Succeeding Its Founder, YouthBuild CEO Takes Program into Fifth Decade

John Valverde (center) with Michael Parker, former YouthBuild participant and current dean of students at Youth Action YouthBuild (left) and Alfonso Munk, a chief investment officer for PGIM Real Estate (Right). Photo courtesy of Hechler Photographers.

In the late 1970s, a youth worker in New York City named Dorothy Stoneman started a program that paired entry into the construction trade with academic advancement to draw in youth who had fallen off the path to graduation and employment. Some, but not all, of its clients had experienced some involvement with the justice system.

Twelve years later YouthBuild, shepherded at first by then-Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (D), became a federal program at the Department of Labor (DOL), which helped replicate the model. It is one of the few models of service with its own specific carve-out in the federal budget each year.

Today, there are about 260 YouthBuild sites in the United States and another 100 programs in 22 other countries. And this month, YouthBuild USA celebrated the 40th anniversary of the program with a gala held at Chelsea Piers in New York City, the place it all started in 1978.

Stoneman led YouthBuild USA, the nonprofit that supports these sites, until 2016. Enter John Valverde, a formerly incarcerated person who co-founded the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison during his time in New York’s Sing Sing correctional facility.

Valverde inherited one of the tougher tasks in nonprofit management: succeeding a founder who stayed for decades. He talked with The Chronicle of Social Change about his first two years on the job, and what comes next after 40 years for the YouthBuild program.

What has it been like being successor to a founder?

I think a lot of people were initially saying, you’ve got huge shoes to fill. I’d tell them, I’m not trying to fill them at all. I’m just trying to build on her amazing legacy.

Something like 80 percent of CEOs who succeed founders fail, I accepted position without knowing these stats … that had me worried.

But it’s everything I hoped it would be to work on a national, even global level.

What is your priority as an organization these days?

Dorothy Stoneman, founder of YouthBuild. Photo: YouthBuild

We’re thinking about how to take the model and adapt and evolve it to the 21st century. The world of work is different than it was in 1978.

Over the years we’ve realized our youths need more social emotional skills, and there have been trends downward on literacy. We’ve been thinking lot about not just employment, but also thinking about employability. How to strengthen our job readiness curricula.

For many, it’s their first job opportunity. They may not have had role models, or had examples where the world of work was visible all the time

We have a real commitment to our young people. I think it’s tempting for organizations to focus on those that are closer to employment readiness. We want to be sure that our subset of opportunity youth are not left behind, so we’ve doubled down on our commitment to communities affected by economic disadvantage.

What sort of skills are critical to that that maybe were not a focus historically for YouthBuild?

The idea of the impact of life skills. Case management is great, but seeing ways we can enhance thriving – it means financial literacy, mentoring, substance abuse treatment. We know that for a young person to succeed in a world of work, they must be able to manage these kinds of situations.

All of our thinking is around employability, including the soft skills component, in a new world where the future of work is in play. When you think about the automation or AI [artificial intelligence] that’s coming, we have ensure our young people – who are already perhaps behind on the path – are not left behind yet again.

YouthBuild is really strongly associated with construction work. I’m sure that still has a role, but is it still the central root of the model?

It’s still core to the YouthBuild model. But we’re starting to see more and more sites operating in the health care space, or IT space, and certainly in retail. Many of the sites have done customer service excellence programs.

There are communities where there really isn’t much construction. But IT and health care, food service, sales, they are absolutely thinking about that. For us to evolve and adapt, and prepare for the future of work, we have to go beyond construction.

Some portion of YouthBuild participants pursue a General Equivalency Diploma (GED); in 2014, the test became privatized and is managed differently now from state to state. Has that had any impact on your clients?

We have absolutely had to adjust to the changes to equivalency. It’s much more challenging, and initially we started to see dips in graduation. But it’s started to come back.

And we also have a lot of diploma granting. There are more charter schools in the YouthBuild network now. And there’s a focus that became more intentional about seven years ago, on post-secondary education. We’re doing more work around building a “college-going” culture.

What are the goals for YouthBuild in the next five years?

We’ve added our first ever chief development officer, and a director of communications, and we centralized grant management as an organization. So we have modernized … our infrastructure. That allows us to have great conversations about where we see ourselves going.

We want to focus on quality over just adding more YouthBuild sites … on increasing the quality of career pathways and education work.

I’d also like to revisit leadership development. We have increased involvement in social awareness and organizing, we are absolutely in new space with that. There are 180,000 YouthBuild graduates. What could be possible there, if they were engaged?

And we do have an international component. So we’re thinking lot about, over the next five years, how we learn from those international programs and apply that domestically.

We’re looking at everything. It’s an exciting next five years.

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