YALP in 2021
A little more than a week has passed since we wrapped up YALP 2021, and I’m writing to share a few reflections. My first reflection is to note how deeply, deeply grateful my colleagues and I are to you! With our remote format this year, we asked more of you than ever. You stepped up in magnificent, generous ways—hosting in-person gatherings of participants, helping with technology issues, remaining flexible with us as we worked out the details of the format, and much more. Thank you!
Let me focus my other reflections on four topics: the remote format, this year’s curricular innovations, an idea that came out of this year’s program, and the importance of this moment.
The remote format. The headline is, it worked!
As you know, we wrestled hard with the question of whether to hold YALP in this year’s remote format or to wait until we could gather in-person on campus. Ultimately, we decided that we could not wait to advance the awesome talent of the participants, especially at a moment when our communities so need great leaders; we had to proceed. Moreover, we knew that you would supplement the remote program with selected, safe in-person components where possible. Still, we held our collective breath as the program began. Would it deliver?
From a technology perspective, the answer was a clear “yes.” All of the sessions went off without glitches, complex breakout sessions proceeded smoothly, guests arrived as planned, and so on. All in all, we were able to sustain intense, rich conversations through the four days of programming. Quite a few participants graciously told us that this was the best virtual event they had attended during the pandemic.
Our impression—and please check this with your participants—is that folks were able to build strong within-city bonds, a key objective of the program. This is a credit to the participants themselves, who clearly made bond-building a priority. It is also a credit to everything that you champions did locally to support the remote national program with selected in-person elements. During the four-day program, the intense interactions during the program’s city sessions (sessions devoted to envisioning a new cross-sector collaboration in each city) also helped build within-city connections.
Connections across cities are harder to build remotely, so for the first time at YALP, we set aside sessions explicitly to promote cross-city socializing. During these sessions, small groups of participants with similar interests gathered in breakout rooms to meet each other and discuss a few exemplary cross-sector collaborations familiar to individuals in the group. Also, before the program, we wrote to dozens of participants with overlapping interests and intersecting life stories and encouraged them to reach out to each other during the four days. We believe that many followed up.
Interestingly, we discovered that the remote format had some unexpected benefits. One positive surprise was the chat that emerged in Zoom during the case discussions. In every session, the chat room came alive with participants cheering each other on, deepening the live conversation, and pointing each other to additional resources. Some sessions had hundreds of chatted contributions.
Despite the apparent effectiveness of the remote program, my colleagues and I are eager to return to an in-person YALP as soon as health & safety conditions permit. For participants, nothing quite matches the impact of getting away from work for a few days and immersing oneself in face-to-face interactions. But we do wonder if it will make sense to offer a remote version ofYALP occasionally, especially to cater to emerging leaders for whom it is a real hardship to leave work and home for a week. Might we be able to reach a different and important set of leaders by sometimes offering the remote option?
Curricular innovations. Two new and timely cases were highlights of this year’s program. My colleague Rosabeth Moss Kanter authored and taught a case on West Side United, a bold collaboration of healthcare systems, community members, nonprofits, government agencies, and others committed to closing racial health and wealth gaps in a hard-pressed portion of Chicago. And Mitch Weiss contributed a new case on community-first public safety in Saint Paul. Especially in a year of COVID-amplified health disparities and a long-overdue racial reckoning connected to public safety, these cases gave us opportunities to have tough, essential conversations. They also raised important questions about whose voices get heard in a community and how.
My colleagues Karen Mills and Manjari Raman offered important new takes on material we’ve shared before. Karen taught our case on Amazon’s search for its second headquarters in a way that explored the role of cross-sector collaboration in various kinds of economic development efforts and asked important questions about the role of business in creating growth and shared prosperity. In her session on developing the workforce of the future, Manjari shared new research on how to assist so-called “hidden workers,” who are partly or fully excluded from the workforce, in addition to work on middle skills workers that she has shared in the past.
As is true every year at YALP, our outside speakers shed bright light on the promise and perils of cross-sector collaboration. On the opening day of the program, Mayor Melvin Carter of Saint Paul and former Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus teamed up for a multi-generation fireside chat that focused on equity, inclusion, and the special role of mayors in collaboration. On the closing day, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta participated in a fireside chat that was, to me, a master class in authenticity, humanity, and intentionality. Professor Tricia Rose of Brown University gave a talk on systemic racism that moved us in both senses of the word: troubled us emotionally and spurred us to act for justice.
Finally, to fuel the sessions on cross-city socializing, we asked each city team to share five impressive examples of cross-sector collaborations in their hometown. Some of these examples became the focus of the socializing sessions. Perhaps you’ll learn of an exciting and inspiring initiative in another city. We faculty certainly learned from the collection: the examples will contribute to our research efforts, and some of them might inspire future case studies.
Perhaps the most important “curricular innovation” came not from us faculty but from the participants themselves. As you know, every year we have sessions in which participants envision new cross-sector collaborations for their cities. This year’s ideas were spectacular! Perhaps reflecting the moment, they were more ambitious and innovative than ever. Many of you will meet with your YALPers soon, and I believe you’ll be impressed by what they envisioned.
An idea on the urban-rural divide. A number of the city teams included participating leaders from nearby rural areas. It was fascinating to learn how many concerns were shared across the urban-rural divide (e.g., on health access, intergenerational poverty, and substance abuse) and to observe how rarely leaders from the two areas interact. This got us faculty thinking: can we imagine a version of YALP in which each city team is accompanied by a “sibling” team from a nearby rural county? What new understandings might emerge from the resulting conversations? My colleagues and I would never want YALP to become an echo chamber of like-minded urbanites. Might inviting young rural leaders to the table expand our perspectives and strengthen our actions in important ways? We’d welcome your thoughts.
The importance of the moment. We closed YALP with reflections from participants and faculty members. In my own closing, I shared my impression that we are at a crucial crossroads in America right now. Early on in the pandemic and soon after the murder of George Floyd, I visited with a number of young civic leaders, and I consistently heard from them that our ambitions for this period should go beyond a mere recovery. On the contrary, we should aim for a reimagining of our communities. But now, with the virus retreating in many areas, a recovery seems within relatively easy grasp. Will we settle for a recovery, or will we reach for a reimagining?
The time with the YALP participants gave me confidence that the next generation of civic leaders will choose the bolder course of action, to reimagine. The new collaborations they envisioned during the week were imaginative and ambitious—far from mere recovery. I’m deeply grateful for the inspiration and hope they’ve given me.
We have just begun the process of asking the 2021 YALP participants for feedback and suggestions. I’m sure that their reflections will give me and my colleagues new ways to think about the successes and shortcomings of this year’s program. Many of you will meet with your YALPers soon—to learn about their projects, to engage them even more in your community, and to hear their impressions of the program. Thank you for meeting with them! We look forward to learning from what you hear, please. We at HBS are very eager to improve YALP for the future, and we know we have many opportunities to do so.
The Fourth of July always gives me an opportunity to reflect on America—the nation’s challenges but also the many aspects of the country that make me grateful and hopeful. Perhaps more than anything else, I’m grateful for the Americans who are devoted to making the country better, indeed as amazing as her promise. The YALP participants are certainly among those individuals.