Melissa Sawyer likes to joke that she's come a long way since her early 20s, when she began pursuing her calling as a youth advocate in New Orleans. She means it literally: The Harvard University graduate and founder of community-based Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) hails from Canada, where she lived before migrating south to New Orleans in the late 1990s.
She came for the allure of the French connection, a culture and language she grew up with in Canada, she says, but stayed because of something much deeper and far more rewarding: helping young people cope in a racially charged and unequal urban setting.
"I tell people a lot that I grew up in a different country, and I feel sometimes like I have a different orientation in terms of how I approach my work and community work," Sawyer says. "Canada is a multicultural country that embraces being mosaic, as opposed to a melting pot. In a melting pot the want is for all cultures to be absorbed ... as opposed to a beautiful and diverse mosaic."
It's with this thinking that she dove into the world of helping youth. Before founding YEP, an organization that over time became lauded for its community-based education, mentoring and youth employment programs, Sawyer worked as a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School. Originally a public school under the jurisdiction of the Orleans Parish School Board, Booker T. Washington was known for being one of the first high schools built in the 1940s specifically for African-American students. By the time Sawyer arrived, she says the school represented the kind of racial segregation that had caused so much to go wrong in and around New Orleans. She saw kids on a daily basis facing unequal opportunity and experiencing trauma, violence and the inside of what was then the city's massive juvenile justice system.
'It's all about giving creative young people opportunity' — Melissa Sawyer
"They were truly not having any education near what a country as wealthy as [the U.S.] should be giving to them, and it was so heartbreaking and so overwhelming," Sawyer says.
Sawyer left Teach for America after just two years — laughing, she says she was a "terrible teacher" — but she realized that she instead had a talent for being a "community builder." She recalls kids flocking to her room, just to find a safe space where they could talk. After taking a break from the Crescent City to get a self-designed master's degree in education at Harvard, Sawyer returned with a mission: to continue her work helping the young people she met in New Orleans.
"I was thinking about staying in Boston ... and then I started calling and checking on the young people I knew here," Sawyer says. "They were getting life sentences for armed robbery and murder. ... I just thought, 'What I've seen I can't turn my back on, and I really have a moral obligation to continue my relationships and continue my work I've started.'"
Newly energized, Sawyer worked for three years with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a nonprofit that in recent years has merged with the group of policy analysts, law reform advocates and community partners known as the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights. In that role, Sawyer worked to get kids out of jail and into rehabilitation, where a range of services could be overseen in and around the communities where the children and teens live. Eventually, Sawyer says, she realized she needed to go deeper into local communities to reach at-risk youth before they had served several prison sentences — to truly make a difference in youth recidivism in New Orleans. More than that, she needed to find a way to keep these kids from dying, as the school-to-prison pipeline was ensnaring many of the clients she had grown to know and love.
"I was so devastated," Sawyer says. "I was so disheartened and sick and tired of going to funerals."
In the wake of her juvenile justice reform work — and because of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which she helped get passed — Sawyer was able to start a new kind of service for kids: the Youth Empowerment Project. In 2004, Sawyer helped found YEP with a staff of five people and a $235,000 annual budget. By last year, the organization had grown to a staff of 50 and a $3.8 million budget.
The organization's mission also has grown. What started as a first-of-its-kind re-entry program for juvenile offenders now is a comprehensive agency working with at-risk, court-involved and out-of-school youth. YEP runs 11 programs out of six locations that provide more than 1,000 youths annually with GED and literacy services, job skill development, mentoring and intensive case management. The organization also prides itself on enrichment and summer activities, as well as client-centered ancillary wrap-around services tailored to individual circumstances.
On a recent morning, Sawyer beamed as she showed off YEP's two latest ventures: a graphic design work program and a YEP student-run thrift store. The two businesses joined the already existing YEP bicycle shop, which operates out of a large storefront adjacent to the YEP office on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. At all three locations, young people not only learn about the ins and outs of running a business, but also the skills required to be successful, Sawyer says.
Sawyer's foray into youth-led business through YEP may be new, but already it shows signs of success. In the thrift store, students were walking up to customers and shaking hands before politely answering questions. They talked about juggling work with school and finding ways to make time for both.
In the graphics design shop, instructor Alberta Wright showed off the latest fruit of her students' labor: a "Queens of New Orleans" calendar that honored women who influenced the budding designers. Among them were familiar names such as Irma Thomas and Susan Spicer alongside lesser-known heroes, such as girlfriends and friends of the student designers. According to Wright and Sawyer, the originality of the calendar proved to be part of the appeal, as the students already had secured a client: the Ace Hotel.
"It's all about giving creative young people opportunity," Sawyer says.