Saving Urban Youth Action

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For 45 years, Urban Youth Action has provided programs to help our youth, urban youth, avoid many of the pitfalls in our society that send more of our Black male youth to jail than to college.

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Abruptly, that 45-year record of standing in the gap for our youth was shut down last month when the board of directors for the organization announced that the program would close its doors, due to lack of financing.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of a 45-year-old institution that helped our kids, one that actually WORKED, being shut down for lack of dollars is an indictment of our entire community—and not just the Black folks.

Clearly, Urban Youth Action works. It’s estimated that the program, started in 1966 by the late Bernard Jones (who also founded the POISE Foundation, among other organizations) with the mission to train youth to be “Work Ready, Life Prepared and Community Minded,” has reached more than 25,000 young people. Some of the city’s prominent Black leaders have gone through the program, and even more have participated as trainers and speakers.

According to Jones’ family, there is still a way to keep the organization running, providing an oasis for youth lured away from work, life and community factors that aren’t productive.

“I want Urban Youth Action to continue,” says Hylene Jones-Pankey, Jones’ daughter. She wants her father’s legacy to continue, but not for her father’s sake, but for the sake of all those young people who need to be in Urban Youth Action. “I know my dad would be up there spinning, knowing what has happened.”

Jones-Pankey, her brother Rev. Cornell Jones (who once worked at UYA), and their mother are scheduled to meet with board members on Friday. They hope to forge an agreement that would re-open the doors of the agency, and get foundation and private donors to fund the program. They do not lack passion, just money.

“This is a very trying time,” said Rev. Jones. “As one who has worked in the prison system, I see that UYA has helped many kids stay out of the system. Rev. Jones said that even when the gangs were rampant in the area, “Urban Youth Action was that neutral territory, where the (gang) colors were put away for a time.”

Some might feel the onus is on the six-member board. The board holds the key to re-opening, but it is clear that the board did not see an alternative to closing, even with strong community support.

But it is that community support, that recognition that the community cannot afford the demise of Urban Youth Action, which should sway the board. If they cannot recognize, that, then they should step aside and let a new board be formed to let the organization move forward.

Reverend Jones said that numerous people have expressed that they are willing to donate their time and gifts to a reconstituted UYA. He says the actions to continue UYA “is a fine example to our young people that you can never give up.”

Ruthie King, the executive director told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that a meeting to discuss the fate of Urban Youth Action is “not a public matter.” She’s wrong. It is the ultimate public matter, because it involves not just the board, or the UYA workers or even the family. It is a public matter because the estimated 650 students who went through UYA’s doors each year are our future. It is a public matter because those students have taken that enrichment and gone on to lead productive lives, go to college, pay taxes, raise families and contribute to the strength of our region.

I am hoping that the meeting with the board is fruitful. I’m hoping that our community will not let Urban Youth Action fade away, especially at a time when it is needed more than ever. I’m glad to see the Jones family take the lead, but I also call on corporate, community and even the religious community to stand up for Urban Youth Action. It is important to show the current board that there is not only civic support for continuing the work of UYA, but also financial support.

If this community cannot stand up for its future, if it cannot stand up for its children, it has given up. We simply can’t afford that.

(Lou Ransom is former managing editor of The New Pittsburgh Courier.)

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