After Two Decades, A New Chapter Begins for NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families

October 1, 2020 - (5 min read)

On a cold and snowy day in Boston nearly 20 years ago, then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino stepped to the podium at the National League of Cities’ Congress of Cities and announced the formal launch of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

This inspiring moment was the culmination of several years of hard work by Mayor Menino and a small group of other city leaders to develop his vision for the YEF Institute and raise start-up funds that would help translate that vision into reality. What an extraordinary gift to his fellow mayors and city councilmembers across the country!

For me, as the Institute’s first director, the announcement was also the end of a pivotal year of planning and fundraising to chart a course for this new “action tank,” envisioned as the go-to place for city leaders seeking to improve outcomes for children, youth and families.

We had big dreams from the outset. We imagined a new entity within NLC that provides practical help and advice to municipal officials from communities of all sizes. We committed ourselves to building capacity on all the big issues that matter when strengthening families and ensuring that all children and youth can thrive. We pledged to roll up our sleeves and engage deeply with NLC members, walking in their shoes so that we could understand their needs and help them seize their opportunities.

Two decades later, I am so proud to know that we’ve achieved these initial goals.

Twenty Years of Accomplishment

The work of the YEF Institute is not finished – far from it, as the challenges facing our cities and our families are perhaps more daunting than ever. But we have accomplished a great deal and established the YEF Institute as the trusted, go-to resource that Mayor Menino envisioned.

During these first 20 years, we have empowered and guided thousands of municipal leaders across America to take bold actions, leading to better outcomes and greater equity for children, youth, and families in their communities. The YEF Institute’s nearly 1,000 technical assistance engagements (each of which span at least 12-18 months in duration), supplemented by far-reaching peer learning networks, have created and inspired promising frameworks that now drive sustained, local-level progress. What’s more, action guides, toolkits and reports from YEF subject matter experts have documented and extended the reach of these robust efforts.

The scope and range of the YEF Institute’s work is impressive by any measure. We have partnered with hundreds of cities, towns and villages across the country to ensure early childhood success; expand access to high-quality education and afterschool programs; improve the health and well-being of families; connect youth and young adults to opportunities, and expand economic security for families. Each day, the YEF Institute’s staff of nearly 30 is learning about new challenges facing cities and taking on emerging issues.

Indeed, the co-occurring crises of a global pandemic, a dramatic economic collapse, and a national reckoning with America’s legacy of racial injustice during our twentieth year have rendered YEF’s work more important than ever. Since its inception, the YEF Institute has challenged and supported city leaders in efforts to promote equity in America’s cities, towns and villages. We will redouble these efforts now by helping communities place the well-being of children, youth and families at the center of their efforts to recover, rebuild and thrive.

Turning the Page

My heart is full of gratitude for the opportunity to develop and lead the YEF Institute during the past two decades. I will close on a personal note to share the news that I have decided to retire from my position as the YEF Institute’s director in early 2021. I will remain in my position until early next year to support a successful search this fall for a new director, working closely with NLC’s CEO Clarence Anthony to help ensure a smooth leadership transition. We know that this leadership role is a great opportunity for a passionate, mission-driven leader, and I am confident that we will find the right person to lead the YEF Institute during the next phase of its growth and development.

While I will miss so much about this vitally important work, including the chance to work alongside so many committed municipal leaders, the time is right for a new YEF Institute leader and its incredibly talented staff to chart the course for its next two decades. I take this step knowing that NLC and the YEF Institute are very strong and well situated to navigate this transition.

Twenty years ago, Mayor Menino knew that strong and healthy families are the backbone of cities. I know that, if he were with us today, he would be proud of the strides we have made.

Reflection, Celebration and Re-Commitment

We need each of you – empowered leaders in all of our nation’s cities, towns and villages – on the next phase of this journey.

On the occasion of this 20th anniversary, the YEF Institute is hosting a series of virtual events this fall to reflect on the lessons we have learned, celebrate what we have accomplished, and recommit to the essential work that lies ahead. Join us for our kickoff event Thursday, October 8, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. EDT.

The YEF Institute has been – and will continue to be – the driving force in transforming how municipal leaders envision their roles in improving outcomes for children, youth, and families. I have been honored to contribute to this enduring work and extend my deepest thanks to the YEF staff and NLC leaders, members and partners who have made it possible. I’m excited to see how the next chapter unfolds!

About the Author

Clifford Johnson is the executive director of the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.