YouthBuild: Creating Opportunities, Reducing Poverty, Through Scaling What Works

This blog post was written by Dorothy Stoneman, Founder and CEO of YouthBuild.

Just a few days after unrest and frustration erupted in Ferguson in the immediate wake of the killing of Michael Brown, the young people and leaders of YouthBuild St. Louis went into Ferguson with a message:  We are here to help clean up today, and long term to engage the young people of Ferguson in rebuilding their community.   A year later, having won a Department of Labor YouthBuild grant, they are poised to build an affordable home and create a community garden on land received from the City of Ferguson.  More importantly, they will offer the low income young adults in Ferguson the same second chance opportunity that local YouthBuild programs have been offering around the country for 37 years.

Contrast this positive effort with a bleak fact. Every year roughly 1 million American teenagers leave high school without a diploma. Many say they left because nobody in the school cared about them enough to help them learn, to overcome problems, to take their futures seriously. Collectively, this has led to there being as many as 6.7 million young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of work and out of school.  About half of these young people (now commonly called “opportunity youth”) grew up in poverty.

Research tells us that this cohort of young people left adrift will directly cost the taxpayers $1.3 trillion over their lifetimes, and generate an additional social burden costing as much as $4.7 trillion.  At the same time, American companies report inability to find employees qualified for many middle skills jobs, such as in health care, technology, and construction.  This serious mismatch has been highlighted by the Markle Foundation’s Rework America effort, and in part prompted over 30 companies to join the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative to hire opportunity youth.

Evidence indicating that existing systems are not working well often prompts a search for some new answer. Innovations are always needed, but we too often overlook the proven things that work and can expand quickly with robust investment.

YouthBuild started in 1978, in the empty space between existing failing systems. We deliberately started it outside the education, workforce training, and criminal justice systems because none of them were working for young people. We didn’t have the power to change them, but we did have the power to experiment, and over the initial years created a model that had principles and systems that facilitated replication.

After YouthBuild had succeeded in growing to over 20 communities nationally with private and local public funds, then-Senator John Kerry led the process of getting it authorized in 1992 as a program comparable in law to Head Start and Peace Corps.  That boost of resources over the past 23 years has resulted in 140,000 previously shut-out young people producing over 30,000 units of affordable housing in their communities while rebuilding their own lives. Today, in the U.S., YouthBuilds operate in 260 communities in 45 states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands.  Demand around the world has brought the YouthBuild model to 20 countries.

What worked?  A comprehensive full-time education, job training, personal counseling, community service, and leadership development program design.  We built a mini-system that included all the elements young people needed, including love and caring adults; and we engaged the young people in designing it.   Local roots are deep:  Every YouthBuild program springs from a local non-profit or government agency initiating it.  All YouthBuild programs require extensive collaboration and partnerships locally, becoming adept at working with community development corporations, employers, unions, community colleges, four year colleges, probation officers, construction certification entities, drug rehab programs, and workforce investment boards. Many of them work closely with police, housing authorities, and local schools.

These decades of incubation, experimentation, innovation and collaboration have brought YouthBuild to the next stage: moving to full scale to meet demand, and taking the successful principles that work in programs that start outside existing systems and integrating these principles back into reforming those systems.  We are proud that America Forward proposes scaling YouthBuild from roughly 10,000 young people nationally each year to 50,000 as a goal to be fought for.  The effective delivery system – in which the US Department of Labor (DOL) determines which local applicants receive a federal DOL YouthBuild grant based on their past performance and the needs in their communities, and then engages a national non-profit (YouthBuild USA) through a competitive contract to provide TA and training, and monitors performance through an accessible data system measuring demographics and outcomes– provides a strong platform from which to launch growth.

We have begun to see recognition of the connection between poor policy, wasted public spending, and the need for effective alternatives most clearly in the criminal justice area.  This is another area where YouthBuild has demonstrated replicable success.  In recent years, data from the over 140 local YouthBuild programs funded through federal DOL grants has consistently shown a one year reconviction recidivism rate of under 11% after enrollment in a YouthBuild program (compared to 25% or higher for comparable cohorts.) Given that YouthBuild enormously reduces a young offender’s chance of returning to prison, to 11% or less, expanding re-entry through YouthBuild offers an enormous return on taxpayer investment.

One individual story illustrates the power of taking this to full scale. Xavier Jennings graduated the YouthBuild program sponsored by Mile High Conservation Corps in Denver. At a forum not long ago, Xavier vividly described life in public housing with his grandmother who was sick with heart disease and had lost her food-stamps because she could no longer travel to renew them. Surrounded by opportunities to make money selling drugs, he entered the lifestyle of the streets, got in trouble with the law, and was expelled from school.

Nobody moved to help him, until a friend told him about YouthBuild. He learned he could earn money building affordable housing in the neighborhood while earning his diploma and preparing for college, and so Xavier started down an alternative path that led him to a transformative moment.

He went with a crew of YouthBuild AmeriCorps students to renovate the back yard of a senior citizen. She didn’t welcome them warmly. He was sure their baggy pants caused her to stereotype them. But after the young people had restored her yard, she came out the back door with tears in her eyes, carrying a tray of homemade cookies, thanking them from the bottom of her heart. Xavier also began to tear up, experiencing for the first time appreciation and respect rather than blame and rejection, from the same woman who seemed to scorn them when they arrived. That moment triggered his decision to seize the opportunity and become a person who helps others.

This is a common experience for young people in YouthBuild, AmeriCorps, and Service Corps. Making a difference for other people is a universally inspiring human experience that works miracles for young people who have been seen as the trouble-makers in their neighborhoods. “I used to be a hoodlum,” they say. “Now I am a hero.”

Every solution for every problem faced by our great nation is subject to political decisions. The twin challenges of improving our public schools to lower the drop-out rates, and expanding our second chance programs to reconnect those whom the schools have so far failed, require public funding. Elected officials of all persuasions need to visit local programs, to witness their success. Even skeptical legislators can sometimes be won over through listening to the testimonies of the youth and seeing the data. The values of hard work and responsibility, coupled with service to others, are universally respected. 61% of all the low-income young people who enroll in YouthBuild land safely in jobs and/or college within a year, even though a majority of them previously expected to be dead or in jail by the time they were 25. If our nation could reconnect 61% of all low-income out-of-school youth, it would radically improve our society.

YouthBuild is not alone in offering a model that cries out to go to full scale, reaching either the limit of demand or the limit of capacity to deliver a quality program.  There is enormous demand for programs like YouthBuild that work to ensure that we do not continue to lose one third of every generation growing up in America. We need to invest in the education, job training, well-being, inspiration, and character development of every young person born. They can all grow up to be responsible, productive, caring citizens.

YouthBuild is a New Profit portfolio organization and an America Forward Coalition Member. To learn more about YouthBuild, click here.

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