YouthBuild: Unleashing Potential

Xavier was 13 years old and living in public housing with his grandmother in Denver when street life and the court system began to take root in his life. His grandmother had heart disease and couldn’t travel to renew the food stamps they needed to eat. He turned to what was available, got into trouble, and left school before completion.

This story is familiar with the at least 6.7 million ‘opportunity youth’ who left school before graduation and who cannot find work as a result. Many of these young people ages 16 to 24, are homeless, parents, and have been involved in the criminal justice system

Xavier entered a lifestyle that consumed him. But he know it wasn’t who he was. With the advice from a friend, Xavier enrolled in Mile High Youth Corps YouthBuild (MHYC) where he began his transformation. Through MHYC, he earned his GED, Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, and was awarded the Metropolitan Mayors and Commissioners Youth Award. He enrolled in Community College of Denver, joined YouthBuild USA’s Postsecondary Education Advisory Council V.O.I.C.E.S. (Views on Improving Credentials and Education Success) where was elected President of the council. His journey earned him an opportunity to meet President Obama in 2011 and to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2012 and 2013.

This week Xavier is leading the Conference of Young Leaders (#CoYL2015), the national gathering of over 100 young people representing local YouthBuild programs from around the nation. Following CoYL, students share their stories with elected officials on Capitol Hill.

As comprehensive issues like homelessness, poverty, education and unemployment befuddle decision makers and our nation as a whole, it’s uncommon to find a solution that addresses all of them.

The YouthBuild movement has been quietly growing in low-income communities for over thirty years. In East Harlem in the 1970’s, while teaching Pre-K, Dorothy Stoneman asked young people standing on street corners what their community needed. Their answers were resoundingly to rebuild their community, through its homes and young people.

This moment bred the essence of YouthBuild: Quit speaking for and about “kids” and what they needed to better themselves. Instead, bring them to the table and have them tell you themselves. It’s at the first program, Youth Action Programs and Homes YouthBuild in East Harlem, where Dorothy began this journey of repositioning young people as not only the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of the today.

How YouthBuild works. Local programs recruit out-of-work and out-of-school 16 to 24 year olds. After passing the rigorous entry training dubbed “Mental Toughness” applicants are welcomed into the “YouthBuild Family” as YouthBuild students. Depending on the program, over the course of 10 months to two years, students earn their GED or high school equivalent while simultaneously building and renovating homes for the homeless and low-income families.

The key to the success of YouthBuild is in the leadership development component that is entwined in everything students engage in. In every program you will find a poster that states: Leadership is taking responsibility to do what is right for yourself, your family and your community. It’s this mantra that drives the transformation of young people from so-called “dropouts” to educated, job trained and eager to pursue careers in everything from healthcare, IT, and construction.

Since 1994, these 140,000 young leaders from 264 programs in 46 states have built 24,000 units of increasingly green affordable housing. Programs are autonomous and receive technical assistance from YouthBuild USA in Somerville, MA. YouthBuild USA provides, technical assistance and trainings to grantees (local YouthBuild programs) who receive the $73.6 million in Department of Labor YouthBuild grants.

YouthBuild USA recently announced a partnership with Starbucks and the Shultz Family Foundation that will provide YouthBuild students the opportunity to learn customer service skills through classroom and on-the-job experience in cafe settings.

They’ve joined JP Morgan Chase’s New Skills At Work initiative and partnered with Jobs For the Future on the launch of a career and college counseling platform called My Best Bets. YouthBuild USA’s Green Initiative is also the non-profit partner of Saint-Gobain, the world’s largest building materials company.

YouthBuild is deeply involved in the national service front as one of the original National Direct AmeriCorps grantees in 1994, that’s made possible the volunteering of 9.2 million hours of service since.

YouthBuild International oversees the influence of YouthBuild outside of the US, that includes local partnerships, YouthBuild programs, and development and scaling of the model in 15 different countries.

Brandeis University found that a Gates Foundation funded postsecondary initiative at local YouthBuild programs developed a college going culture where “High school is not enough” for YouthBuild graduates. Alums can now be found in classrooms at Community College of Denver, Temple University, and in graduate programs at UMass Boston and Claremont Lincoln University.

Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that students who graduate from YouthBuild programs go on to become leaders in careers and communities, with one-third of the surveyed graduates becoming professional educators or youth workers.

From the neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, tribal lands in the Pacific Northwest, from its roots in El Barrio, to hillsides in Bosnia, and villages in South Africa, YouthBuild is often describes as a best kept secret. This is one secret that deserves to emerge out of the shadows of low-incomes communities where its a proven success to companies looking to hire, policymakers seeking guidance, and impact driven leaders looking to scale what works.

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Dorothy Stoneman

Hey, Tyler, this is cool! It was on my facebook page and it made me smile happily.



Thanks Dorothy! Great to hear from you. I was in Austin with American YouthWorks and YB Houston leading young people in meetings at the TX State Capitol and thought of you. Let me know when you are in Seattle! Would love to reconnect + support the movement how I can.


Great read! I am trying to work this wonderful organization now. I have a vision of doing something similar like this that caters to entrepreneurs who are trying to serve their purpose.

Eva Blake

Hi Tyler! Very nice! Hope you're well.

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