YouthBuild is a youth and community development program that simultaneously addresses core issues facing low-income communities – housing, education, employment, crime prevention, and leadership development. In YouthBuild programs, low-income young people ages 16 to 24 work toward completing their education while learning job skills by building affordable, increasingly green housing and other community assets, and preparing for postsecondary success. YouthBuild operates in 260 programs in the United States and in 21 other countries.  Since the partnership between Saint-Gobain and YouthBuild USA began in 2010, more than 1,050 students throughout the United States have been impacted.

Saint-Gobain has provided YouthBuild with $1.3 million in funding, donated building products to renovate or build 10 sustainable homes for low-income families, sharing Saint-Gobain business science and technical expertise, and employee volunteer support.

In 2015, the partnership expanded to South Africa and discussions are under way to further expand it to include Romania, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Mexico.  In this issue of The Month, we talk with Dorothy Stoneman, Founder and CEO of YouthBuild USA, Inc., and Tim Cross, President of YouthBuild International.

Dorothy and Tim, give us a sense of what the inception of YouthBuild was and really how it’s changed since your original vision. 

The original conception of YouthBuild was that there were very large numbers of young people who were on the streets who are idle, who had nothing important to do and who were looking for a purpose in life.  The vision was to really build a movement of young people who would be moved to make a difference in their community in ways that they would define and be organized to bring their intelligence and their vision to bear on improving the conditions of poverty.  One of the first projects that we did was the YouthBuild project which at that time wasn’t named YouthBuild, it was Youth Action Restoration Crew because there were so many abandoned buildings in East Harlem.  One of the first things that the young people said was, “We want to rebuild those buildings and create housing for the homeless because they look terrible and there’s a lot of homeless people in our neighborhood and besides, we want to learn how to build.”  And since that was such a wonderful way to engage the young people it became the community improvement initiative that we decided to spread around the country.

We addressed three problems simultaneously--employment, housing, and crime prevention-- then we integrated education with it.  So that became the comprehensive youth-initiated vision that we could spread…which we did.

We started with teenagers on the block pulling them together and asking them what they would do to improve society, to improve their neighborhood, if we could get adults’ support to make it happen.  So we were starting with an assumption of respect for the intelligence of the people in the community who knew what needs to happen there...

They were young people who have a double dose of powerlessness, having to do with being young and being economically poor.  And so we were there to counteract that and say, okay, if we can bring the resources and bring the respect, and bring the adult support, what would you change?  Well, when you’re asking that question to young people anywhere in the world, they have all the biggest ideas you can imagine about how to make the world a better place, it’s just that nobody ever asked them before. 

We realized we needed partners from day one.  When we started, we had to get the city to agree to letting our young people rebuild those buildings and possibly to get the city to actually fund it.  But the first answer the city gave us was, “We don’t believe that low-income young people have the skills to do this and we’re skeptical of the whole idea.”  So we had to find, inside the existing system, individual people who believed in what we were offering.

And so we found people inside the city government who said, actually, “I think this is a great idea and so while I can’t persuade my whole agency to give you this building, if you will pay us for the right to renovate this building and pay us rent, then we will let you renovate this building.”  And then once you prove that you can do it, then you get a whole different attitude.  So then, we produced a completed building and then they give you 10 more buildings and then they give you funding and then they say, wow, we didn’t think this was possible, but it is and so we will help you.

And then along the way, as we begin to prove that something is possible, then you get partners like Saint-Gobain who say, wow we have the construction materials, we’d be happy to contribute some of what we produce to help you produce this wonderful outcome.  And then you find partners like Saint-Gobain who say not only that, but we see you also need some additional funding to do this in the best possible way to build green because the basic funding isn’t allowing you to do that.  So we will give you the innovative cutting edge catalytic funding along with our core materials in order to go to that higher level, which makes an even bigger impact.

Initially, we didn’t have an international vision.  It came from people who approached us from South Africa, who told us they looked throughout America for approaches that could help solve the problem of unemployed and undereducated young people, race and poverty in South Africa.  They said that YouthBuild was the best thing that they have found and would we be willing to replicate it South Africa?  And that was an immediate yes!  The whole building of the global movement has been really exciting and creative, building on that initial partnership in South Africa. 

How do we localize the YouthBuild model to a particular culture?
As we’ve taken the U.S. YouthBuild model outside of the United States and are implementing it in radically different sets of operating contexts from developing countries to emerging economies to industrialized countries,  we have had to adapt the U.S.-based model so it makes sense most critically to young people where we’re working—but also to their families, to the community leadership and then further up the scale of key partners in a country to municipal governments, national governments and to the private sector in those countries.

There’s been just a phenomenal and truly super exciting set of adaptations of the U.S. YouthBuild model in, currently now, 21 countries where we’re operating.  If you go to any of the YouthBuild programs in these countries that you will see roughly the following: young people in some kind of a formal classroom setting, working on their basic education--literacy, numeracy or a local academic credential in the secondary school system in that country.  And then you’ll see young people in their communities where the programs are operating creating what we have started to broadly define internationally as community assets. 

That could be housing or schools or health clinics or in some locations, young people are building green infrastructure such as water filtration, a whole range of youth-created permanent and visible community assets.  And you’ll see young people in these locations in a conversation around leadership and what is the role of young people in these local communities and countries vis-a-vis taking on leadership in a whole range of areas. 

The applied learning model

We are all clear on this point that the academic instruction in YouthBuild has to have an applied learning setting.  In other words, young people are in classrooms one day, and the next day, they’re on a community asset building site working tangibly with real feedback loops in a real-world setting.  That’s been part of the founding model back in East Harlem and the fundamental approach to the kind of YouthBuild pedagogy, if you will, that is present in all our sites.

Academic learning that’s somehow divorced from the rapidly-changing world or the reality of community outside of the walls of a school decreasingly has any real significance.  So we feel like we are early pioneers in this area, but our ability to build a comprehensive program to deliver that approach at scale is even more significant now.

What does YouthBuild want from its corporate partners?

We’re increasingly passionate about this position vis-a-vis our approach to corporate partnerships, especially with global companies like Saint-Gobain.  We believe in the concept of shared value and partnerships with corporations and YouthBuild in a sense that the Saint-Gobain and other companies have a clear set of objectives they hope to achieve through a partnership with a social sector institution like YouthBuild in the world and those interests flow from corporate principles and founding values of a company to develop and sell a product.

Partnerships can help enhance visibility in the sale of product--in Saint-Gobain's case, this means building materials, green building materials.  And we have found--we’ve been told this in many company boardrooms--that increasingly, employees will make a choice to work for a company, based on its partnerships with organizations working in the social sector that the prospective employee believes in.  This really matters to recruiting and retention of the employees that companies hope to have part of their company.

As we work increasingly with corporate partners, we find that shared value has evolved well beyond the simple writing of a check.  And that’s what makes it so interesting and compelling as we go forward with these kinds of corporate partnerships.  And frankly, based on the way we’ve seen the way it started with Saint-Gobain, it’s allowed us to be much more selective as we decide which global partners we’re going to want to work with.  And we could not have said that four or five years ago. 

Saint-Gobain is the first company that has engaged its employees actively on an ongoing basis working side by side with YouthBuild students on community projects, building affordable housing. You have also engaged your building scientists in working with the YouthBuild students to understand how much more effective a green designed home is in terms of reducing the cost of living for the homeowner.  You’ve engaged your employees as volunteers in the classroom.  You’ve hosted YouthBuild students in your facilities and have had career days where they are able to visit with your employees, and have shown the students career pathways that might have them become a Saint-Gobain employee or an employee of a contractor that uses your products. 

Why is it so important to ask what a corporation’s motivation is for getting involved?

It has evolved based on what we’ve begun to experience and observe working with different partners because when there’s an alignment on the why, when the motivation of the corporation has to do with the shared value and has to do with a genuine improvement of society, then we’re just more likely to work well together.  If a company is coming to us out of some self-interest that has to do with publicity or with improving their image or correcting something, it’s less likely that we’re going to join forces and keep expanding and leveraging each other's strengths over time.

What’s so wonderful about the partnership with Saint-Gobain is that there’s the sense of enthusiasm on your part as there is on our part about what we’re doing together and why we’re doing it.  To tell you the honest truth, when we started, we weren’t looking for corporate partners at all.  We wanted to mobilize young people and nonprofits and the philanthropic community and then to build the public will so that the governments would invest in ending poverty, and in training young people to be prepared for employment.  But it wasn’t to meet the needs of the corporations that we were doing this.  What happened, in truth, is that corporations found us and came to us and said, “We heard about you.  Would you be willing to work with us?”  Our initial work with corporations was almost all responsive, not proactive.  But over time, we’ve seen more about the qualities of the corporations where a mutually fulfilling, mutually mission-driven partnership is different from a partnership which is based just on self-interest. 

In the partnerships between corporations and YouthBuild that are working their best now, there’s not a single conversation that doesn’t talk about mission first and mission of the company, along with the founding mission and mission of YouthBuild.  It really is a kind of passion coming together around a set of beliefs, about the world as it is and how it could be better by working together.  We talk about how we can advance that vision.

How high are the stakes?

Young people today, like it or not, are going to be called on to lead efforts to address these issues through to the end of this century.  Our ability to work with others to reach more and more young people who are not in school, not employed, not in formal training--there are 357 million young people in that category globally—is extremely important.  We are focused on our ability to get better and better at reaching them and bringing them into the conversation around these issues and preparing them through skills training and education and leadership development to become informed about these issues and feel like they are ready, inspired and able to take on the challenges our world faces in both their professional and personal lives.  Those stakes from our perspective are very high. 

We realize that not only that this government has power and responsibility, but that the corporate sector has power and responsibility that is unmatched in certain ways and it is going to be a catalyst for change.  We need to work with people who have more power than we do.  And you have 170,000 employees and you have 350 years.  You have markets all over the world.  If we can figure out how to work with people who are way ahead of us in terms of power, influence and assets and persuade them, then we’re going to multiply our impact exponentially.  It’s our agreement on mission means we need to work together, but part of our motivation is to leverage the power and influence that the corporate sector has.

If a corporation decides that they actually want to a hire an opportunity youth and that they’re going to shift their hiring practices to make it more likely that this population gets hired because they’ve come to realize it’s their hidden talent--or it’s not so hidden anymore--then that’s huge and the corporate sector has power that the public sector doesn’t have.

Our mission is for the combination of the education and the service that the students do informs the input that they have into policy and leadership.  We build leadership development into each context so that this process is--if people are finding that purpose, they’re also finding their own value and the respect for their intelligence expressed in many different ways.  We’re trying to produce a pipeline into ethical, highly valuable new leadership positions emerging from communities where young people have an orientation towards solutions, towards community building, toward negotiation with, and respect for, people who have influence and authority…and with a fresh appreciation of their own vision.  And that’s sorely needed in society.  We not only need green buildings, we need leaders who are rooted in their own communities and connected to the rest of the world and have solutions, coming from a base of love and respect and community and inclusion and kind of a sense of spiritual connection to the world.  So that’s one of the reasons why every YouthBuild program starts each morning with a pledge, where the young people are pledging their commitment to building community with integrity.  Young people are internalizing the value system of contributing to and of sharing with the rest of the world—and it’s a huge win-win.