CEO of the Year: Melissa Sawyer

Executives of the Year | CEO of the Year | CEO, Youth Empowerment Project

“I want you to meet Julian,” says Melissa Sawyer as she jumps up from her desk and eagerly welcomes a young man into her office.

“He came to YEP when he was 8 years old and now he’s graduating this month from Nicholls State University, where he broke three records as a running back. Julian is the first in his family to graduate from college, and he’s just an awesome human being who still comes by and visits and hangs out with me.”

“This is like my family, you know,” says Julian, smiling. “So, I’m always coming around and I will continue to, no matter how old I get.”

Beaming with pride, Sawyer adds, “You ask me what success is to me? That’s success. If we could do what we did for Julian for every child in New Orleans, I know this community would be so much better for it.”

Helping kids like Julian has been Sawyer’s life’s work. A native of British Columbia, Canada, she came to New Orleans with Teach For America and spent two years teaching at Booker T. Washington High School before leaving to get a master’s degree at Harvard University. Through a colleague there, Sawyer was introduced to leadership at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and began working on statewide juvenile justice reform.

After three years, she and two colleagues had become all too aware of a pressing need and were determined to fill it. At age 27, Sawyer became the co-founder of Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), the first juvenile reentry program in Louisiana.

“I think we were just so tired of losing young people to violence, or to the criminal justice system,” says Sawyer. “Too often kids only get help when they’re involved in a system, and I think we have a responsibility to do better.”

In its first year, YEP engaged 25 young people with a staff of five and a budget of $235,000, working exclusively with young people coming out of incarceration. Eighteen years later, the staff now numbers 58, plus a board of about 20. The organization owns its three buildings free and clear, and its annual budget sits at about $5.6 million.

YEP’s scope of services has vastly expanded over the years, with a wide array of programs for ages 7-24 that include work in intervention, adult education, employment readiness — which includes opportunities at a YEP-owned bike shop and thrift shop — after-school programming, summer camps and substance abuse prevention. YEP has directly impacted the lives of over 8,500 New Orleanians and counting, which has included helping over 560 people receive their high school equivalency diplomas.

This past August, YEP opened the New Orleans East Youth Opportunity Center in partnership with Educators for Quality Alternatives. The center includes a middle school, and high school, after-school program, high school-equivalency program, child care, job training, a health clinic and a food pantry. The goal is to support not only area youth, but provide entire families with the assistance they need to better their lives.

YEP is among the youth services organizations that have recently benefited from the Nola Coalition’s efforts to address rising crime rates in the city. The coalition aims to raise $5 million a year each year for three years to total $15 million for youth services. As of mid-December, YEP had received $663,000 in donations as a result of the coalition’s call to action.

Throughout more than two decades, Sawyer has been on the front lines of the battle to save our area youth, and thus, our city. In this time, when crime and safety is at the forefront of all of our minds, the impressive success of the organization she founded, built up over 18 years and continues to lead is the beacon we need right now to light our way into the future. Biz New Orleans is proud to recognize Melissa Sawyer as our 2022 CEO of the Year.

On what she’s most proud of

Our growth, and the fact that we’ve been able to be nimble and to adapt. We did a strategic plan in 2020, and one of the goals was to become financially strong and solvent. That’s really a challenge for a lot of nonprofits, but I’m so grateful that we own three buildings, and we have a six-month cash reserve in the bank that so few organizations have… We have built a real organization that I think has staying power. I firmly believe that if we’re going to create something, we have a responsibility for it to last long past me.

On her staff

I realize that this is really a labor of love, and that people could be doing many other things but they’re here because they want to be here. And so, I want to make sure that I’m extending as much gratitude and flexibility and kindness to those people who are here and who make YEP what it is.

On what New Orleans should be doing to address crime

We need to keep investing in programs that work, and we need there to be long-term investments, recognizing that we didn’t get to the challenges we’re facing overnight, and we’re not going to get out of them overnight.

Having been around now for multiple administrations and on multiple transition committees, I’ve seen that too often we maybe make a little progress, and then four, eight years later, we’re starting something totally new… We need to stay the course. We can’t give up or think that things are hopeless or not getting better, because I actually believe they are. I see it every single day in the kids who come here, families who come here, the adults going to get their high school equivalency, that people really do want to improve their lives and the lives of others and in this community. I think we need to try to foster that sense of trying to do the right thing and we really all need to embrace a sense of optimism and hope for the future.

On innovation during vulnerability

I think one of the most vulnerable moments in time for us was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, because YEP was a year old and we had no money in the bank. This was unforeseen circumstances, but I had enough sort of wherewithal to reach out to the Office of Juvenile Justice and say, “Hey, how can we help you? You don’t have a great plan for reconnecting your kids and family? Some of your kids who are incarcerated don’t know if their parents are okay. How can we help you?”

We were spread out all around the Southeast just like our kids and families were, but as helpers, one, we were able to try to reconnect kids and families and connect kids and families to services, and two, we were able to keep revenue coming in… [That December after Katrina] I looked around and realized there were no kids in school because we didn’t have enough school buildings open. They didn’t have immunization records. They didn’t have their most recent report cards. So, we started a GED program. We wrote two grants, each for $18,000. We got them and hired three women who were adult ed teachers. We had about 40 young people walk in off the street within the first several weeks who wanted to get their GED.

From there, we just kept listening, learning, growing.

On how to help with workforce shortages

I’d encourage employers to think about nonprofit partnerships. For instance, if there’s a company that knows they need 100 employees with X skill set, then maybe they could think about who they could partner with to fund those sorts of training programs. I think sometimes the onus is put on nonprofits to raise the money to prepare the people, but we’re struggling day in and day out to try to raise the money we need. I think that’s an opportunity where businesses and the nonprofit sector could probably be a bit more aligned in terms of piloting some initiatives.

On where she turns for advice

I’m really big on mentorship and I’ve been fortunate to have some really incredible mentors, including Robert Boh, CEO of Boh Bros. Construction… From the very beginning, Robert has been such an amazing sounding board for me. He’s been an amazing thought partner. Sometimes I joke that who would have known that building and growing and leading a youth serving organization would have so many similarities to running a construction company… Robert will buy me books that they’ve used in their leadership team meetings that I can read and use to reflect on with our leadership team, but mostly it’s just knowing that he’s always just a call or email away if I need time or to bounce ideas off of him.

Another incredible mentor has been Judge Calvin Johnson, retired criminal court judge, who is on my board and our executive committee. Calvin and I go way back to like 2006, when he was on the bench in Criminal District Court and was also really tired of seeing the connection between defendants who really had a hard time reading and their engagement in the criminal justice system. As a result, he helped work with YEP, with the city of New Orleans, the City Council, Criminal District Court, and then we brought in Delgado, to start the New Orleans Adult Learning Center.

On good advice in tough times

Maybe three or four months ago, a young man — who was an alumnus of our program and who we were still very close to — his son was murdered. I was so upset for him. I just thought, “I can’t believe this. We’re burying another child. We need to help this parent raise money to bury their child.” It’s just so much and it’s so sad. And I was also so mad. I called Calvin and he said, “Listen, you better get yourself together. You are a leader in your own right: We don’t have to wait on the elected officials. You need to focus on what you can do.” It was one of those things that I needed to be centered again and to remember, “OK, so go back, do better, do more and keep it going.”

On what keeps her going

I’m inspired by the courage that it takes for people to say, “I want to improve my life. I want to improve others’ lives. I want to improve the city.” And we see that every single day. Over 80% of participants enroll in YEP on their own volition. They’re not court ordered. They come because they want to take advantage of the services. And to me, that speaks to the fact that if we are open and kind and accessible, people do want to make positive choices for their lives, people do want to ensure that their children have the resources and the support that they need. And that’s encouraging to me and that keeps me going.

Every day I see young people at our after-school programs who are laughing, who are engaged in dance, who are learning how to drum, who because of YEP have their dance and drumline uniforms paid for. We eliminate those barriers to entry for participating in Mardi Gras parades and exploring their creative sides.

I see young people who are learning customer service working at our thrift store or bike shop, but I also see on young people’s faces that it’s a place they feel safe and cared for and valued, and they want to be here —they want to be a part of it. That keeps me going, knowing that maybe we haven’t solved some of the systemic challenges that I wish we have, but with what is within our realm of influence we’re doing a good job.

 


 

DID YOU KNOW?

Third-grade reading proficiency is commonly recognized as a predictor of high school success.

28% of Black and 78% of white third-graders are reading on grade level in Orleans Parish.

71% of New Orleans youth are Black.

Source: New Orleans Youth Alliance Well-Being Data Dashboard, Aug. 2020