The following is a conversation between John Valverde, CEO of YouthBuild USA, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: One of the most important things we can do to promote the health of global society is to work with young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who’ve gotten off track, and help them get back on it. An organization that has an exceptional track record for successfully doing this is YouthBuild, and it’s a pleasure to have with us tonight, the Chief Executive Officer of YouthBuild USA, John Valverde. Good evening, John and welcome to The Business of Giving.
John: Thank you for having me.
Denver: Tell us about YouthBuild, how it got started, and the mission of the organization.
John: In 1978, here in New York in East Harlem, our founder, Dorothy Stoneman asked young people,”If you had adult support, what would you do to improve the community?” And they said, “We’d take back those abandoned buildings; we’d rehab them; and we’d create affordable housing in our community,” and there was born the idea for YouthBuild. YouthBuild focuses on 16 to 24-year-olds who are out of school and out of work, and supports them in getting them back on track in education, in career development, leadership development, community service, and counseling and healing.
Denver: These young individuals– who they refer to as disconnected or opportunity youth– how many are there in this country who are neither in school or currently working?
John: There’s about 5 million 16-24 year-olds in this country, and there’s another 350 million globally.
Denver: That’s going to be a societal problem unless we begin to address it and try to get them pointed in the right direction.
John: What’s interesting is that this crisis, this disconnected youth, and now we call them opportunity youth for the opportunity they present to society if they are given an opportunity. So, it’s great to re-frame and shift the narrative in that way. But we formally named this opportunity youth crisis in the 70s, and here we are at 357 million globally out of school and out of work; it’s definitely a crisis… or it’s beyond crisis. It’s a reality that we must address.
Denver: You came to YouthBuild by quite an unusual route. In fact, you may be the only person that I’ve ever known, John, who leads a nonprofit organization not involved in the criminal justice system who has been formerly incarcerated himself. Share with listeners your story.
John: I grew up raised by a single mom here in New York, in Queens, struggling to make ends meet. She’s a hero of mine. She’s still in my life, and I’m grateful for that. She really kept me and my brother on track, and we made it through that time and struggled and made it to college. My brother and I are first-generation Americans. I’m the eldest son. So, I was the first to go to college on a full scholarship to Hunter College.
I made it through all of that only to make a terrible decision. When I was 20 years old, my girlfriend was raped here in New York City. I went to the police, but there was nothing they could do because she had not gone directly to the hospital to get the rape kit test done. In my anger and anguish over what happened to her, I went and confronted the man who raped her, and I took his life. I was sentenced to 30 years in prison, of which I had to serve a minimum of 10 before I would be eligible for parole.
I entered the prison system, and I thought my life was over. I reconnected with my father early on during my incarceration. He said to me, “Except for responsibility for your crime, commit to making amends and say ‘Yes’ as much as you can to help others, and you’ll find purpose and meaning and be free. That’s what I decided to take on.
Initially, I actually didn’t think I belonged in prison. It was a long journey actually to accepting full responsibility for what I did. But I immediately engaged the process of trying to make a difference in the lives of others, and it developed me as a human being and gave me a sense of opportunity under the circumstances. And I grew, and I believe it’s a big contributing factor to who I am today as I continue to live by my father’s words of finding meaning and purpose by making a difference and saying yes to support others.
Just outside, I saw on the back of a trash can: “Most of the greatest ideas end up here.” It’s sad but true that there’s so much brilliance and talent and lost opportunities sitting in our prison system.
Denver: You were incarcerated for 16 years; I think 11-1/2 of it in Sing Sing, and you really made the most of that time. You completed your degree. You got a Masters, and you developed your leadership skills. You know, John, we’re not accustomed to hearing these kinds of things happening in prison and the American justice system. Were you an anomaly?
John: I don’t think so. Just outside, I saw on the back of a trash can: “Most of the greatest ideas end up here.” It’s sad but true that there’s so much brilliance and talent and lost opportunities sitting in our prison system. But I will say prison isn’t necessarily supposed to be a nice place. But there are some progressive states, and I believe New York– at least Sing Sing was a progressive prison that really believed in education. They had a commissioner at that time that believed in education, a superintendent that believed in education, and for me that created a path where I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree because I had not completed it before my incarceration.
Went on to complete my graduate degree from New York Theological Seminary and then go on to be able to create two programs that are today nonprofit organizations that support higher education in prison. So, I was the first incarcerated person to have an adjunct professor status with both Nyack and Mercy College, and I taught at the college level for 10 years. I also created Hudson Link for Higher Education in prison which celebrates 20 years this year. The Rising Hope Program, I was one of the founders of that as well. I was the first to take the LSAT while still incarcerated. The first to get accepted to law school while still in prison, developed a peace initiative. All of these… what I consider building blocks of my life and my work in social justice… happened in prison.
I know I speak for many who are in prison, sometimes… or often you’re happy when the officer locks that gate at night. At least you’re in your cell.
Denver: It wasn’t an easy place. I think your brother said when he saw you, he noticed that you were walking sideways, correct?
John: I’ll get emotional about it, but you’re reminding me of a time where my brother noticed when visiting me at Sing Sing that I was walking near the vending machines almost turned sideways. When it hit him, he got very emotional, and he asked me why I walked that way. I said I hadn’t even realized that I walked sideways, but I walked that way because I try to put my back against the wall so that I know that at least behind me, there’s no one there that’s going to hurt me. You don’t realize, but you live that way for many years. I know I speak for many who are in prison, sometimes… or often you’re happy when the officer locks that gate at night. At least you’re in your cell. It’s the nature of survival. It can turn into a habit. I was actually grateful my brother brought that to my attention. I worked on that.
I think it’s only meaningful if it allows young people to envision futures for themselves that they never imagined were possible, and then for, if it’s possible, to inspire society to really open up second chances for these young people.
Denver: How does this story resonate with the young people that you work with now at YouthBuild? I would imagine quite well.
John: I actually pursued this opportunity. I get the recruiting email, and I immediately think of six people who would be great for this opportunity. That was on a Friday. On Monday, half a dozen people contact me and tell me I’d be great for this opportunity. I apply not thinking I’ll get this, but thinking it’s a real growth opportunity. The main reason I didn’t think I would get it was because: would a youth development program as large as this want a leader as an example and role model for young people when I’d been formerly incarcerated?
I was actually partly surprised I went on seven interviews in four cities in four months. My seventh interview was three-and-a-half hours long. I met with 31 different people. So, at some point, I started to say, Hey I think they are taking me quite seriously. I actually went through a process of mental toughness, which is an element of YouthBuild. I’ve been very very grateful to have had the experience with young people over the last 16 months, and one of them actually said to me after a graduation ceremony where I spoke, I have no excuses anymore, Mr. John. I have a criminal record, but now I know I can be a CEO, and I’ve had other young people say, I want to be a CEO one day, and now I believe I can because of your story, but Mr. John, I don’t want to go to prison. Then you say, you’ve got it!
It has resonated very powerfully with the young people, and I’m grateful that my story can be an inspiration for others, but I think it’s only meaningful if it allows young people to envision futures for themselves that they never imagined were possible, and then for, if it’s possible, to inspire society to really open up second chances for these young people.
Denver: Tell us about the YouthBuild program which is built around five core elements. What do these young people do? What do you think distinguishes YouthBuild from other similar kinds of endeavors?
John: Absolutely the comprehensive nature of the program is a distinguishing factor. We have young people with us on average 9 to 12 months, so there’s a good amount of time. We know young people need more time than that. But you can imagine a program that’s four weeks or six weeks. Many youth development programs are shorter like that. But to have young people with us for a year, and be able to apply a comprehensive approach that includes counseling and healing, along with educational opportunity and completion of their either equivalency or actual diploma. Some of our programs are charter schools, also vocational or career track that allows them to achieve credentials and develop workplace skills that support their success in the world of work.
Then they do community service, so they actually get this opportunity to not just be recipients of service because almost 100% of the YouthBuild students come from impoverished communities, low income, or grew up in poverty. So, they’re accustomed more to receiving benefits and services. Here at YouthBuild, a young person has an opportunity to give those services to others. So, community service is critical.
And then leadership development rounds out that fifth core element where young people, in order to transform their own lives, the lives of their families, communities, and we believe the world, they need to develop leadership skills that allow them to achieve that, which includes civic engagement and other elements.
That core model, this comprehensive model over a period of time, including a stipend where young people who don’t have an income at least now have a way to support themselves while they learn and while they’re growing, while they’re developing themselves… those elements distinguish YouthBuild from other programs. Of course the federal appropriation is a distinguishing factor as well, as we have very strong bipartisan support over the history of our organization for our work, and we have a federal appropriation line that supports many of our programs across the country.
Denver: How do people find you, or how do you find them?
John: I think the strongest youth development programs, or programs generally, really are word-of-mouth programs over time. I think we’ve built a solid reputation in communities that are seeking opportunities like this, and it’s very common to see friends or others from the community be referred by graduates of the program.
Denver: One-third of your people who enter this program have a criminal record, correct?
John: That’s self-reporting. We actually think it’s higher than that. The way the world has gone, we’d probably think we’re about 50%.
Denver: You said at the start that YouthBuild began up in East Harlem. You’re headquartered at Somerville, Massachusetts. How much has this movement grown in the United States, as well as around the world, through YouthBuild International?
John: We’re actually up to 260 sites in 44 states. It’s been an incredible growth. We’re up to 100 programs in 21 countries internationally. Annually, we’re serving between 10,000 and 12,000 young people. But just to put everything in perspective, as we opened, there are 5 million young people and another 350 million globally. So, the need far outweighs what we can deliver on. We’re grateful to make a difference in the lives of those we can.
…a pathway to healing is beginning to release your trauma and your pain by speaking about it with responsible people who can support you and are there for you, and can guide you to a stronger place… and again, having the period of time with young people, building these kinds of relationships with them.
Denver: Unfortunately, you have to say no to many more people than you can say yes to, and I know you want to change that as quickly as you can.
Let me talk about one of those five pillars, and that’s the healing and counseling pillar of YouthBuild. And something that’s often overlooked by many institutions is the trauma that these young people have experienced. I’m sure you’ve seen this first hand. You may have even experienced it yourself. Tell us about it and how YouthBuild tries to address it in its program.
John: I think it’s so critically important to recognize that this particular aspect of a young person’s life, I don’t think there’s any human being that makes it through life without trauma, but when you are born into poverty, and you’re in a crime-ridden community, and violence is an everyday element… or a common element, the level of trauma that a person experiences is obviously higher.
What I’ve come to understand over time is that one of the biggest factors in why young people fail to succeed is unresolved trauma that shows up in different situations where on the job, a supervisor appears to a young person as someone who traumatized them when they were younger. That unresolved trauma results in conflict, and the young person doesn’t come back to work, etc. What we’ve noticed at YouthBuild… and what I think is something we’ve done exceptionally well… is that we’ve recognized that from the beginning.
And we understand the power of love, not in the mushiest sense of the word. Although, mushy love is transformative too. But we understand that if we love a young person, even if we don’t like everything about their behavior when they first come to us, but we love them and they start to believe that we at least care for them, they start to open up to us, start to share their trauma, share their pain. And we know today, a pathway to healing is beginning to release your trauma and your pain by speaking about it with responsible people who can support you and are there for you, and can guide you to a stronger place… and again, having the period of time with young people, building these kinds of relationships with them. All of a sudden, young people start to realize that they can put the past behind them, and they don’t have to be defined by their trauma and their pain and their suffering, but that they can be more. And YouthBuild is that kind of safe and brave space for young people to live that out; and that’s been our experience.
Denver: With that love, they begin to trust, and then they open up. I have always found from my limited experience, there’s probably no better question to ask people than, “What else?”. Because they never really give you the answer the first time, but you just go with three or four “what else’s,” and you eventually get to a whole different place.
John: It really is powerful. We must begin to shift the narrative of judging a book by its cover or judging young people by their poverty and their upbringing. What else is true about them? And what we’ve experienced is that what else is true is that they’re brilliant; they’re eager to make a difference in the world if given the opportunity.
Denver: We also have to stop defining people by the worst thing that they’ve ever done in their entire lives, which we tend to do in this society.
John: I think that that’s true. While I also think that some of the worst things that we do will inevitably be part of our lives, I think it’s important to say that that should not be the only defining factor, but that who we are today and who we strive to be in the future, if given the opportunity, that has to be part of the equation as well. That’s what we believe can level the playing field so that young people, like the young people in YouthBuild who are not your average young people, will have the same opportunities that others have.
Denver: Does shame and guilt play a role in these young people’s lives?
John: I don’t think there’s any traumatized person that doesn’t live with a level of shame and guilt that can cripple them and paralyze them and hold them back. So again, in that process where you were talking about where they realize you care, they begin to trust you; they begin to open up… They also begin to release some of their guilt and some of their shame. That’s what I’ve noticed. As that starts to fall of people’s backs and stops holding them back, they begin to hold their head up in a different way. They’re more confident. They believe in themselves. They start to thrive in the classroom and outside of the classroom.
Denver: For those who have been through this program, is there any data around the impact that it has had on these individuals’ lives and their futures?
John: In terms of sheer numbers, we’re about at 180,000 graduates. So, there is data to support that we are very, very effective at supporting young people in completing their high-school level education, to increase their volunteerism and commitment to community service, to increase their vocational skills, including getting credentials in labor markets that matter. And we have seen this process of young people giving back to their communities in an effort to heal their communities in different ways. So, they’re re-engaging their children, if they are parents.. and many of the young people are. They’re re-engaging their communities, sometimes even working at a YouthBuild Program. So we’re very proud of the outcomes that we’ve been able to achieve over time. But we’ve got some ideas about the future as well.
Denver: You mentioned a moment ago that you were a line item. Tell us a little bit more about your business model and all your sources of revenue and support.
John: We have an affiliated model. Of these 260 sites that I described for example in the US, 140 or so of them are funded through the federal government, through funds managed by the Department of Labor. There’s an $89.5 million line item called YouthBuild that supports these 140 programs or so, and we just got a $5 million increase about a month ago to$ 89.5 million, which will allow another four or five programs to come online.
The rest of the programs are part of our affiliated network. What is the secret sauce of YouthBuild– and also potentially the challenge that we’ve experienced with an affiliated network– is that context and locality matter. Individual programs can focus on the particular needs of their youth in their community. For example, maybe opioid overdose in a particular community is so aggravated and intense that a YouthBuild program will take that on.
Whereas, in another community, homelessness is, or construction is available here but not in another area, so they need to think about healthcare and customer service. But at the same time, it makes the challenge of us having a shared brand and message throughout the network to increase our visibility… to make YouthBuild a household name equivalent with skilled, young people who are educated and eager to succeed and contribute and be an asset to an employer and make a difference in their community. That can get lost when you have an affiliated network that is so individualized. So that the Department of Labor supports, I figure, about half of those programs, and then many of these individual programs fundraise on their own to make a difference in their specific community.
Denver: I think that’s a balance that so many nonprofit organizations struggle with because you do have to have that particular thing for the locale, but there are certain things that you also know work everywhere. And you want those universal things to be part of the entire system.
Talk a little bit about your workplace culture. You’ve been there about 16 months. What are some of the things that you’ve done to try to make it even better?
John: It’s so interesting. Culture is critically important in any organization; we know that. A succession from a founder who was with us for 38 years to a brand-new external person from New York City into the organization, clearly there’s going to be a transition process. And we’ve worked through over the last 16 months really getting folks back into believing what’s possible through our work, reminding each other that we exist for the young people and the field of YouthBuild programs… reenvisioning what’s possible in the future– a world where all young people graduate from high school with career going and college going, mindsets and skills, and an increased focus on criminal justice.
So, there’s no organization that makes it 40 years without also having some misses or lost opportunities or things we wish we could go back and revisit. And then as we were talking earlier, there really is no organization that’s been around 40 years that hasn’t had the world dramatically change all around them.
So, we have spent the last 16 months really thinking about: what do we need to be great at as an organization? What are the behaviors? What’s the culture that we want to be exemplifying, even if young people are not in our headquarters in Somerville? We need to remember that we exist for them and make sure that our values and our culture are aligned with supporting young people and transforming the world.
It takes a commitment, a level of integrity, and I think courage to really want people to achieve their full potential, and I lived that for 16 years in prison because I saw the potential, and I just wanted people to thrive. And that experience has given me the tools, the integrity, the courage I need to be a successful leader in the world today, and I’m grateful for that.
Denver: Let me close with this, John. You were a leader in prison during those 16 years that you were incarcerated, and I know that you maintain that leadership makes all the difference. Are there any lessons that you have taken from this relatively unusual leadership experience that have really served you particularly well as you now lead this extraordinary nonprofit organization?
John: I’m humbled and honored to be the first formerly incarcerated CEO of a nonprofit with a global mission. It’s an incredible honor to be leading this organization and movement. I realize now that were it not for my incarceration and experience, I probably would not have the leadership skills and the courage to face a crisis like this head on and lead this organization.
I would say that my 10 years of teaching at the college level in prison is a perfect example that I think your listeners will appreciate. Your audience, your students, to be a professor in a prison setting: imagine having to fail or give someone a C on a paper and then later have to be in the yard or the cell block with that person. It takes a commitment, a level of integrity, and I think courage to really want people to achieve their full potential, and I lived that for 16 years in prison because I saw the potential, and I just wanted people to thrive. And that experience has given me the tools, the integrity, the courage I need to be a successful leader in the world today, and I’m grateful for that.
Denver: Unbelievably interesting.
John Valverde, the Chief Executive Officer of YouthBuild USA, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how listeners can become involved with the organization if they’re so inclined?
John: Please visit www.youthbuild.org. We’re based in Somerville where the national headquarters is. There’s plenty information there to learn more about us and get involved. We’re excited to have your support.
Denver: Thanks, John. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
John: Thank you Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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