Launch Initiative Helps Opportunity Youth in Boston Achieve Their Education and Career Goals

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t understand what I was passionate about.”

This sentiment was shared often by opportunity youth who participated in discussions for the Rennie Center report, “Career Pathways for Boston’s Opportunity Youth.”

According to the same report, in 2019 there were nearly 5,000 opportunity youth, or young people between the ages of 16-24 years old who were disconnected or under-connected from school and work, living in Boston. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it is believed that the number has climbed even higher.

In 2018, the Mass. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and United Way of Massachusetts Bay set out to create a coordinated system of outreach, education, training, and job placements for opportunity youth living in subsidized housing in Greater Boston. The Launch initiative did just that, improving access to opportunities and upward economic mobility for over 500 young people. With the project nearing its end, the Forum for Youth Investment recently reviewed Launch data to develop recommendations for additional programs supporting this vulnerable population.

Research suggests that the employment rate of opportunity youth is linked to housing stability. So, working with community-based providers including Beacon Communities, Metro Housing|Boston, WinnCompanies, Jewish Vocational Services-Boston and the Boston Private Industry Council, Launch used subsidized housing as a channel for identifying youth to participate in the program, recognizing that youth with housing support are better positioned to benefit from participation in the program.

“This initiative approached the goal of disrupting intergenerational poverty with intentionality by working with young people living in subsidized housing and meeting them where they are to provide them with guidance, support, and accountability on their journey to postsecondary success,” said Sam Zito, Vice President of Youth and Young Adult Pathways at United Way of Massachusetts Bay.

Coaches helped clients set short- and long-term goals around their education, training, and career aspirations, and developed action plans to achieve those goals. From March 2021 to July 2022, 165 of 195 clients set at least one goal, with many setting more than one. The most common types of goals were education and job attainment.

Of the 165 clients who set goals, 45% completed at least one goal. Across all 344 goals set, by July 2022, 40 percent were completed, 28 percent were progressing through milestones, and the remainder were in the early planning stages.

Clients also identified barriers in their path, like financial, housing, and mental health challenges, and worked with coaches to address them. In many cases, clients were referred to partner agencies for support, or flexible funds were allocated to resolve barriers.

Collecting information from clients about the barriers they experience helps to paint a more vivid picture of the supports and services that opportunity youth need to be healthy and successful.

“Launch has helped me through a lot of obstacles,” said Nasham Tejeda, who joined Launch in 2020 while enrolled at Wesleyan University.

“Through the connections I made with Launch, I was able to focus on both work and my academics… and one of the reasons I was able to do that so successfully was that Launch helped pay off some of my tuition. That was a benefit I didn’t even know existed until my coach told me about it.”

Coaches provided clients with flexibility in the duration and frequency of their touchpoints. Launch tracked both the depth of participation and length of engagement with coaches to examine the initiative’s outcomes. The data showed a significant correlation between frequency of engagement and goal attainment, with 71% of clients with more than two coach interactions per week completing at least one of their goals.

The data show the jobs that youth obtained while enrolled in Launch had higher wages and provided more working hours than the jobs clients had when they enrolled. In addition, the findings suggest that clients with more frequent engagement with their coaches had higher rates of goal attainment.

“For opportunity youth, the way subsidized housing is structured provides stability in that young people know where they are going to sleep at night, though in some ways it presents challenges due to the way income impacts overall household rent,” said Amanda Shabowich, Launch Project Director at United Way. “Launch is an example of what’s possible when you work across silos to ensure career and education providers, housing programs, and young people are working together to identify and address gaps in the system.”

Less quantifiable, but equally important, is how the program and the support it provided helped youth understand how to better manage challenges in their path.

“I feel like having someone to hold me accountable for things helps me stay organized and motivated, and they’ve pushed me to do things while helping me past struggles,” said a Launch client who wished to remain anonymous.

Launch Social GraphicLaunch used programmatic data and information passed from clients to their coaches to build critical partnerships to reduce barriers that young people in the program were naming and experiencing – such as challenges with mental health.

“Understanding that the mental health landscape is challenging to navigate, and that professionals in the field might not look like or fully comprehend the circumstances of clients, we knew we needed to pilot strategies that culturally affirm the population while understanding their local context,” said Shabowich.

New Generation Consultants & Associates, a practice of mental health professionals of color experienced in working with youth became a Launch partner in 2020, after the onset of the pandemic further magnified the mental health crisis experienced by young people.</

Through this partnership, Launch was able to hold weekly “drop-in” virtual affinity group spaces for young men and women to build community and provide an outlet for more casual conversation. For clients that did want to try individualized talk therapy, New Generation worked with Launch staff to make this process easy to navigate, seamless, and at no cost to clients.

“A critical piece of Launch is relationship building. Having the guidance of a supportive adult can make a real difference for young people,” said Shabowich. “Client survey results indicate that Launch has had long-term impacts on young people’s sense of self and ability to identify goals and consider their future. It’s not just about getting them a job right now, but ensuring they have the skills to be successful throughout their lives.”

Launch’s data are intended to be a community resource to build knowledge and further develop opportunity youth initiatives in the region. The program has also helped to inform United Way’s work to expand youth and young adult pathways, a key impact area and avenue to financial prosperity identified in United Way’s refined vision for achieving economic justice in our region.

“Launch’s lessons and values, rooted in antiracism and prioritization of youth voice and choice will continue to be at the forefront of our work moving forward,” says Zito.

Read more about how Launch works, the impact it made, and lessons learned here.

Download the Launch Report