes more of this work. It is because of A Way Home Washington and other similar agencies that I believe I am more than my story. I don’t have to sit on a stage and be paraded around as “the homeless person.” I am strong, I am capable, and I can do whatever I set my mind too. My future hopes and dreams today are much bigger than they previously were. I feel empowered with the knowledge that I do have a voice that matters in this work and I want other young people to feel that way as well.

The Time Is Right for Sustainable Change

Our Executive Director, Jim Theofelis, has dedicated his life to helping young people, as an advocate, a clinician and a leader in the movement to reform foster care and end youth and young adult homelessness. Previously, Jim shared why the time is right for solutions in Washington and why solutions must lead to systemic and structural change. Today, Jim shares what sustainable change means to him.

When I think about the reasons why I do this work, I think about the 16-year-old experiencing homelessness today. I also think about how this work will help the 5-year-old who doesn’t know that they may be vulnerable to homelessness one day. To me, sustainability means that our work will help young people today, tomorrow and into the future. The systems we help create to serve young people must continue to exist even as time passes, staff changes and organizations change.

I’m inspired by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s Seventh Generation value when I think about building a system that will serve young people today and will continue serving young people for years to come. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is made of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca peoples, whose Constitution influenced the very Constitution we follow today. Their Seventh Generation value states that for any decision we make, we must consider the impact it will have today and for generations into the future.   

We need to adopt this same perspective in our work. We need to think about how our decisions will not just impact the lives of young people and families accessing resources today, but seven generations from now as well. This means that we need to be honest and truly ask ourselves whether today’s systems were created to serve all young people and families equitably, and acknowledge the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community and people of color have historically been underserved and at times even harmed by public systems.  We cannot forget this history when we make decisions today so we can do better by all families.

In the past few years, I’ve seen hopeful signs that as a state we’ve started to adopt this forward thinking. I worked on and applaud the creation of the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Programs (OHY) to carry this work forward at the state level. OHY will continue to award grants, hold state level relationships and advocate for preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness far into the future. Together, we have advocated for Anchor Community Initiative funding in the state budget, leading to $4 million dedicated to services in communities around Washington.

Jim presents a Mockingbird Youth Leadership award to Ryan Tobiasson, Spokane Mockingbird Chapter and Anchor Community team member

And nothing gives me more hope for the future than seeing more and more organizations realizing that we need young people’s leadership and involvement if we want to create a system that works for them. When I founded The Mockingbird Society, compensating young people for their expertise and input was a new and innovative idea. Now, instances of tokenism and pizza instead of real compensation grow more and more rare, and genuine partnership with young people is becoming the expectation. Young people’s wisdom and experience is increasingly shaping community plans and programs meant to last generations.

I’ve heard many young people and their families say that they need access to resources and support before even entering any systems. We need to look upstream at solutions like diversion and school support to truly help all young people and families. Well-funded and accessible diversion programs can make the difference between keeping stable housing and facing homelessness for families who need these resources. And as the first point of contact for many youth, schools that have the resources and capacity to support young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability have the potential to quickly connect families to services and resources. These types of interventions can help us strengthen families and prevent homelessness.

We can’t stop doing this work until we can answer the question “Who do our systems serve?” with “Everyone.” And once we achieve this goal, we need to make sure we’re prepared to carry this work forward at all levels. We need to do it for the 16-year-old experiencing homelessness today, for the 5-year-old whose future our decisions will impact, and for the next seven generations. That’s what sustainable change really looks like.

Meet Our Student Stability Manager!

Working with schools is critical to ending youth and young adult homelessness. Megan Johnson joins the Anchor Community Initiative as the Student Stability Manager to create and implement a schools strategy. Megan tells us why this issue is so important to her, and why we need to work with schools to achieve our mission.

Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in empowering people. As an addiction counselor, I wanted to empower my clients to take the steps they needed to live the lives they wanted. When I went back to school for a Master’s in Public Administration, I was driven by my belief that effective policy driven by the voices of those who are impacted can empower entire communities.

My graduate program required a Master’s thesis, and at first I thought my thesis would be about equity in the workplace. I wanted to focus on wages, and how they had not kept up with the cost of living in the region over the past thirty years, leading to homelessness, poverty, and a host of other social problems.  That was my plan  up until the very day we had to discuss our thesis topics in class. I remember I was driving to Seattle University and I was sitting at a stoplight on James Street, listening to a story on NPR about students experiencing homelessness in Washington State.

Megan, her dad and her stepmom on her graduation day

The story started talking about Schoolhouse Washington data, and how around our state approximately 40,000 youth ages 12-18 are experiencing homelessness on any given night.  Maybe I was tired after a long day, or maybe the topic just hit close to home, or most likely both, but I started crying.  To me, that statistic was unacceptable. We cannot allow tens of thousands of children and youth to live without a stable place to call home during their formative years. So, on my way to class, I decided to change my thesis topic and focus on student homelessness instead.

As I worked on my thesis, I saw firsthand how deep inequity runs in our systems. Across different school districts, schools around the state vary wildly in their resources to support students experiencing homelessness and in their capacity to apply for grants. These disparities lead to vastly different outcomes for students of color and students in rural communities – Schoolhouse Washington recently reported that six out of ten students experiencing homelessness are students of color, and that students in rural areas experience homelessness at a higher rate.  These appalling statistics propel me. They drive me to devote my work to this issue because students of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, religions and housing circumstances deserve equitable access to education.

To end youth and young adult homelessness, we need to work in partnership with the school system. Many times, school is the only constant place for students experiencing homelessness. We need buy in from all levels, from superintendents to McKinney Vento liaisons. My work will focus on developing strategies to work with all these important stakeholders at every stage of the Anchor Community Initiative. As we continue to work towards quality, real-time data, it is imperative to work with schools to ensure unaccompanied students experiencing homelessness are included in the By-Name List. Once we have quality data and we begin working on reducing homelessness, we need to partner with schools to implement improvement projects that will reduce student homelessness.

I’m excited to be part of a project with a data-driven approach. Student homelessness exists in every community in our state, and data will help everyone in our state understand that. I am optimistic that our state cares for young people, and that the community will rally to improve outcomes for all students. It is up to every person in Washington state to improve outcomes for all youth and young adults.

What Youth Partnership Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Coaching and Improvement Manager, Ashley, writes about what youth partnership means at A Way Home Washington.

In the youth homelessness world, we know that we need the expertise of young people with lived experience to improve systems. Throughout my entire career, I’ve worked in spaces that seek to empower youth. In that time, I’ve seen my share of missteps when it comes to youth engagement, and I’ve seen what it takes to achieve positive youth engagement.

 Some organizations operate under the premise that any access to leadership opportunities is good for young people, even when they haven’t had a say in shaping these opportunities. I’ve been shocked to see organizations lead Youth Advocacy Days with no policy agenda, much less one written by young people. In these instances, the opportunity to talk to state representatives is seen as benefit enough for young people.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen organizations gather input and recommendations from young people only to keep them out of project implementation. I remember one focus group where young people were invited to give their interpretation of a third-party dataset, and they spoke passionately on the topic. Afterwards, the facilitators never followed up with young people as they wrote a report based on their insights – a report that continues to be referenced nationally. I’ve seen this type of situation time and time again, where young people deliver important insights without their expertise being valued in the same way as that of older folks. They don’t get to own the ideas or products they’ve informed, and they’re not treated as partners in the work.

In a sector that’s committed to youth voice, choice and leadership, we can’t keep repeating these patterns. Young people with diverse experiences and identities must be involved in our work from idea to implementation. In these instances, young people can grow their skills, build connections and move toward stability, AND our systems improve through their involvement.

In the Anchor Community Initiative, we are working alongside young people and the community to re-imagine what co-creation means. Each Anchor Community team includes at least two young people with lived experience, and in the next phase of work we want to take youth partnership to the next level by:

Ashley poses for a selfie with Sierra, one of our youth partnership consultants

1)      Engaging a diverse group of young people. We’re building out youth engagement plans to make sure that multiple young people, with a diversity of experiences and identities, are involved in Anchor Community work.

2)      Developing young people as co-leaders. We’re helping communities move beyond simply having youth representation on their teams, and into co-creating meeting agendas, co-facilitating meetings and having key roles in the implementation of improvement projects.

I am thankful that it’s becoming the norm in the youth homelessness world to include young people with lived experience in the creation of the systems that will impact their lives. It is heartening to see older folks invite young people to their meetings and initiatives. But we need to be clear that this is only the first step in our journey to co-creating solutions with young people.

When we work with young people, we need to let go of the expectation that they need to adapt to older folks’ way of doing things. Our workplace norms were created according to the dominant culture – that means they align to the preferences of men, white people, older adults and so on. If we’re serious about working in partnership with young people – and to end youth and young adult homelessness we have to be! – we need to co-create spaces so everyone can be a full, respected participant in the process.

Why We Say Latinx

As an organization, we value equity and engaging communities in culturally sensitive ways. Our Communications Director, Sully, reflects on the importance of the words we use in our efforts to be an equitable and inclusive organization.

As a communications professional and an advocate for racial equity, I know that words have power. I carefully consider what every word I write for A Way Home Washington conveys about our organization’s values. I will always write about young people experiencing homelessness – not about “kids” or “the homeless” – because our values reject adultism and dehumanization. That care went into choosing the word Latinx for our organizational voice.

At the Central American Festival with a fellow Panamanian wearing one of our traditional dresses

I’ve spent a long time thinking about what it means to be Latinx. I was born and raised in Panama, and for the first nineteen years of my life, I was simply Panamanian. I moved to the United States as a college student, and I remember the exact moment when I realized that here, my identity was more complicated. My university offered a course called Hispanic Marketing, and a classmate asked me if I could complete a survey for US Hispanics to help her with an assignment for that course. As an international student, I did not feel that I fit in that label. But my classmate assured me that anyone living in the United States with ties to Latin America was considered a US Hispanic.

Since then, so many layers and nuance have been added to the way I identify. In my heart, I will always be Panamanian. But after ten years in the United States, I’ve learned that when people of color stand together, we are much stronger in our fight for justice. So I also identify as an immigrant, a person of color and a Latinx person.

I chose the word Latinx for myself because it aligns with my values. It is a word that was created by the community, unlike Hispanic, which was created by the US government. Spanish is a gendered language where every noun is either masculine or feminine, including nouns used to refer to people like Latino and Latina. When there is a group of mixed gender, even if it is a group of 9 people who identify as female and one who identifies as male, the group is always referred to as masculine. Using Latino to refer to the whole community centers masculinity, while Latinx decenters masculinity. Latinx also makes room for all gender identities and expressions since it is neither a masculine nor a feminine word. In a culture where LGBTQ+ identity is still stigmatized, I find it very important to stand with people who identify outside the gender binary. For all these reasons, it also felt right to choose Latinx for A Way Home Washington.

Now, it’s important to also recognize that the Latinx community is made of people with a wide variety of experiences, opinions and stories. That means that there is no community consensus on how to label our identity – look no further than the comment thread on any community website that uses the word Latinx to see the full range of emotion it stirs up. When it comes to individual people, we should always refer to them using the words they choose for themselves. But when we talk about the whole community, I choose the word that is most inclusive.

Racial equity is a journey with lots of learning along the way. That means we always need to be open to hearing different ways of thinking. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the idea that words like Latino and Latinx erase the indigenous roots of so many people from Latin America. If a few years from now, the community creates a new term that is even more inclusive than Latinx, my understanding of my identity and my community may continue to evolve, and the words I choose may change. Until then, I continue to be fiercely, proudly, loudly Latinx.

Getting an Initiative Started

When we’re working towards a big goal – like, let’s say, ending youth and young adult homelessness – choosing where to start can be the most challenging step. We ask ourselves, will this first step lead to the change we want to see? Our team learned how to answer this tricky question when Community Solutions trained us on continuous quality improvement.

The concept behind continuous quality improvement is simple: If you want to improve a process, test a small change. If you see improvement, stick with it and test it on a larger scale. If you don’t see improvement, try something else. The key is to clearly define what improvement means and to start with small changes that are easy to implement. For example, an organization with the goal of serving more young people per day could start by testing a new version of their intake questionnaire and measuring the impact this has on their results.

Our expert paper plane engineers

To help us really grasp the concept, Community Solutions gave us an assignment: Make a paper plane and measure how far it flies. Then, make small changes to the plane design with the goal of flying it farther. With our limited knowledge of physics and the laws of aerodynamics, we set out to fly a paper plane farther than any nonprofit ever has before! We’re not sure if we set any records, but we did learn some important lessons about testing changes and measuring impact:

  1. Test one change at a time. We decided that the smaller and lighter a plane, the farther it must fly. So, we cut slits in the plane’s wings and we cut the plane shorter. It was…unsuccessful. And we realized that by testing two changes at once, we couldn’t tell which of these changes was the culprit. Similarly, if an organization tries changing their intake questionnaire AND making it available online at the same time, it would be hard to tell which change impacted results.
  2. Some changes are hard to undo. Once we cut a third of our plane off, there was no going back. If we wanted a full-size plane again, we had to start over. Before testing a change, organizations must consider whether it’s possible to go back on it if it doesn’t lead to improvement.
  3. The importance of iterating. We realized that drastic changes were delaying our process since we had to start over if they didn’t work. We shifted our focus to small, incremental changes. Let’s say that changing the intake questionnaire did help the organization serve more young people per day. Then, making the questionnaire accessible through other channels, like the organization’s website, can be a second, separate change to test.

With continuous quality improvement, choosing where to start becomes less intimidating. It helps us realize that our first step is simply one of many possibilities that we can test. If it leads to results, that’s wonderful! We can continue down that path. But if it doesn’t? That just means it’s time to try something new.