Dorothy Stoneman has built an international network of programs that offer disadvantaged youth the opportunity to develop skills, vision, and attitude to take themselves and their communities out of poverty. The work of Stoneman and her colleagues is reaching people that other programs often do not, including tens of thousands of America’s most disenfranchised, poor, and neglected teenagers and young adults, who have enormous intelligence and positive energy to contribute to society once they are engaged. In recent years it has been replicated in Canada, Mexico, Central America, South Africa, and Israel, with many other countries interested.
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.
A large segment of low-income youth in poor areas throughout the U.S. and around the world never become productive or happy citizens. Individually this is tragic, and collectively it perpetuates poverty and related problems including crime, poor public health, drug abuse, family violence, and more. Several hundred million young adults worldwide are unemployed and inadequately educated.
Even in the U.S., academic counseling, vocational training, and social support programs, ranging from traditional schools to Job Corps, often miss this population: They either don’t target these demographics; they fail to engage them successfully even when they do target them; or they only cover small pockets of the country. This applies to both genders and all ethnic backgrounds, and is particularly acute with young men. Some programs may provide technical or academic skills, but rarely the personal connections and emotional support as well as visible pathways to success and service needed to motivate this population to take responsibility for their own lives and for their communities.
This results in a segment of our population that becomes unproductive, unfulfilled, and often chronically destructive of themselves and their communities.
YouthBuild is best understood not as an aggregate of components but rather as a comprehensive whole. It combines several core principles and program elements in a way that has more impact than when they are separated, with the goal to “unleash the positive energy of low-income young people to rebuild their communities and their lives.” And to do so at a huge scale.
When working with YouthBuild students, program staff offer such a deep level of respect and caring that the students become amazed that anyone cares this much about them, and then they become motivated to care about their own lives. In the wide range of cities and counties in which these people live, the communities and participants themselves guide how YouthBuild is implemented locally. They understand that their decisions—not the decisions of some other organization or professionals—will determine the program’s direction in their community. Stoneman and the national YouthBuild USA organization also communicate something else which tends to motivate youth immensely—that this work is part of a national—now international-movement, and that they have huge opportunity to help make the movement succeed if they choose to do so. All of this ensures that each YouthBuild program is not only locally relevant, but that the participants sense quickly that they are part of something big, and that they can contribute in real and lasting ways.
YouthBuild then combines job skills training and traditional education in this supportive context. Over a period usually lasting one year, students cycle between working directly on rigorous service projects, such as constructing houses for poor people, and education in reading, writing, and math. Practical problems confronted in the service projects serve as lesson-plan material for the education, and the eventual completion of the project, such as a house, helps participants internalize the power and relevance of the education in a very tangible way. This is brought to closure with a YouthBuild graduation ceremony which brings parents and grandparents to celebrate the success of young people who had previously been off track.
In order to take this opportunity to full scale, Stoneman and a strong leadership team at YouthBuild USA, in partnership with directors and staff around the country, manage a number of factors to make sure the work is spreading while this vision continues to play out in each local case. There are now 226 local YouthBuild programs and nearly 1,000 organizational members of the YouthBuild Coalition in the U.S:
• Building on the social entrepreneurship of local leaders: She structured the YouthBuild USA Affiliated Network as a decentralized network of independent organizations controlled locally. Stoneman places a premium on the value of community creativity, local leadership, and continual learning to guide the work.
• Supporting the Network directly with centralized services: YouthBuild USA then supports this network with staff training, technical assistance, curriculum, quality assurance services, analysis, and grants and loans reaching over $10M annually.
• Advocacy for public funds: Stoneman coordinates national advocacy for YouthBuild programs which has resulted in successful bipartisan efforts to get the U.S. federal government to create a federal YouthBuild program managed by the U.S. Department of Labor. The US DOL contracts with YouthBuild USA to help provide training and technical assistance to their grantees. President Obama has called for the expansion of YouthBuild to 50,000 youth in the U.S. over the next 8 years. Stoneman and her staff have also helped develop 17 state-level YouthBuild coalitions to advocate for state-level funding and policy change.
• Contributing to the youth, community development, national service, environmental, and anti-poverty fields: Stoneman’s philosophy has always been to promote an ever broader and more unified movement to build collective power to access sufficient resources to provide opportunities for all youth and to end poverty in the U.S. and worldwide. She serves on the steering committees of many other coalitions and has served on many commissions aimed at increasing investment in ending poverty.
• Developing future leaders: Stoneman and her team are also working to foster the leadership development of YouthBuild graduates through an alumni network, civic engagement, leadership roles in the national Young Leaders Council and 1000 Leaders Network, youth conferences, and other work. YouthBuild USA’s work is also now the focus of premier graduate school teaching cases on how to scale social innovation.
When Stoneman talks about her work, she does so with a thoughtful, articulate, and relentless focus on the role that low-income young people can play in resolving the consequences of poverty. She prefers not to highlight the many awards or recognitions that YouthBuild USA has received over the years except to the degree that they illustrate the underlying points about how and why to work with low-income young people.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, and by her experience living and working in Harlem for 24 years, Stoneman has consistently called on people who consider themselves social change agents to embed themselves in the local community, and hold themselves accountable to that community, to listen to their ideas and access the resources to empower local people to implement their vision.
In 1996 Stoneman received a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, in 2000 the John Gardner Leadership Award, and in 2007 the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. She has also received awards from the Children’s Defense Fund, City Year, Youth Service America, Parent Magazine, and others. Stoneman played a leadership role in the Ford Foundation’s Leaders for a Changing World, sat on the founding Board of Directors of Stand for Children, was on the steering committee for the Movement to Leave No Child Behind, and has advised numerous forums and academic programs.
Stoneman articulates through her writings and work the importance of creating a movement, not just an organization or a program; of building coalitions based on clear-headed, underlying principles, organizing on the basis of responsibility not of anger, to achieve solutions not just to protest wrongs; and of the need for large-scale funding for solutions that match the magnitude of the problem.