Lead with Courage: A Conversation with the President & Vice President of Youthprise
Wokie Weah, President of Youthprise, says she leads with courage but, truth be told, she lives with courage.
As a fourteen-year-old girl in the late 1960’s, Wokie left her native Liberia to attend boarding school in Quebec, Canada. With her dark skin, big afro and colorful clothes, she stood out in this new world, despite her small stature. In these formative years, Wokie learned valuable lessons, which informed her life. Discipline. Independence. Finish what you start. Home is important. She remained courageous through it all.
Her journey took her from Canada to New York, back to Liberia before returning to the United States and ultimately to Minneapolis. Along the way, each experience built upon her previous ones and reinforced her determination to make the world a better place and the courage to do it.
Wokie returned to Liberia after college to work as a school principal, where she found economic disparities to be the root of segregation. She learned that to address local problems, local solutions must be found.
Buy-in from the community, where local people take ownership leads to better and more sustainable results. Wokie “became a learner, rather than a giver.” She realized however well-intentioned, developed countries bringing solutions from the outside cannot deliver changes. The local community must participate, as the ideals do not work the same way.
When war came to Liberia she learned “bombs don’t discriminate. Women and children are hurt the most in war.” She returned to the United States with a resolve to get young people healthy and thriving because they are the key to change.
Each of Wokie’s experiences taught her valuable lessons. At Morris Brown College she learned you “can’t build leadership capacity just during the summer.” Working with Native Americans in the Acoma Pueblo, she saw how the community invested in their young by showing them to learn by doing. Her experiences instilled in her the belief that communities benefit the most when community members lead the way.
After a career of fostering emerging leaders of color, Wokie’s search for a legacy project brought her to Youthprise. Established as an intermediary by the McKnight Foundation to invest in out-of-school time programs for youth, Youthprise had the “ideals and values of a start-up: innovation, leadership, sustainability with the focus on race and equity.” Wokie saw this as a chance to take all the knowledge she acquired and start a program that would “honor diversity and invest in all young people. All young people should thrive.”
With this ideal in mind, she set out to find the right combination of staff. One of the people she found was Marcus Pope.
Marcus, Vice President of Youthprise, started his journey in out-of-school time programs at fourteen years old. At the Science Museum of Minnesota he started in youth engagement and education, worked as a camp counselor and rose through the leadership ranks to become a director.
In this work, Marcus encountered a microcosm of the Twin Cities. He saw students on scholarship, as well as ones whose parents spent hundreds of dollars to send them to camp. He learned to adjust when working with students with disabilities. Through all this, he witnessed the disparities among youth with different backgrounds. This experience made him realize he wanted to work with young people.
At the University of Minnesota he majored in Sociology and Youth Development and learned about the “good, bad and ugly in our society.” He worked at a shelter for adolescents in the juvenile justice system, which “was a very rich experience.” Playing basketball, hanging out in parks he worked with youth in the midst of deep challenges, many who had been taken from their homes and whose parents were losing custody.
After a stint working in the domestic violence field, Marcus returned to the youth development field when he joined Youthprise in 2011. He developed an evaluation plan to reach out to culturally specific communities and build relationships with underserved ones.
Since the start, Youthprise has developed and grown. With Wokie at the helm, Youthprise has adjusted to the needs of the people it serves by listening to those it serves.
“It took the young people thirty minutes to come to the exact same conclusions it took the board six months” on how to divvy up the $4 million resources it was given to invest. They focused initially on grass roots organizations that served young people and systems. Because the focus is on youth up to 25, it needed to expand beyond out of school time. Their concerns were jobs, health, safety and nutrition. One young person told Wokie, “You can’t be brilliant if you are hungry.” This statement was the inspiration for the Nutrition Program, a Youthprise program that has served over 200,000 meals to Minnesota youth.
While the model of investing in other programs worked initially, Youthprise wondered if this was the best use of resources. It looked to become less an intermediary and more of a partner with local, state and federal government and others to launch new programs. They had the opportunity for a new approach when Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center approached Youthprise to invest in an internship program based on Minneapolis STEP-UP. In an effort to engage the Brooklyn Park community and make money go further, a challenge grant was offered to have the local community raise money, with Youthprise matching the monies raised. Twenty new funders met the challenge and raised close to $150,000, and the city took over the initiative.
As Youthprise moves ahead, it is reevaluating its mission. The success of the Brooklyns program offers a look ahead.
This leveraging approach mirrors the entrepreneurial world of start-ups. Youthprise has the potential to be a non-profit incubator, with new ways of supporting the youth it serves. Marcus says they look to “launch and seed, then find multiple ways to support continuous improvement and growth.”
By listening to what the young people of today want and need, Youthprise knows they will be better equipped to address the problems they face. This flexibility is essential in our rapidly changing world.
“Twenty years ago, Minnesota was an innovator in education, the state has fallen behind,” Wokie’s said. It needs to recapture such innovation as the future of the state depends upon investing in its young people. The diversity of the state is a strength and tapping into their potential is necessary for creating the next generation of leaders, policy makers and philanthropists.
Creating a new path is complicated, especially advancing a new model. But as Wokie and Marcus face the future, they know that listening to those who are most impacted not only leads to better solutions, it leads to the sustainable ones. It takes doing things differently and listening to different voices. It takes courage.