Helping Those Who Help Others: Our Direct Connect Story

Co-written by Steve Spiker, Alison Feldman and Breeanna Decker


Urban Strategies Council is great at bringing together people who should be talking, but are not. It’s part of how we get stuff done. We also know what kinds of partnerships are possible and what kinds are necessary, in order to bring about lasting social change. One example of our team driving such action is our Direct Connect project.

Direct Connect is one of our most engaging partnerships, beginning a few years ago with funding from the Alameda County Office of Education (through Career Pathways Trust II) to support five partner organizations that serve disenfranchised young adults seeking pathways to education and careers.

Our Direct Connect partner organizations do very different things, from trauma informed health services to soft-skill development, to job training and GED preparation. Our job is to increase their capacity to stabilize and prepare youth for college and career. While our partners do the heavy lifting of serving youth, our unique role is to draw connections between the work our partners are doing and the systems changes necessary for their success.

direct connect

We had an opportunity to do that early on in the project, when the Peralta Community College District approached us about helping them to better partner with Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to connect with disengaged young adults. We recognized the need for a larger Direct Connect (DC) Advisory group to help CBOs, Adult Schools, and community colleges connect practice and policy, and to strategize together. We invited more than 100 CBO, Adult School and community college representatives to meet monthly to identify and advocate for infrastructure and system reforms that would strengthen on-ramps to career pathways for 18-24-year-olds who are out of school or enrolled in community-based GED programs, Adult Schools, or alternative education schools in Alameda County.

The Direct Connect Advisory was convened to develop effective, impactful, sustainable collaboration to help disconnected youth connect to and complete career pathways that lead to family-sustaining jobs.

Not Just Meeting
When we bring together our Direct Connect Advisory team, everyone in the room is serving similar populations via different services, often unaware that their services are complementary; most youth benefit from distinct services provided by more than one organization. As we get these partners talking and strategizing more, we are uncovering ways to buffer the weaknesses or gaps in one partner’s services with the strengths of others;  improving transitions for youth from CBOs, adult schools and alternative schools to community college pathways.

The Power of Connections
At a recent Direct Connect Advisory meeting, the Reentry Coordinator at Alameda County’s Juvenile Hall was able to connect with Laney College’s Transition Liaison for the first time. While the roles of these two positions are similar, (helping young people make the leap from incarceration to education) they had not had an opportunity to connect. The resulting collaboration now ensures that young people coming out of juvenile hall have improved access to college opportunities. Through our work, we’re ensuring that both the personnel and youth at those institutions know about post-secondary opportunities (both school and jobs) along with the resources to help them enter pathways to education and careers.

Before this, young people had to figure this out on their own. Now we’re making warm referrals to our new contacts at Peralta and developing a pipeline for justice involved youth, giving them new college options. Jamaal Kizzie, Re-Entry Specialist, Center for Healthy Schools and Communities

In partnership with our Direct Connect Advisory partners, we are designing a career exploration course that serves as a gateway to college for a cohort of young people served by CBOs. This model exposes students — often for the first time — to a variety of career pathways, while CBOs support the cohort through their first experience in college.  The course, scheduled for launch in Fall 2017, will be taught by a qualified CBO instructor and is being jointly designed by CBOs and community colleges.

Scaling and Learning
Our Advisory partners have also asked for focused expansion of collaborative strategies to regions outside of Oakland. While poverty in the East Bay has historically been most extreme in Oakland, recent displacement of poorer populations has created a regional need for these types of initiatives. In response to this demand and our partner’s requests, we are beginning to scale our work throughout the Bay Area.

One big advantage to working regionally is that we can learn things in one community, and then benefit others by replicating and scaling ideas across county borders. For example, we are taking what we learned from the Direct Connect Advisory table and bringing it to the West Contra Costa County Health Pathways table, which has a focus on similar populations and issues. As our work expands regionally, we are excited about the possibilities of sharing lessons learned with more partners to scale good work across Bay Area cities and counties.

Direct Connect is a success because of our partners and their willingness to work together. Urban Strategies Council’s strength is in bringing together people who are not talking but should be, because they have common goals. We lead strategic planning, support cross-sector partnerships and guide partners in designing real, meaningful, implementable changes.


Our Direct Connect partner organizations are Youth Employment Project , Hayward Adult School, Berkeley Youth Alternatives, Unity Council, La Familia Counseling Services, and the Alameda County Office of Education.