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Disrupting Inequity to Heal, not Harm: Empowering NOLA’s Opportunity Youth

By Leticia Peguero on November 18, 2015

In our last blog series, we identified grantee partners in New York and California who incorporated healing, hope and care into their program models. Now, we’ll introduce you to inspiring New Orleans-based organizations that are committed to working collaboratively to empower the city’s youth. We at The Andrus Family Fund strongly believe in the power of collaboration and know that collaboration on a local level is critical to helping young people improve their lives.

From income and education to criminal justice and LGBT rights—research clearly shows us the structural inequalities in Post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Ten years after the storm, inequality continues to be a critical issue in the recovery efforts as low-income children and families continue to be left behind. Additionally, we know that the well being of our country’s youth is declining and the racial disparity of those negatively impacted by the child welfare and criminal justice systems is widening. Children and youth of color continue to be overrepresented in these systems. Even though both systems are meant to be temporary, they tend to create long-term outcomes that negatively impact the ability of these young people to be productive in our workforce and economy. This inequity is why we, as a funder, feel it is important to support grantee partners that are deeply rooted in the fabric of New Orleans and actively engaged in empowering vulnerable youth.

“We saw there was a need in the community; there was a gap in services that was not being met. Young people want to have opportunities to better themselves and create better lives for their families. We want to give young people the opportunity to be a catalyst to do that.”
Melissa Sawyer, YEP Co-founder and Executive Director

The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) is a force of positive change that helps opportunity youth[1] in the greater New Orleans region succeed. YEP was formed in 2004 as a response to the lack of services and high recidivism and mortality rates among juvenile justice involved youth. Since then, YEP has grown significantly and now operates nine programs that serve more than 1,000 youth annually.

YEP engages underserved young people through community-based education, mentoring and employment readiness programs to help them develop skills and strengthen ties to family and community. Working with a positive youth development model that recognizes the trauma its young people have experienced, YEP provides individualized and nurturing wraparound supports to give participants the caring services they need.

YEP’s community-based education programs, NOPLAY and The Village, provide young people with HiSET (GED) preparation and wraparound supportive services. These programs work to improve adult literacy rates through both structured classes and drop-in centers available in four locations across the city. Although YEP’s educational programming is geared toward youth between the ages of 16-24, YEP will not turn anyone away who wants to learn. Recently, a mother and daughter duo completed NOPLAY and received their HiSET diplomas within months of each other.

The organization’s Community Reintegration Program (CRP) remains the only re-entry program in New Orleans that provides intensive supports to young people exiting from secure and non-secure state-operated juvenile justice facilities. As a result of the program, one recent CRP graduate said, “I’ve learned to stop and think before I act, and recognize the consequences of my actions.”

YEP also helps to develop the employability skills of youth participants through the Trafigura Work and Learn Center. Here, young people can earn educational stipends while they acquire necessary job skills and gain hands-on experience in fields such as computer coding, graphic design, bicycle repair and customer service. Nearly 40 percent of graduates from the Work & Learn Center have successfully transitioned into employment opportunities, chipping away at the city’s staggering unemployment rate that reaches 52 percent for Black men[2].

In response to the pervasive challenges (lack of good educational opportunities, insufficient and unreliable public transportation, inadequate amounts of quality affordable housing, etc.) that persist in New Orleans, YEP is committed to finding innovative ways to meet the needs of marginalized youth in the community.

YEP’s Executive Director is a founding member of the Opportunity Youth Coalition. This group of executive leaders represents some of the city’s most reputable youth serving organizations, and meet regularly to ensure that they are sharing resources effectively, providing unduplicated, quality services and raising awareness about the challenges opportunity youth face. Additionally, YEP is part of the Opportunity Youth Data Sharing Council (OYDSC), convened by local funder Baptist Community Ministries. This initiative brings together service providers who are working together, utilizing their data to improve the outcomes for youth in the region.

YEP also partners with many non-profits across New Orleans to address the critical issues that negatively impact youth. An example of this collaboration is with fellow grantee partner BreakOUT!, whose mission is to end the criminalization of LGBTQ youth to build a safer and more just city. YEP partners with BreakOUT! to ensure that there are quality, accessible adult education opportunities that meet the needs of young people who identify as LGBTQ.

Collaboration between grantee partners strengthens service delivery and helps to ensure that resources are being maximized to address the comprehensive needs of opportunity youth in New Orleans. AFF is proud to work with all of our regional grantee partners to provide the support they need to sustain and strengthen their individual and collective impact.

In our next blog post, we will focus on how grantee partner BreakOUT! is disrupting inequity to empower New Orleans’ LGBTQ youth.


[1] The term “Opportunity Youth” was coined by John Bridgeland in a 2012 report, discussing the “extraordinary untapped potential” of connecting the nation’s 5.6 million young people who are out of school or unemployed to schools or jobs.

[2] as noted in the 2015 report The State of Black New Orleans 10 Years Post-Katrina