Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Interview with Eshauna Smith: DCAYA Beginnings

This fall, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates turns 10! On September 26th, youth advocates, business leaders, and councilmembers will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and our aspirations for the future. As a coalition, DCAYA’s story lies in the experiences of our members who make up the collective power of the alliance. Each week leading up to the 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, we will feature an interview from an advocate who helped build DCAYA into the strong coalition it is today.

This week we spoke with the founding Executive Director of DCAYA, Eshauna Smith, who is now the CEO of Urban Alliance.

Join us and Eshauna Smith at the celebration by purchasing tickets to the 10th Year Anniversary Celebration.

The following interview has been edited for length.


How did you start working with youth?
My first stint was way back in college at UC Berkley. I was part of a group called the Black Recruitment and Retention Center. Berkley has a very small African American student population and at that time in the early 90’s – mid 90’s it was getting smaller, so this organization was created where current African American students would go out to high schools in the Bay area and do presentations inside the high school classrooms and support them by helping with college essays, FAFSAs, SAT Prep and those kinds of things. So that was my first real stint working with young people and the first real time that I recognized that me being at UC Berkley was a huge privilege and an opportunity, but one that did not come as a result of me. There were people before me who had been the first in their families to graduate and struggled at Berkley and that was the reason that I was able to be there. So there was something in me that said, “I need to figure out how I’m going to give back.”

How did you get into the policy realm?
Immediately after Berkley my first job was at the Boys and Girls Club in the Mission District of San Francisco. I was the Education Center Director and I was basically in charge of the tutoring center and that’s how I was again working with youth. Working there gave me a perspective – I had the opportunity to work at a brand new club that was the result of a campaign promise of San Francisco’s incoming mayor Willy Brown. One of his promises was that if he was elected he was going to build this brand new Boys and Girls Club in the Mission, which was a very, very poor part of San Francisco.

So he built this brand new club and I had the opportunity to be part of the first team of staff that was ever in this new club. It had a recording studio, it had a brand new gym, and it was this big pillar in the community and part of what I saw was “Oh, this came at the hands of this political piece,” and then I also got to see that the club was funded by various philanthropies like the Gap Foundation and so on. I started thinking, what’s behind these programs for young people? I really love young people, but maybe I want to see the other side of it: how did this club get here, where was the funding from, what where the politics behind it. So that drove me to apply to graduate school and I went and got a master’s degree in public affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. That is where I then became exposed to systems change and how policies and legislation can positively impact a change and how it works and how the federal government works and how the cities are run. So that gave me the bug for policy work.

Then when I came to DC I was very lucky to be hired by the Moriah Fund which was my very first job out of graduate school at the age of 25.

How did you become involved with DCAYA?
I had been recruited and hired by Accenture after graduate school, and I thought I had it all together and I was going to be in this consulting job and I was going to be consulting for government agencies, so even though it wasn’t right in my sweet spot of social justice and policy work, I felt that it was a good compromise. I was thinking about all of these student loans I had to pay for and I come from a family that actually struggled with poverty as well, so I was like ok, this is going to be my way out. I got to DC and the company told me that they over-hired, so I had to start all over again to find employment.
I luckily landed at Moriah working for Rubie Coles who is one of the founders of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and Rubie hired me as a Junior Program Assistant to help her with her portfolio which was focused on poverty reduction in DC. As a result of working so closely with Rubie and the grantees that she had, I got a bird’s eye view and a serious, deep education on poverty in DC and the fact that there are two DCs. There’s the prestigious, wealthy DC, and then there is the DC that is struggling every single day right in the shadow of the Capitol with extreme poverty and not enough resources. 
Rubie had a really strong strategy, her focus was on trying to support women who were running their households by themselves and had children. So she thought: What were the supports you would line up around that female-headed household to then reduce poverty? I got this education and began working closely with grantees and so I met a lot of the founding directors of DCAYA: Metro Teen AIDS, Martha’s Table, Urban Alliance, etc. Then I left the Moriah Foundation and DC in 2003 with the notion that I would come back in 2006. When I came back, Rubie called me and she said they were starting something called the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and they wanted to know if I would be interested in working with them. That’s how I first got started with DCAYA.

How did DCAYA shift to being policy-oriented on behalf of youth?
One of the first things I had to do was organize a youth-led forum around the mayoral campaign. We did the forum, which was hugely successful and had an amazing turn out by working in collaboration with the other youth organizing groups. The forum really put us on the map in that way. Folks understood that we weren’t trying to take over a particular space around youth organizing, that we were just trying to build a larger voice for young people and on behalf of young people.

I believe after that, we knew we had a lot of work to do as far as who we wanted to be, and what we really want to do. I think it was clear after the forum that we did want to continue to have youth leadership be a focus. We did some strategic planning over a three day session with executive directors, youth organizers, and anyone who was interested, about where DCAYA would focus. The result was that we were not going to be a youth-led organization, but we were going to have youth voice as a huge part of the movement. By working in conjunction with youth organizers and with our member organizations, DCAYA was going to be an adult coalition advocating on behalf of young people and with young people.

We then decided through that strategic planning process to focus on three areas: youth homelessness, strengthening out-of-school time programs, and youth employment.

What do you see in disconnected youth? What is the myth that you want to break?
For me it’s a myth around all at-risk youth, not just those who have disconnected, you know, there are spectrums, there are dropouts, kids who struggle with food insecurity, there’s a whole range. I think for me, the myth I would like to bust around at-risk youth is that it is absolutely not their fault. I feel like, a lot of us are born into families that for whatever reason, deal with a number of circumstances whether it be with poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, food insecurity, where there’s just not enough support and it’s never that that family doesn’t want the best for that young person, but they are just not equipped to give that young person what they need and they are not equipped to leverage that young person’s talents. And I’m thinking of this personally. That was my exact same situation, where my family loved the hell out of me, but they were going through a lot of things that just didn’t allow them to, you know, find me extra sports, or any sports activities, or any extracurricular activities or find me jobs or point me in the right direction. They had a lot of stuff going on, unfortunately, with some of the things I just named, domestic violence and drug abuse and things. So I was kind of out there on my own and I think a lot of these young people are out there on their own. What saved me, and what I know has saved other young people, and what will be the thing that continues to save young people in the future, is when you have programs that are run by caring adults that actually get it. Adults who are really able to help these young people understand that they are special, that they are talented, and let them know that there are folks who believe that they can be more than they are right now and who can expose them to more. Because a lot of times, you can’t be what you don’t see. I just think that that is the myth I want to bust, that these young people are not in these situations because they want to be.

So then, what is the importance of DCAYA supporting these youth organizations across DC?
I think it’s the concept that many voices lift up the issues. You know, really, you can’t do this by yourself. I think DCAYA was founded-- and I know this for a fact actually-- the reason Rubie decided to bring all of these executive directors together is because she was saying to them “Look, I’m funding you guys individually and individually you’re doing great things. You’re meeting certain outcomes, you’re helping people, you’re meeting certain goals, but you are also coming back to me year after year with similar challenges.” I don’t think she felt that people were looking at, well how do you make long-lasting systemic change. That’s great to provide the services, we have to do that. But you also have to think about how we’re changing the infrastructure so that we do not have to keep fighting the same problems.

I think that her message to her grantees was that one of the ways you can combat these reoccurring problems is by collaborating more, because you can’t fight every single battle as a single organization. The reality is the only way to build that systemic change is for everyone to come together and to fight as one. Then, if you have a hundred groups saying “look you guys, disconnected youth needs to be a priority” eventually, that makes a difference. Now, there is a really strong network of EDs working together and as much as they may have wanted to do that, they were too busy focusing on just keeping their organizations afloat. What Rubie pushed them to do was pretty ground-breaking because all of them were not like “Yahoo! I’m ready to do this collaboration thing on top of the one million things on my to-do list.” It was really Rubie spending a lot of time talking to EDs and convincing them that this was the only way that our city is going to get better. This is the only way that we are going to make the city better for our young people and their families. So that’s what I think the power of DCAYA is, it’s this collective voice, which is where the power actually is.

What is your vision for DC?
We would be jealous of Philadelphia because there was a mayor who stood up and said “I will not allow for my city to treat young people like this. I will not allow for us to have a 50 – 60% dropout rate because that says more about us than it does about any of the young people dropping out.” I feel like DC was craving for such a leader.

So my vision for DC is “where do we find these champions who have influence” – in the business community, in the government sphere, in the philanthropic sphere, at the community level. How can we get them to get out there and say “This is not right”? It is not okay that youth are growing up like this and we are just sitting around and saying that we’re accepting this plight. My vision is that we create this set of champions that have real influence that continue to lead this vision forward. The idea goes beyond the mayor; there needs to always be a network that doesn’t turn over politically, that is in it for the long haul. That’s my hope. I hope that we will land on two, three, four, serious champions to say “It’s not ok that DC allows that only 62% of our kids are graduating high school on time today.”

What can they do for the city?
It’s not what they can do, it’s the context that they set, the expectation that they set. What actually is implemented is back to every single person in DCAYA, the folks working with young people, those folks who are in the trenches. These champions, they need to set a sort of context and expectation for any business that lands here, for any educational leader that come here, that you can’t come to DC without making a commitment that you are going to help us do better for our kids. Once that context is set, I think the doers will be who we already know. I don’t expect these champions to do; I expect them to put the pressure on so it makes the job of those in the trenches much easier.

*Edited for length

A special thank you to Eshauna Smith for being a part of our 10-Year Anniversary Celebration. Your dedication helped lay the groundwork for a decade of youth policy and advocacy accomplishments. Join Eshauna and DCAYA on September 26th and help craft the next ten years. 

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