11/06/2013 08:19 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Love: The Core of Leadership, Innovation, and Adaptation

Simran Sidhu Executive Director, YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School

As the Executive Director of the local YouthBuild program in Philadelphia, I am so proud to be part of a movement that is founded in crazy love and passion for young people. At the local level, this core of love and passion has allowed us to stay true to our mission, transforming lives and communities. I am proud to say also--and very importantly--that we have not been afraid to innovate, to adapt, to evolve--to take that strong core of love and respect with which Dorothy Stoneman began this movement, and to grow it into a model that collaborates and brings together multiple sectors and entities: public, private and somewhere in between, with wonderful results.

At YouthBuild Philly I talk often about us being an unapologetically comprehensive program. The integrity of a comprehensive model lies in treating each young person as a whole human being because when we're focused on comprehensively caring for young people, we put THEM at the center of our innovation. This allows us to innovate and do new things, but stay true to our core and always be able to say to students "yes, we're here to offer you everything and to support you through everything, even as we embrace new challenges together".

In our work, we have been great stewards of government funding. We look after it responsibly and use it well. In addition to this, we receive private funding and use those revenue streams as "innovation funding." We build new and exciting programming with this funding, and soon that new success becomes part of our core. I like to think of us as being great consumers of the "meat and potatoes" of government funding, while using private funds to develop, document and share the recipes for the secret sauces that really make us who we are.

Clear examples of this include the work we have done in Philly to pilot new industry responsive training tracks in healthcare, childcare and technology. We distilled the best of what we had learned from years of construction training and building more than 80 homes in Philadelphia, and we applied that knowledge to our new training tracks. And when those were successful we brought it full circle, asking ourselves, "Well, what are these new training tracks doing better than our construction track?" - and we used those lessons to improve our construction program. Now we are building LEED Platinum houses, and partnering with union apprenticeship programs, which are an important channel into postsecondary opportunities.

Simran Sidhu speaking at YouthBuild's 35th Anniversary event

Our drive to innovate is also evident in the work that we've done in the world of postsecondary education. A few years ago, we decided that we wanted to be concerned not just with having our students have access to postsecondary education, but also about whether they were actually succeeding in completing those credentials.

There were a lot of people who thought we were being overly audacious, even a little crazy. College presidents were not exactly lining up to welcome us onto their campuses at first. "You're that school," is what we heard a lot of. But we showed up anyway. And we literally - in what I sometimes call "Guerrilla Partnershipping" - sent staff to their campus. Our staff understood that it was where they needed to be, because it was where our graduates were. And from their presence, we started to build something real. We were there enough that they couldn't ignore us, so they engaged with us. Because how can you ignore this person in the corridor that is helping your students all the time, right?

And at first there was a little pushback from them:

"You know, your students are not really ready for this experience." So we said, "Can you share your definition of readiness? We will adapt our curriculum." And we did.

And then they said, "You know, K-12 funding doesn't really pay for dual enrollment in developmental education." So we said, "You know what? We'll raise the money and we'll pay for it." And we did.

Then they said, "You know, the K-12 calendar is not really aligned to the college calendar because we work on a quarterly system." And we said, "No problem, we can change our calendar." And we did. And now it's perfectly aligned.

My point is that we were able to be flexible and adaptable, and this helped us build lasting partnerships and opportunities.

It's not just us, who get to take the credit of course. Two things happen when you connect with YouthBuild. The first is that you discover that as a movement we are relentless, and as a partner we will not give up on you. The second is that you fall in love with our students. And we know that this is when our partners become really invested in our students' success. So, now we're on those campuses, and guess what? We're the favorite partner.

We're becoming the model for how this work gets done with other high schools as well. Our approach and our solutions are not exclusive to out-of-school youth. After all, it wasn't just our students who were failing. There were a lot of systemic factors at play.

But we're optimistic, because we can make a difference in the system by showing up and being resolute - and also by being good collaborators. We are not doing this work to shame anyone, and we know that it's difficult work. Our students face complex obstacles that are difficult to fix. And we can't fix them by blaming somebody else. So we're partnering with others to figure some of it out, and we're sharing the outcomes and saying, "Hey, this is what's working. And by the way, when we're on the campus, we'll help your other students, too!"

This past summer, over 100 students from YouthBuild Philly spent the summer in meaningful bridge programs at four area colleges, two unions, and four technical schools. Did that take some flexibility and staffing? Yes. But in all of those partnerships, we are advancing the work. Everyone came back with ideas and feedback. And frankly there is nothing better than hearing a partner come back with suggestions about how to do the work even better next year. And at this point, the partners are in love with our students - so suddenly our students belong there, at those schools and programs. And they should: our students should always know that they can belong anywhere that they want to belong.

As we've entered these new worlds we've been wary of losing track of the crazy love and focus on leadership that define our core. But we've found that our core is stronger than ever, and that we can share "the YouthBuild way" with others.

This past year one of our students, a young woman named Dominique, visited a homeless shelter to paint walls as part of a service project. When she got there she realized that it was the same shelter she'd had to live in when she was four. She felt a personal connection and kept going back there. She earned twice as many service hours as she was required to because she had found purpose in serving her community. She won the Mayor's Award for Distinguished AmeriCorps Service in recognition of her work. But here's what I think is most important: She still goes back. She's now running community meetings with residents there in what she calls "The YouthBuild Way," because she wants the residents there "to know that the strength and the power is in them."

This is part of the power of the model that keeps me optimistic. The fact that it empowers young people to face up to challenges in their community and make a difference. From that core we can look out at challenges coming our way, and know that we have the ability to adapt and innovate. At this 35 year point, it is my honor to thank our funders and supporters for being among the ones that helped us build this strong core, and for being those that held a hand out to us as we jumped over the scaffold and tried something new in the interests of serving our young people better. We hope you know that we always managed to climb back on and build stronger and better structures. Because of you we are better than we ever were. We hope you will continue to invest in us as we remain determined to be loving, comprehensive, continually learning, agile and responsive to our young people and to the ever changing world.

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