On January 17, 2018, Zachary Wood acted as keynote speaker at the 2nd annual Advocacy Summit of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA). During this summit, a variety of different youth organizations came together with one goal in mind: to further the welfare of the youth in DC. Break-out sessions saw people setting goals, voicing concerns, and making suggestions, which DCAYA will work through and use to plot out a campaign for the coming years.
The first summit occurred in the wake of the 2017 presidential election, at a time when many organizations and workers in social services were concerned about the future of their work, and was meant to calm and address those fears. It acted as a reminder that none of the participating organizations were alone, and gave them space to express their fears and work toward a solution. This second summit was intended as a check-in for the organizations who participated in that first summit. The gathering was once again a reminder that none of these youth organizations exist in a vacuum, and support is easier to find than it might seem. It was a time to reflect on the progress of the previous year, and strategize for the future.
Coalitions generally comprise similar organizations with similar missions, such as giving shelter to homeless teens, or feeding the homeless. The drawback of this is that the coalition can develop tunnel vision and cease to see and interact with anything other than their specific milieu. The diversity of the DCAYA guards against this narrowing of view, and sets it apart as a coalition which can approach the issue from many different sides. An example of this can be seen in one of DCAYA’s ongoing concerns: With DC’s current budget shortfall, sundry programs are to be cut, and DCAYA is developing collective arguments for the preservation of various programs for the youth of the city.
Zach got involved when a working friendship with Maggie Riden, the president and CEO of DCAYA led to him being invited to be the keynote speaker. He went into the summit with the primary goal of re-inspiring his audience. They all got into this work because they cared, and he wanted to help them recapture their initial vision. He sought to remind them of the tools at their disposal – tools which are easy to forget in the daily struggle to keep a non-profit alive. With funding being such a struggle, and the daily problems so oppressive, it is easy for organizations and individuals to forget the big picture. Housing ten more teens than last year is a great and honorable thing, but it is not the main goal. The goal is to create an environment where ten more teens won’t replace those just housed. The goal is not merely to house the homeless, but to prevent homelessness from occurring. Non-profit organizations often become stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle of fund-seeking. The fear of losing funds prevents them from talking about uncomfortable, but very real issues that feed into the problem of homelessness, such as racism, the criminal justice system, and inequality of education.
A second major theme was unification, since much of the struggle which non-profits experience can be alleviated if only differing organizations will work together. Lack of funding can lead to infighting among charitable organizations, and one of the things that Zach seeks to do is to mediate and build bridges between these organizations. More can be done by non-profits working together than individually.
This big-picture thinking drew from, and directly tied into Zach’s academic and professional career.
From a young age, Zach has had a real passion to help displaced youth. His work in various youth programs showed him that there was a real desire to help those in need. However, this desire was hindered by a marginalization of the young. Organizations were trying to help without taking into consideration the perspectives of the youth whom they tried to aid. At the same time, young people thrown into homelessness have a tendency to try and avoid recognition. Mistrust of welfare and school organizations means that they don’t want to be identified as needing help. However, within this desire for obscurity, Zach sees a nugget of hope that is often absent from the adult homeless population. The young still hope for something beyond their current circumstance, and this hope is what charges his passion for the work of addressing the issue of displaced youth.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Temple University, Zach worked at Covenant House Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. Here he discovered the complexity of the homeless problem and began to wonder why the goal was always to help more people, never end the problem. The questions of policy making, goal setting, and the definition of progress impelled him to seek a holistic answer, which in turn led him to return to Temple and pursue a master’s degree in Urban Studies whilst continuing his work at Covenant. However, the complexity of the problem went beyond even this level of education, and Zach soon discovered that he had to go still deeper. Family concerns, and his connection to the Philly area made him look locally for a place to do his Ph.D., and that’s when he discovered the public affairs program at Rutgers–Camden. The diversity of the faculty and the multi-disciplinary nature of the program made it a perfect fit, allowing him to look at non-profit management and leadership, non-profit policy advocacy, and community development.
All of this learning is for a real-world purpose, and in 2014, Zach combined his studies with practical application by establishing Groundwork Partners as a platform from which to share his academic work and put it to use. There is generally mistrust between the academics studying non-profits and real-world problems, and those actually working in that environment. As Zach puts it,
“There can often be distrust and lack of respect between these two worlds. My ongoing desire is to break down some of those barriers, in the belief that if our collective goal is to solve social problems.”
Groundwork Partners allows him to build some of those bridges.
Dividing lines can fall between organization, academics, and along political lines, but they all need to be set aside for the common goal. This can seem difficult, even impossible, but becomes possibole through individuals like Zach who labor to build and strengthen the connections. The political fracturing that America is currently facing is distressing to individuals on both sides of the political spectrum, but Zach sees in it an opportunity. In his own words,
“In this moment of discord, discontent, frustration, identity politics, we appear to deeply divided; but perhaps this moment is the one where I feel the most hopefulness; because in this moment our collective ethics and values have effectively been placed under review, and it is deeply uncomfortable. But I believe that this is our chance to ask ourselves these important questions about what we represent and what we value, to stand up more united and say ‘this is our collective value, and this is what we believe in.’ ”
Written By Victoria Wroblewski