The following article is adapted from a report from Harvard Business School concerning the 2022 Young American Leaders Program.
The 2022 Young American Leaders Program convened a group of 130 gifted young leaders from fourteen cities across the US. The table below shows the mix of sectors represented, as well as a few demographic features. The diverse group of national leaders included some of the best America can offer; they arrived with enormous positive energy—ready to meet each other, to learn, to teach, and to tackle tough issues.
Business (<100 employees) 13%
Business (100-999 employees) 8%
Business (≥1000 employees) 19%
Race or ethnicity (self-reported)
Black or African-American 34%
Hispanic or Latinx 15%
Indigenous or Native American 1%
Middle Eastern 1%
Every year at YALP, participants come with open minds. But this year in particular, participants also came with open hearts and a willingness to share experiences and critical reflections sooner and with more intensity than in past Programs. Perhaps the struggles of the past two years contributed to this intensification of feeling and concern.
The structure of YALP is designed to have a certain intellectual and emotional flow. Generally, the first full day focuses on America’s problems (e.g., the lack of shared prosperity, systemic racism, other community issues). The second day examines different cross-sector solutions to those problems. And the third day explores personal lessons for leading cross-sector collaborations.
This year, concerns about where America stands today were especially intense. More than in any other year with YALP, many challenges were presented in strong terms, including some who felt that “the existing system needs to be dismantled entirely.” Despite frustrations, participants engaged with solutions deeply and enthusiastically on the second and third days. At the end of the program, the leaders seemed to leave campus with energy and commitment to make a positive difference in their communities.
Throughout the program, participating leaders were even more enthusiastic than usual to make connections, both within city teams and across cities. Groups lingered on the campus lawns well into the evenings. Perhaps after the isolation of the pandemic, people are more eager than ever to connect with each other.
This year’s program featured three new cases, all set in YALP cities.
• We began with a case by HBS faculty member Karen Mills on the challenges facing Pittsburgh’s new Mayor, Ed Gainey. Pittsburgh has seen a remarkable revitalization—reinventing the Steel City around “eds and meds” (educational and medical institutions). But the resulting growth has not been shared broadly and has arguably made many city residents worse off. What can and should Mayor Gainey do?
• HVS faculty member Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote and taught a new case on Miami’s approach to the challenge of climate change. Local governments, businesses, and nonprofits in Miami are each engaged with climate change in their individual ways. But can the community come together to mount a coordinated effort? Who might lead the way, and how? We were delighted to add to YALP a case on this existential challenge.
• Friday’s wrap-up morning included a new case set in Chattanooga and co-authored by our project director Manjari Raman and myself. As this case opens in spring of 2020, COVID has hit, schools have shuttered, and 28,000 schoolkids in the Chattanooga area lack the Internet access to participate in remote learning. How should the community come together to help students learn? Can this crisis be turned into an opportunity to help students in need for the long term?
We were fortunate to have a number of outside guests join us for YALP 2022. For the Chattanooga case, the protagonist and former YALP participant Dr. Bryan Johnson visited and explained how, as school superintendent, he led a cross-sector collaboration to provide free fiber-optic Internet access to all students and families in need for a decade. Saint Paul’s Mayor Melvin Carter zoomed in to help with a case on policing and public safety in his city. Brown University Professor Tricia Rose led a vital and riveting session on systemic racism. And two social venture founders—Tracy Palandjian of Social Finance and Gerald Chertavian of Year Up—discussed how they are partnering with Google to enable more than 20,000 learners to achieve over $1 billion in wage gains during the next decade.
Our city sessions are a highlight of YALP every year. In these sessions, each city team works together to envision a new cross-sector collaboration that would make an important difference in their hometown. The collaborations are unveiled in an “idea festival” on the final morning of the program.
This year’s participants envisioned a fabulous set of innovative collaborations. The proposals aimed to address a wide range of important issues and needs: third-grade literacy, early childhood development, engagement of next-gen community leaders, support for minority-owned businesses, diversity of K-12 teachers, and accountability of workforce development programs, among others.
We also experienced a YALP first: the participants banded together across cities to propose a national collaboration. Early in the program, we discussed Amazon’s search for “HQ2,” its second headquarters. In this case study, participants saw how large companies can play cities against each other in order to extract economic development incentives, tax breaks, and other benefits from locales. During the idea festival, participants unveiled a proposal for cities across the country to coordinate on a set of standards for companies involved in location searches—to pinpoint what communities will ask business leaders to contribute to the places where they operate.
Reflecting on America, we see both the nation’s challenges but also the many aspects of the country that make us grateful and hopeful, even in fraught times. Perhaps more than anything else, those of us who lead YALP at Harvard are grateful for the Americans who are devoted to making the country better, indeed as amazing as her promise.