Every day in his work as the Lewis Family Foundation's Executive Director, Juma Crawford says he sees himself in the eyes of the young people he mentors.
Growing up in California's Bay area, Crawford was aware that whatever choices he made could change the trajectory of his life forever—for the better or for the worse.
"One mistake, particularly for young black and brown men and women, made in the span of five seconds, one night, changes their lives … I know that I could have gone in a different direction, if I didn't educate myself. Period. I can see it. I know that," he says. "I have friends who didn't."
Crawford says it was his upbringing along with a solid education that made the positive difference in his life.
Two strong parents, who came from tough backgrounds, pushed him to excel. They also encouraged him to speak out about social justice. His father was a central figure in his development of confidence. But not all of his childhood friends had such positive role models.
A mindset firmly grounded in success, ambition, and hope is what he strives to instill in Boston's young people—especially children from disadvantaged families in the Spine (Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury).
"That's what drives me. How many young people can we get to move down that right road because we need them to come back and give back and really invest their intellect, their capital, and their service in the communities from which they come," he says. "That's how you see community change."
One of his outreach efforts is already taking off. The launch of the Bigger than My Block website has drawn some 500 youth members in its first month of being online. The site is about young people, for young people, and has a clear, but powerful message: "Make the right choices and connect with the right people." The bright, vivid homepage showcases beautiful images of happy-faced teens of color that grew up in the city. Each tells their own story through video. For instance, Carlos of Mattapan talks about visiting a college campus for the first time:
"I see other young teenagers like myself trying to attain an education. They're going for higher education and they look just like me," Carlos says in the video. "To see someone like myself who wants to do something better for themselves, that's something real. That's something big to me. Once I experienced that, I said, 'You know what, I want to go to college.'"
It's this real-life positive exposure paired with strong academics that's key to success, Crawford says. "Academics give you the skills to succeed and exposure drives ambition." It's a formula that he knows well.
When transitioning from public school to private high school, Crawford says his eyes opened to the vastly different level of expectations that teachers set for students. Students were expected and encouraged to work harder in the private school he attended—which also had more resources to provide an enriching educational experience. Back at home, he saw his peers, who didn't have the same exposure, struggling to navigate a much different world in his own community—where the odds were seemingly stacked against them. Nevertheless, Crawford was determined to chart his own path toward success while always knowing in his heart that he had to make a difference. After graduating Amherst College as a merit scholar, he earned a Master's degree in education from Harvard University, and then attained a law degree from Boston College. Since then, he has been working to change the outlook and educational experience of young people here in Boston.
Before joining the Lewis Family Foundation (LFF) in 2013 as the Executive Director, Crawford was a founding teacher of Codman Academy School, served as principal of Community Charter School of Cambridge, was the Head of School at CollegeBound Dorchester, and led as an Executive Director at Friends of the Children. Crawford's primary mission as Executive Director at LFF is to increase the college graduation rate of high school students throughout Boston's Spine.
"I think for all my young people, the potential is vast, and the talent is vast," he says. "How do we make sure that they maximize that talent and action into progress?"
As a call to action on that front, Crawford along with Harriet Lewis and President of the Foundation, Bill Walczak, wrote an op-ed piece published in The Boston Globe on March 2 urging the city to hire a "change agent" from the four finalists vying for the position of Boston Public Schools superintendent.
"After a certain amount of time people get comfortable with the status quo and after a while the status quo becomes average," he says. "It's not excellent anymore. How do you get from that next stage from average to excellent and from good to great? The way we do that is through strategic, intentional change that does not lose sight of the students, the stakeholders. We have a lot of failing systems and people get comfortable with failing systems when it doesn't affect them."
While Boston's public schools are not perfect, Crawford says the educational system, which serves around 57,000 students, is ripe for change. "It's a small number versus Philadelphia, which has 142,000 students. How can you not get it right?"
Meanwhile, Crawford is seeing the change in the students he connects with through the Bigger than My Block community and those that he mentors through the Next Generation Leaders program, which is dedicated to enriching the lives of promising college-bound students—many of whom are already consistently showing self-advocacy on their university campuses.
"They come back and ask for support—whether it is recommendations, financial help, or network connections," he says.
Crawford says young people should feel empowered to take charge of their own futures—much like he did.
"Teenagers need to be positively selfish, be relentless about that, and understand the value of making decisions that are only for them that they know are positive for their future—whether it be education, school, what friends they have around," he says.
"If young people lead the way, other young people will follow."
Featured in our March 2015 E-Newsletter.