1 + 1 = 3?


“It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” – Steve Jobs

At the Aspen Institute, we tackle some of society’s most critical issues, from Middle East peace to climate change to national security to global health and development. At Ascend at the Aspen Institute, we believe that addressing the seemingly intractable and complex issue of intergenerational poverty in the U.S. should rise to the same level of national attention as these other important issues. We think two-generation approaches hold strong potential as a solution.

In my role, I often find myself in the position of simplifying the complex. So, when I consider what we—as a field of thinkers and doers in practice, policy, and philanthropy—are trying to achieve with two-generation approaches, I distill it down to this: Can we make 1 + 1 = 3? That is, can we achieve better educational and economic outcomes for children and parents by working across silos—providing opportunities for and meeting the needs of vulnerable children and their parents together? 

At Ascend, we have been fueling momentum around two-generation approaches for the past three and half years: scanning the field and elevating promising practices, policy ideas, and cutting edge research. We have identified five core components that, taken together, show potential to produce better outcomes for families:

  • early childhood education;
  • postsecondary education and employment pathways;
  • economic supports;
  • health and well-being; and
  • social capital.

Over the next two years, we will explore each of these components further with the leaders and organizations that comprise the newly launched Aspen Institute Ascend Network. With the Network, we strive to create the conditions for innovation – bringing together leaders across issue areas and sectors to allow for the kind of convergent thinking that leads to dynamic, new solutions.

Through our open Ascend Fund process, we received applications from 254 organizations in 39 states hoping to be selected as Ascend Network partners—a total of $12 million in requests. Through a rigorous and highly competitive selection process, we identified 58 outstanding organizations as initial Network partners and made investments of $1.2 million. The organizations are working with and for families on the ground in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and are based in urban, rural, suburban, and tribal communities. Their two-generation projects represent a range of strategies across practice, policy, evidence-building, and political will. 

With scale in mind from the beginning, we intentionally selected organizations that cluster around platforms for scale: Head Start, community colleges, United Ways, women’s funds and community foundations, community action agencies, and Promise Neighborhoods. We were also deliberate in including organizations advancing state policy and system change—on issues such as early childhood, human services, postsecondary education, and measuring impact. And, the Network includes organizations focused on the important work of evidence building: answering the question of whether 1 + 1 = 3 around two-generation approaches in areas such as executive function, cultural competence, technology and apps, and justice-involved families—to name just a few!

We invite you to learn more about the Ascend Network and our quest to make 1 + 1 = 3. To get started, click here and check out our video with voices from the field.