Pathways into Leadership: A study of YouthBuild Graduates

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This study tells the story of the transformation of a substantial group of young people. Today they are exemplary civic leaders. A significant number of them hold public office or are church leaders, such as pastors. More than one third are professional educators or youth workers. Almost all are leaders in their families, workplaces, and communities.

This is a remarkable outcome because just a few years ago they were on a very different track. Almost all had dropped out of high school or been expelled. Many were victims of violence, and a substantial minority had been members of gangs and/or convicted of crimes. Many had been homeless. Most predicted they would be dead by now.

We find that their life trajectories, and indeed their identities, changed as a result of enrolling in local YouthBuild programs—a combination of education, community service in the form of building homes, job training, personal counseling and mentoring, and leadership development—and joining the national pipeline for young leaders that YouthBuild USA organizes for the alumni of the local programs.

For the most part, these young people entered YouthBuild for practical reasons, such as the desire to obtain a GED and job skills. !ey found YouthBuild a radical alternative to the institutions and communities that they had known so far, characterized by caring and love (explicitly named as such), high expectations for achievement and service to others, opportunities for leadership within and beyond the program, and supportive relationships with adults and peers. Most of the young leaders report that those elements continued from their earliest days in a local program through to their advanced work in the YouthBuild USA leadership system.

This study is based on a survey of 344 alumni and detailed intensive interviews with a diverse sample of 54 of those survey respondents. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) conducted this study in cooperation with selected YouthBuild alumni. !e graduates helped design the survey and the interview protocol and actually interviewed their peers. CIRCLE sta$ analyzed the survey data and audiotapes of the interviews. CIRCLE is solely responsible for this report.

Previous research has shown positive e$ects on the educational and employment prospects of YouthBuild enrollees as a group, compared to high school dropouts who do not enter YouthBuild (Hahn et al., 2004; Cohen & Piquero, 2010). This study is not intended to replicate those findings. The focus of this study is the graduates who found their way into YouthBuild leadership programs at the local or national level. Their current contact information is known to YouthBuild USA, usually because they have had contact with the national office.

They are similar to the entire YouthBuild population in terms of demographics, personal background, and challenges, but are unusual in that they have participated in YouthBuild alumni leadership programs. Although this report is retrospective (relying on the graduates’ recollections of their own past) and may be selective (drawing disproportionately from active alumni), it demonstrates that YouthBuild has had a profound e$ect on the leadership and civic engagement of a substantial number of young people who recently did not even expect to live until today, let alone contribute to society.

As one graduate said,

“Because of YouthBuild, I was introduced to leadership early on. I wasn’t just successful in my life, I was able to give back and encourage other young people, not just in my hometown, not just in my state, but across the nation to be successful.”

These alumni, mostly young people of color from low-income households in urban centers, have emerged as civic leaders despite facing severe disadvantages and poor life prospects. !ey were certainly not on track to attend college when they "rst walked into a local YouthBuild program. Because opportunities for civic engagement and leadership development are now extremely scarce except for successful high school and college students, YouthBuild stands as a rare example of a program that helps poor and working-class young adults develop into active citizens. As such, it deserves attention and support. !is report was made possible by a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Projects discussed in this publication

YouthBuild Alumni Study

For a retrospective study of YouthBuild alumni to understand the factors that initiate and then sustain their civic engagement over a lifetime

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