Every day on HuffPost, we're highlighting one 'Greatest Person'- an exceptional individual who is confronting the country's economic and political crises with creativity, generosity, and passion. Today we're talking to Dorothy Stoneman, who graduated from college and moved to Harlem and began a career in helping others raise themselves out of poverty. Dorothy founded YouthBuild, an organization that empowers disaffected youth to take control of their futures by building infrastructure in their disadvantaged communities. We chatted with Dorothy recently and she shared her inspirational journey with us.
WATCH: What YouthBuild can do
Huffington Post: How did your experiences in Harlem after you graduated from college turn into the organization you founded, YouthBuild USA?
Dorothy Stoneman: I lived in Harlem and East Harlem from 1964 to 1988 and internalized a lot of the worldview from inside a deeply economically-depressed American community ignored by the rest of society. High unemployment, homelessness, poverty, poor schools, and crime chronically persist there through the larger society's booms and busts. Neither major political party has dedicated the effort necessary to eradicate extreme poverty or inequality in America, and I've seen the tragic and immoral consequences of this. The lack of political will to make America the land of opportunity and responsibility for all prompted me to try to start a movement to create it for as many people as I could reach and to demonstrate its feasibility.
In 1978, I asked teenagers in East Harlem what they would do to improve their community if they had the resources and adult support. They said, "We would create real jobs for all the unemployed young men hanging out on the corners and dealing drugs. We would have them rebuild all the abandoned buildings to create homes for the homeless people sleeping in the doorways."
So that's what we set out to do. It took five years to complete the first building in East Harlem. Then, we created a citywide coalition to expand the model across New York City. Then, when people around the country said they wanted to do this in their neighborhoods, we created YouthBuild USA to bring the methods and the resources to communities across the country.
HP: Tell us about some of your accomplishments.
DS: Since YouthBuild became federall sponsored, 100,000 low-income young adults have produced 20,000 units of affordable housing in 273 of America's poorest urban and rural communities. While building these homes, they have studied for their GEDs or high school diplomas at a YouthBuild alternative school, prepared for good jobs in the construction industry and/or college and learned leadership skills. Each local YouthBuild program employs highly dedicated, caring staff and is run by nonprofit or faith-based organizations or public entities committed to youth and community development. The programs compete annually for federal funding from the U.S. Department of Labor.
HP: What are YouthBuild USA's objectives? How do you execute them?
DS: In everything we do, we aim to insure that young people who have fallen off the hard edges of society emerge as college graduates and young leaders. We aim to open the doors to every young person knocking and seeking a second chance at a productive life. Last year, 18,600 young people were turned away from existing YouthBuild programs because we didn't have enough resources to accommodate them. At the same time, hundreds of communities applied for funding to bring YouthBuild to their neighborhoods. To open these doors for young people will take building the political will to invest in young people who have left high school without a diploma and need a pathway back into productive lives.
HP: What does the work you do mean to you?
DS: I get nearly daily e-mails and Facebook messages from young adults thanking me for YouthBuild, saying that belonging to a caring community that taught them important skills and positive attitudes allowed them to radically transform their lives. Reports of success flow in regularly: from young people being selected by the NFL to going for a PhD, from achieving sobriety to abandoning drug dealing, from getting married to acquiring custody of their children, from being appointed to public office to starting new nonprofits and new coalitions. It keeps me highly motivated!
HP: How can others get involved?
DS: First, please donate through www.youthbuild.org. Second, advocate for YouthBuild with your own elected officials to build bi-partisan support for investing in education and employment for young adults. Third, find the YouthBuild in your community on our website and offer to tutor or mentor youth. Fourth, hold a fundraising house-party. Tell Alice Watson at Awatson@youthbuild.org if you would like to do this. Fifth, sign up to be a VISTA volunteer and request YouthBuild as your placement.
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