In Fall of 2004, I ended a long term relationship, quit my job, sold most of my possessions, and decided to move back in with my family to start a snowboard mentoring program called Snow Mentor. I had enough money and consulting assignments to last me for three months. I guess that's how most good stories start.
Coming fresh off a year-long stint at a non profit mentoring organization and helping them become New York City's largest site based mentoring programs, I decided that the youth mentoring field needed a fresh makeover. Traditional big/little brothers and big/little sisters needed to hit slopes and snowboard together during the snowy winter months. Instead of doing homework, playing basketball, eating a slice of pizza, they would both push and motivate each other while carving the icy hills of the Catskill mountains in New York. Ideally they would both be beginners so that they can both see each others' strengths, weaknesses, fears, and joys over the course of a snow season. They would develop a strong connection and bond and as a result have a better relationship. They would acquire resiliency, determination, and success while snowboarding.
The inspiration for the idea came to me during an amazing trip to British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest where I indulged in my snow powder fantasies, shredded the biggest mountains I've ever seen, while contemplating the next phase of my life. On my last run of my last day, I thought of my 18-year-old mentee. I wished he could have witness the amazing natural beauty that I was experiencing. A foster care youth born in the Bronx, he spent a better part of 14 years of his life in over 100 foster homes in New York City. I thought if he saw these mountains he would lose his mind. He would be in complete awe and I knew he would love it.
The next thought was that I should start a snowboard mentoring program. Over the course of the following year, we would transform from just a snowboard mentoring program to a year-round program that incorporated skateboarding and surfing. Then a year later, we expanded to Los Angeles. We later changed our focus from pure mentoring to youth development in the framework of action sports culture. In 2008, we launched an after school program based on the same premise. All of this with the help of supporters, donors, and some key people who believed in the mission.
Why action sports? Stoked believes in the power of action sport and youth development to positively affect at risk youth. Action sports are the perfect framework for allowing various forms of self-expression, creativity, communication and interpersonal skills. Action sports teach healthy risk taking, perseverance, resiliency, and working hard for what you want - be it designing a skateboard, riding a wave, or doing well in math.
In 5 years, we've worked with hundreds of youth in New York and L.A. and taught them valuable life skills in the process. Life skills such as goal-setting, networking, trust, patience, and how to overcome obstacles. What we discovered along the way was the need for at-risk youth to have positive role models and quality life experiences that add value and dimension to their lives. They need to develop their own "Story". One that isn't the same as the people in their community. One that is uniquely theirs. Instead of being an inner city high school dropout, they can be a snowboarder from the inner city who wants to work in advertising, has a mentor, and is a high school graduate.
My observation is that there is a generation of 12-21-year-old at-risk youths who are growing up without options in life. Many of them come from single parent households, live in low income communities, and have no skills to contribute to their community or their family. Often times, because of the lack of stability, family structure, and positive roles models, these youths turn to crime, gangs, and drop out of school because of lack of options. Programs like Stoked get kids out of their neighborhood for a day, surround them with positive role models for a year, and give them the resources to think and dream big for their life. Our aim is to pass on hope and opportunity to these kids so that they believe in a having a better life. They not only believe it, but they end up becoming the people they set out to be in our program. The proof as they say, is in the pudding.
When thinking of what to write for my first post, I think of the fact that the Huffington Post is devoting a section of their website to leaders in the social sector. Partnering with Causecast shows a growing trend that things are changing and we as a society need to give leaders such as myself a platform to to express ideas, share our success stories, and advocate on the needs of the communities we serve. I called this first post The New New New Thing. It reminded me of the the Michael Lewis book called The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story written in 1999. The book profiles Jim Clark, the founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon - each valued at $1 billion by Wall Street when they were launched. His story is amazing - it shows how Silicon Valley worked and how Clark ferociously fought to succeed in all of his ventures. The backstory is actually how Clark concentrated on building this state-of-the-art sailboat, Hyperion. This boat is powered by computers and if he wanted to, Clark could log on to them and steer the boat from anywhere in the world. The story in inspiring because it illustrates what it takes to overcome monumental challenges and succeed. It takes teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, and determination. What the world needs is the New New New Thing.
The technology industry is constantly chasing the New New New Thing. The social and nonprofit sector is doing it as well. We're seeing a plethora of innovative ideas and people addressing the world's challenges. There's repurposing, repackaging, rebranding causes into something that the normal citizen can comprehend. The challenges that I and my colleagues deal with are: high school dropout rates, the mentoring gap, teen pregnancy, gang violence, teens with no life or career skills, and apathy in communities. If we do not take care of the next generation of youth and teach them the skills they need to not just survive, but compete on a global level, our society will diminish. I've seen firsthand with the hundreds of kids we work with that our education system needs an overhaul and we need alternative forms of teaching, learning, and collaborating.
The challenge I present to the readers of this blog is how can you share, grow, and interact with the youth in your community. Before jumping into mentoring or getting involved with youth, first ask yourself "who helped me become who I am today"? Or ask yourself, "who am I today because of the opportunities, advantages, and skills I acquired when I was younger"? I bet most of you have had those opportunities to grow, think, and flourish as a young person. We as a country and society need to always think about those questions when we approach the education and nurturing of our youth. Once we ask those questions, we need to engage in a healthy dialog with these kids in a way that they understand. It's not going to happen in a class room. It's going to happen out in the community with people they connect to and while having experiences that will add value to their everyday existence. There is hope for the next generation of youth. There is a movement of alternative education professionals and youth development organizations like Stoked who share our mission of Success Through Opportunity, Knowledge, Experience, and Determination.
I dare and challenge you to help create the New New New Thing in youth development and education.