The YEF Institute: An Exciting New Chapter in NLC’s Leadership on Policy and Best Practice

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This is the sixth post in NLC’s 90th Anniversary series.


For decades, one of the hallmarks of the National League of Cities’ work has been a sharp and sustained focus on policy and best practice. Mayors, city councilmembers and other city leaders have come to NLC as a place of ideas – a place to debate key policy issues and to learn about what’s working (and what’s not) in communities across the nation.

With the launch of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) in 2000, NLC added another chapter to this long legacy and an exciting, groundbreaking dimension to its portfolio of resources and offerings. As originally envisioned by former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the founding chair of NLC’s Council on Youth, Education, and Families, the YEF Institute serves as an “action tank” rather than a “think tank” as it helps municipal leaders address the needs of children, youth and families in their own communities. The YEF Institute works in five core program areas:  education and afterschool, early childhood, youth development, the safety of youth, and family economic success.

It’s hard to overstate the pivotal role that Mayor Menino played in the Institute’s creation.  By the end of his first term in office, he was already attracting national attention for his efforts to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. His efforts to quell youth violence – dubbed “the Boston Miracle” when more than two years passed in the mid-1990’s without a single youth homicide in the city – contributed greatly to the stream of city officials heading to Boston’s City Hall in search of guidance and advice. The Mayor was flattered by the attention, but also knew that he and his staff could not possibly serve as the “go-to” place on best practice for the entire country.

In response, Mayor Menino spent two years leading an NLC task force to examine the topic, developing the concept of an Institute focused on children and families, and raising start-up funds to ensure that the effort got off the ground. It simply would not have happened without his leadership and hard work.

And what a difference the YEF Institute has made. Over the course of 14 years, it has provided practical help and advice to hundreds of cities of all sizes and in every region of the United States. The YEF Institute has grown from an idea to a staff of 25, an expansion made possible by a strong reputation and track record that has attracted cumulative investments of more than $42 million from national foundations and other sources.

So much work remains to be done. The challenges facing mayors and other city leaders are enormous, and they have been exacerbated by a pattern of retrenchment and funding cuts at both federal and state levels. Municipal leaders largely understand that they will have to find or craft their own solutions within their communities, in many instances relying only upon existing resources.

That’s why it’s more important than ever for city officials to build upon lessons learned, replicating or adapting successful approaches while doing everything they can to avoid repeating mistakes that have already been made elsewhere.

I’m so excited and honored to be a part of this new chapter in NLC’s proud and storied history. New and emerging work in areas of health, early learning, postsecondary success, financial inclusion and connecting children to nature will keep the YEF Institute at the cutting edge of municipal initiatives that seek to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. And success in improving these outcomes is a key ingredient for the continued strength and vitality of America’s cities and towns in the years ahead.

CJohnson_Headshot_HiResAbout the Author: Clifford Johnson is the Executive Director of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.