Dorothy Stoneman

Ashoka Fellow
Somerville, Massachusetts, United States
Fellow Since 2008


This profile was prepared when Dorothy Stoneman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
The New Idea
In 1978, following more than a decade of participation in the Civil Rights Movement, teaching public school, and working in the anti-poverty program as director of a parent-controlled independent community school and Headstart program, Stoneman and a group of teenagers and volunteer adults created a new program called the Youth Action Program that systematically offered low-income youth in New York City the opportunity to rebuild their communities and their lives by attending a school half-time and building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people in the other half of their time, while learning leadership skills and internalizing the value of community service.

Stoneman orchestrated the process of building a national coalition and a national nonprofit to replicate this program, renamed YouthBuild. It has now engaged over 84,000 young people in low-income communities, producing over 18,000 units of affordable housing. It has resulted in over $1B being invested through public and private channels into low-income communities in the United States. YouthBuild’s emphasis on a comprehensive approach, which simultaneously addresses the key issues facing low-income communities—education, employment, housing, crime prevention, and leadership development—has influenced many other youth-serving programs.

All her successes have grown from this observation: That you can succeed in inspiring disillusioned young people to change their lives in positive directions if you can reach their hearts with an interwoven package of respect for their intelligence, a caring community to belong to, an opportunity to make a difference to other people, job skills, and education. Stoneman says she believes in “the power of love coupled with skills and opportunity.” While the individual components of this mix may provoke some thoughtful reflection or provide useful skills in and of themselves, when combined in the right way they are reliably transformative. The combination empowers young people with the inspiration, as well as the technical and emotional skills, to take control despite daunting circumstances in life, leading to remarkable accomplishments.

For thirty years Dorothy has made this the essential core of her YouthBuild and related work, which has now extended to forty-four U.S. states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, as well as fourteen other countries. This is not surprising given the hard numbers that reflect how effective this work has been. Comparing one set of indicators about participants from before versus after completing YouthBuild, the number with a GED or high school diploma increased from 22 percent to 59 percent, the number using hard drugs dropped from 30 percent to 6 percent, the number arrested dropped from 56 percent to 26 percent, and the number of homeless dropped from 26 percent to 12 percent. Furthermore, the average age to which participants expected to live (according to their own predictions) increased by 32 years. Another data set shows that approximately 76 percent of YouthBuild graduates are placed successfully in jobs or further education. Another independent researcher reported that every dollar invested in a YouthBuild student with a criminal record resulted in benefits to society of at least $10.80.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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