Alma Powell, Chair, America’s Promise Alliance

Alma Powell, Chair, America’s Promise Alliance

America's Promise Alliance, the nation's largest network dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth, is marking its twentieth anniversary on April 18 with a Recommit to Kids Summit and Promise Night Gala in New York City. PND spoke via email with Alma Powell, the network's chairwoman, about its work, the progress it has made toward its goals over the last twenty years, and what every American can do to help.

Philanthropy News Digest: A lot has changed since America's Promise was founded twenty years ago. Are the Five Promises to America's children and youth announced at the Presidents' Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia in April 1997 — caring adults, safe places to learn and play, a healthy start, an effective education, and an opportunity to serve — as relevant today as they were twenty years ago? And what, if anything, would you add to those five promises?

Alma Powell: The Five Promises are just as relevant and necessary today as they were twenty years ago. I can't imagine that ever changing. They are rooted in both sound social science and common sense and represent the minimal conditions that every child, in every neighborhood, has a right to expect. If these objectives aren't met, it is not the fault of children; it is a collective failure of adults in this country.

I wouldn't add another promise to the five. When it comes to young people, we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We need to summon the will.

PND: Of the five commitments that form the core of the organization's mission, which has been kept most successfully, and where has progress been unexpectedly difficult?

AP: Thanks to the work of researchers and youth development experts, we know a lot more about what young people need to thrive. Better data helps us pinpoint educational problems by school district, school, and student, enabling us to focus help exactly where it is most needed. At the same time, more nonprofits and other organizations are involved in this work than ever before; advances in neuroscience have opened new windows into how children learn and have underscored the importance of the early childhood years; and scientific breakthroughs on the impact of adversity, high levels of stress, and trauma have taught us a lot about why some students struggle and how they might be helped.

All that has led to progress. Today, infant and child mortality rates are lower, rates of smoking and alcohol use among teens are lower, and high school graduation rates are up. More young people are living in homes with parents who graduated high school, and more students are attending college.

But there's more work to do. The child poverty rate is about the same as it was twenty years ago, snd social and economic mobility has stagnated. If we're to help more young people get on a more sustainable path to the middle class, we need to address the issues behind generational poverty and its long-term effects on young people. 

PND: The issue of "safe places" — the provision, as America's Promise defines it, of "physical and psychological safety at home, at school and in the community" — remains a concern for all communities but is of special concern in many low-income communities. How has the landscape in this area changed over the past two decades? And what has America's Promise done in response to those changes?

AP: Communities today are more divided by income than ever before. Where entire communities once worked together to care for children — for all children — institutions in many communities are now frayed and fragmented, and too many parents and children have gotten used to living with fear.

Our research shows that, despite where you live or where your caregivers live, a web of supportive, caring adults can make all the difference, creating a buffer around young people who most need it. Last year, research from the Center for Promise found that for every seven adults added to a neighborhood, one fewer young person leaves school. The more caring adults who are willing to step up and show up in the lives of a young person there are, the greater the odds that that young person will overcome adversities in his or her life.  

PND: One of your initiatives is called GradNation. How did that campaign come about, what are its goals, and what can you tell us about the progress you've made toward those goals?

AP: In 2006, two of our partner organizations, Civic Enterprises and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, issued a national call in a report called The Silent Epidemic to end the dropout crisis. We decided to answer that call. In 2008, America's Promise, along with others, launched a dropout prevention campaign — which we would later rename GradNation. In 2010, we set the goal of raising the national on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

Over the years, we have joined with hundreds of local communities to host two hundred and five summits in all fifty states with the aim of helping people come together to develop local plans to increase graduation rates. Tens of thousands of educators, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, policy makers, families, and youth attended these summits, and an analysis from Duke University found that they helped raise public awareness about the high school dropout crisis and inspired the creation of new programs and collaborative efforts.

Thanks to the work of millions of students, families, educators, policy makers, and community leaders, the nation's on-time high school graduation rate is up from 65.7 percent twenty years ago to a record 83.2 percent today. Students of color and students from low-income families have made the greatest gains, and 2.8 million additional students have graduated since 2001 rather than dropping out.

PND: Tell us a little bit about your national partners. How do they hear about America's Promise and what seems to motivate them to partner with you?

AP: The challenges facing today's children and youth are too complex and interrelated for any one sector or organization to solve alone. Success requires participation from a range of stakeholders working together in coordinated and collaborative ways. This collaborative approach is central to America's Promise, and our alliance is the embodiment of it.

The alliance consists of more than four hundred national organizations and hundreds of communities. Alliance partners need only share our belief that children and youth are a national priority and be committed to working collaboratively to ensure that all children have access to all Five Promises.

With the launch of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, we've started putting more of an emphasis on expanding our alliance to include more individuals. We need an army of caring adults to help us accelerate progress and are urging all Americans to join us in this cause.

Every one of us can do something, starting today, whether it's volunteering at your local Boys & Girls Club, donating to a youth-serving organization, or simply being a caring adult in the life of a young person. If every American did just one thing to recommit to our kids, the future of our country would be transformed.

Matt Sinclair