Cross-Systems Collaboration at the State Level: A Q&A with Jason Callahan, Executive Vice President of Cross-Systems Consulting

At the end of March, the Forum for Youth Investment welcomed Jason Callahan to the leadership team as the Executive Vice President of Cross-Systems Consulting (CSC) and launched the state application for the Building Ecosystems Statewide for Thriving (BEST) Youth Initiative. The Initiative, designed for states seeking to break down silos in youth-serving systems, aims to ensure all young people have the opportunity to realize their full potential in education, work, and life. Prior to joining the Forum, Jason was the Assistant Secretary of Pathways and Opportunities at the Indiana Department of Education, where he led work around the establishment of a statewide student profile, a comprehensive pre-kindergarten-to-career data dashboard, and new high school graduation requirements. Recently, the Forum’s Communications team sat down with Jason to discuss his past experiences and the BEST Youth Initiative.

Q: Jason, what brought you to the Forum?

A: In previous roles, I worked closely with state agencies on impactful youth-serving legislation and initiatives like systemwide career coaching frameworks, high-quality work-based learning standards, and youth outcome incentive systems, among others. Learning about the Forum’s leadership in cross-systems work, demonstrated through long-term collaborations with Children’s Cabinets as part of the Children’s Cabinet Network, I realized the unique potential to expand and enrich this impactful work across states on a broader scale. When the opportunity to join the Forum and lead the BEST Youth Initiative came along, I knew I wanted to take it.

Q: What challenges are states facing in their youth-serving systems nationwide?

A: States are grappling with fragmented initiatives, communication challenges, unaligned strategic objectives, disparate data systems, funding constraints, and policy gaps within their youth-serving systems. This is largely due to the systems operating in silos.

Q: How do these challenges affect youth outcomes?

A: Unfortunately, siloed systems often lead to negative outcomes for youth, with nearly 12 million young people living in poverty and four million ages 16-24 disconnected from education and employment. The pandemic exacerbated these issues, leading to a surge in youth mental health challenges, stagnant or declining higher education attainment rates, and rising chronic absenteeism rates.

Q: What is the BEST Youth Initiative?

A: The BEST Youth Initiative, led by the Forum in partnership with key stakeholders, is a three-year effort to facilitate state-based, cross-system, cross-sector collaboration to improve outcomes for youth ages 5-24. It adopts a youth and family-centered approach, engaging and amplifying the voices of youth and families with lived experience navigating siloed systems.

Selected state teams, composed of youth, families, system leaders, and practitioners, will co-design and implement a data-driven, outcomes-based plan to catalyze cross-systems reforms and innovations. The Initiative will also provide insights to policymakers about how to create a supportive policy environment to advance and sustain these efforts, ultimately fostering a more equitable, effective, and nimble youth development ecosystem.

Q: How will the BEST Youth Initiative support states in systems change?

A: State teams will collaborate with a dedicated team of expert Forum staff and consultants who will provide personalized consultation, strategic solutions, and guidance in crafting and executing visions and strategies across multiple systems. The Initiative provides comprehensive support through facilitated partnerships, State Action Laboratories, peer networking, national showcases to influence federal decision-makers, and enhanced engagement of People with Lived Experiences (PWLE).

Q: Why should states be interested in adopting a collaborative cross-systems approach like the BEST Youth Initiative?

A: Often in youth-serving systems, as we approach innovations and change management, we hear, “we can’t do one more thing.” I would argue that the work of the BEST Youth Initiative is not “one more thing”; instead, it is the thing. The Initiative offers a chance to build an integrated ecosystem that comprehensively meets the needs of youth and their families. By adopting this approach, states can achieve more equitable outcomes.

Q: What does success look like?

A: Success means improving youth outcomes in education, work, and life through authentic engagement with PWLE and scaling strategies for cross-systems alignment and integration. The Initiative aims to transition states from reactive, siloed approaches to collaborative ones, providing a clear strategic roadmap for progress.

Q: Although the application for the BEST Youth Initiative closed on May 3, who should youth-serving systems reach out to if they are interested in the Initiative or other cross-systems work? 

A: The BEST Youth Initiative is partnering with up to five states, but there will be ongoing opportunities to exchange insights and engage in various ways during the pilot. If interested in learning more about the Forum, the BEST Youth Initiative, or exploring ways to collaborate on cross-systems work, state leaders may contact me at or at 202.207.3327.