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YouthBuild-ing Inspiration

March 18th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Yesterday, Michelle Obama and I visited the Mall for YouthBuild USA’s 30th Anniversary. (Okay, truth in advertising, Michelle was there at 10:30 and I was there at 2 pm, but we did both visit the same event.) Looking at them from the web, YouthBuild impresses. In person, YouthBuild inspires.

Clearly, the program inspires the involved youth to something better, often taking them quite literally from gangs and drugs to productive contributions to their communities and society. And, having a chance to wander and talk with members, graduates, and some staff inspires one with a confidence that problems can be solved, that multi-faceted solutions do exist, and that successful programs are getting attention and resources to replicate their successes elsewhere.

At one moment, the situation ‘clicked’. I sat down to hear the ‘luminaries’ speak, readying for note taking from speeches. And, well, to be honest my toes got stepped on so I moved my feet a little. A young man, a 2002 graduate, had brought someone to meet his mother, sitting in the row in front of me. And, another person a few minutes later. And, another … And, another … The boundless enthusiasm is hard to overstate. The credit the young man gave these people, all in different ways, for turning his life around. The ongoing activities he spoke about. These were staff members, other participants, government employees, and others. And, looking around, this sort of confident and impassioned enthusiasm was not limited to just one person, not just one location. This is a program that turns peoples’ lives around, at a cost affordable level, and helps get them in a situation where they are making something better of themselves while making something better in their communities.

In the coming days, there will be a number of posts about YouthBuild and their Greening efforts. The speakers at yesterday’s event, from program participants to funders like the Walmart Foundation to the founder (Dorothy Stoneman) to luminaries/supporters like John Kerry and Michelle Obama are worth relaying … and will be.

Instead, I want to focus a moment on the speech given by 2005 graduate Ely Flores who has gone from high-school dropout to renewable energy activist and entreprenour as part of Grid Alternatives, working to provide solar-panel systems to low-income families in south and central California.

Flores spoke after a “parade of keys”, keys for each state Youthbuild is active in, with a Youthbuild member calling out the number of homes that Youthbuild has reclaimed or built over the past 30 years.

These keys represent many things for us all. These keys represent the 84,000 lives that YouthBuild has touched in these past 30 years. These 84,000 lives are the ones that many schools said no to and many jobs said no to. But YouthBuild said yes.

Lets mention something. YouthBuild did a test “YouthBuild Offender Project”. With a program budget of $18.2 million, YouthBuild took 1209 youthful offenders in, 842 finished their year in the program. Half of those received GED degress, 75% had jobs at the end of the program, and just 18% were recidivists — a little more than a fourth the average for this population cohort. Consider, 350+ fewer people back in the judicial system. How many fewer crimes? How many young men and women earning a salary rather than costing $45,000 a year to have in prison.

These are the sort of programs that work. We can’t afford to waste any resources, including our people. Combined with ‘greening’ their building efforts, YouthBuild is about saving resources.

These keys represent the 18,000 low-income housing units that that economy said no to in their plea of rehabilitation. But Youthbuild said yes.

Taking back dilapidated buildings from drug users and providing them for families. Taking buildings that are cast off from society and making them a productive part of the community. Not wasting, saving resources in a very real way.

These keys represent all the youth that continue to be incarcerated at an alarming rate, those youth for whom the educational system says “There are not enough books here for you to learn from” but YouthBuild said there is enough education to go around for all of us.

From 2004 through 2008, 52% of those YouthBuild members completing programs (79% complete) who started without a HS diploma got either a diploma or a GED. (92%, by the way, started without either.) And, 92% were either in a job or further education at the end of Youthbuild.

These keys represent the opportunities and spaces for transformation that YouthBuild will provide from this day forward.

These keys represent me and you and all those youth who have walked through the doors of a program with burdens so deep and luggage of hurt and oppression so heavy that at times we felt that our lives were over and were worth nothing. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, which means that no one can put a price on how much you are worth.

The respect was palpable throughout the ‘YouthBuild’ family on the Mall. For each other, for the program, and from the program staff for the participants. Serious about what they are doing, respectful for each other and what they are doing, and a warmth of relationship easily described as “family”.

Now, correct me if I am wrong, FAMILY, but whenever anyone challenges YouthBuild students, whenever YouthBuild is faced with an issue, we confront it head on. We move towards finding a way out, we move toward solutions.

Programs and people solving problems. We need more of these. Should we mention, again, that YouthBuild has received stimulus package money for a significant (but not nearly large enough) expansion?

Today, our own mother, Earh, our own God-given land, and home sweet home is challenging us. But not just any challenge, a challenge that affects our very existence.

Time to pay attention, time for ending patting ourselves on the back for achievements past, but to turn to the challenges ahead.

If you didn’t know by now that our environment is getting dramatically hotter, different species of animals and creatures are going extinct, different parts of the world are seeing weather changes that are unheard of, you better ask somebody. [Editor’s note: And, better stop watching Faux News.] Save your time and your energy, because the global-warming argument is over. Now it is time to do something about it and the opportunity is here. Green Jobs are here! Renewable energy is so easily accessible! We can change the direction of our own unjust pollution. Youthbuild, will you meet that challenge with me?

Now, this was a joyous audience, ready to interact with the speakers. This was not the only time where, loudly, the audience affirmed their agreement with Ely.

Politicians, the solutions and fight against Environmental Injustices is hear and YouthBuild is ready to be on the frontlines of the battle field.

Environmental Justice is a quite serious
challenge. By taking up a commitment to ‘green’ their efforts, YouthBuild is staking out a meaningful role in helping assure that ‘greening society’ will be for all society, not just for those with the case to buy a hybrid or put solar panels on their roofs. Affordable, low-income energy efficient homes, cutting into that 40% of US GHG emissions related to our built structures, that is a meaningful part of an environmental just path toward a prosperous, climate-friendly society.

YouthBuild! Doesn’t it make sense, to work toward saving our environment and if that line of work provides a promising economic future for our families, doesn’t that make sense? Youthbuild, are you ready for this challenge? Will you stand with me to star in the face of global warming and say, “You will not destroy my home any longer?”

I am Ely Flores and I have vowed to fight back against environmental injustice. I invite your to join me in the fight to save our oh so very dear soil.

There is a real beauty to Youthbuild.

YouthBuild is

  • An ethically responsible and morally right alternative provided to youth who might otherwise end up in prison, on drugs, and/or dead at an early age.
  • Cost-effective for society, helping reduce the cost of the judicial system while fostering productive members of society.
  • Good for communities, helping build up human infrastructure (good citizens) and better homes.
  • Helping save resources: homes, (now) the environment, and most importantly people.
  • Exemplary in helping develop leaders, leader like Ely Flores, leaders that will help in making tomorrow’s America better than today’s.

I, for one, am thankful that President Obama, Senator Kerry, and others assured that the Stimulus package would have $50 million for expanding Youthbuild. From everything that I have read, from everything I saw and heard yesterday, from the face and passion of Ely Flores and other YouthBuild participants, it is clear that this is money that will be well spent.

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Tags: Energy · Global Warming

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dorothy Stoneman // Mar 20, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I love this blog about YouthBuild… the author truly caught the spirit of YouthBuild but I can’t figure out from this entry WHO the author is! Whoever you are, thanks for opening your heart to YouthBuild students and graduates!

  • 2 A Siegel // Mar 21, 2009 at 6:19 am

    Thank you for your comment Dorothy. Your work, and those you work with, are inspiring. Now, let’s figure out how to accelerate even faster your turn to the “Green side” in this work.

    As with everything at this site, the author is “A Siegel” unless explicitly stated otherwise.

  • 3 Alice Watson // Mar 24, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Thank you for your beautifully written article, which really captured the essence of the events that week!

  • 4 Eva Blake // Jun 22, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Hi A Siegel!

    I just bumped into this looking for recent press from the field. We have been interviewing graduates in green jobs and have posted some of those interviews at Would you be interested in doing a follow up story on YouthBuild and its Green Initiative?