Our Story

Youth Action Program YouthBuild

How would you improve your community if you had adult support?

Dorothy Stoneman, Founder of YouthBuild USA, Inc., posed this question to East Harlem teenagers in 1978.

“We’d rebuild the houses,” they answered. “We’d take empty buildings back from the drug dealers and eliminate crime.”  Together, they and Stoneman formed the Youth Action Program (still in operation today) and did a gut rehabilitation of an abandoned ten unit East Harlem tenement building.  

Their success led the young people to call for expansion. In response, Stoneman organized a citywide coalition of 500 organizations in 1984 to persuade the City Council to replicate the program. It won city tax-levy funds for six New York non-profits to establish YouthBuild programs in their neighborhoods. In 1988, Stoneman and the activist and humanitarian Leroy Looper founded the National YouthBuild Coalition to advocate for replication nationwide. In 1990 they formed YouthBuild USA, Inc. to orchestrate quality assurance and scaling of YouthBuild as a proven innovation to break the cycle of poverty. 

By 1992, with YouthBuild USA’s assistance and with private funds from The Ford Foundation, The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the DeWitt Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation, the program had been replicated in 20 urban and rural locations, and legislation authorizing the federal YouthBuild program had been passed. The bill was introduced in the Senate in 1991 by then Senator John Kerry (D-MA), supported by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) and 18 other co-sponsors; and in the House by then Representative Major Owens (D-NY), with 75 bi-partisan co-sponsors. It was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. 

In 1994, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) managed a competitive process through which it granted 31 local independent non-profit or public entities their first federal YouthBuild grants and over 100 organizations initial planning grants, from the FY’93 YouthBuild appropriation of $40M.

In 2001, YouthBuild was called to international expansion by the quasi-governmental institution, the Umsobomvu Youth Fund (UYF) which was given the national mandate to address the challenge of poverty among youth in South Africa. As part of its first stage planning, UYF sought to identify models in the United States that were working at scale to reach and engage unemployed young adults with relevant training and education. UYF chose YouthBuild as the best, most relevant approach to consider for adaptation to the South African context. The UYF leadership asked YouthBuild USA to work with the UYF team to design the first adapted YouthBuild program for South Africa. It would be implemented in the largest township in Johannesburg. The enormous success of that venture led to the formal establishment of YouthBuild International (YBI) in 2007. It was formed as a division of YouthBuild USA, Inc.,  with Tim Cross as its President. Since then, YBI has responded to similar requests from around the world. Over 100 YouthBuild programs are now operating in 15 countries to meet the needs of their unemployed and under-educated young adults and to provide channels for them to exercise their leadership in building sustainable local communities.

Also in 2006, at the recommendation of the White House Task Force for Disadvantaged Youth formed by President George W. Bush, the transfer of the federal YouthBuild program from HUD to the US Department of Labor (DOL) was led by Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and John Kerry (D-MA). This move was supported by the National YouthBuild USA Affiliated Network and the National YouthBuild Coalition due to a conviction that YouthBuild could grow faster in DOL. 

As YouthBuild expanded, broad philanthropic and corporate support has been essential at every stage to build capacity, support local programs, and add innovative program enhancements through YouthBuild USA. The Ford and Charles Stewart Mott Foundations have supported every stage of development continuously since 1988. The Skoll Foundation chose Dorothy Stoneman for its prestigious social entrepreneur award in 2007 and has supported YouthBuild ever since for cutting edge work. Most recently corporations and their foundations including Bank of America, Hilton, Zoro.com, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase, Prudential, Benjamin Moore, Saint-Gobain, and Starbucks have chosen YouthBuild as a partner to help address the skills gap being experienced by employers and other challenges facing opportunity youth.

There are 252 YouthBuild programs in 46 states.  Internationally, YouthBuild operations are present in: Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Haiti, Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Israel, Iraq, United Kingdom, operating 58 local programs.

For the fuller story of YouthBuild’s first 20 years, read the YouthBuild Story of Thanks written by Dorothy Stoneman.