RYSE Center Boosts Youth Toward Success

The Richmond center is changing the futures of many young people of color.


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Geo Jones of RYSE plans to be a surgeon.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Jahiem “Geo” Jones is 15 and wants to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. D’Ana Clark is 17, will be attending college in fall 2019, and is deciding between pursuing criminal justice or nursing. Cynthia Ezeokoli is 21 and graduated from UC Riverside with a dual major in psychology and ethnic studies.

What these young people have in common, besides their intelligence and poise, is that they are all participants in the free programs offered by Richmond’s RYSE Center. To become a member, kids fill out an application, get a tour of the facility, then participate in a new member seminar. After that, depending on age, they are eligible for all RYSE offers.

Since its opening in 2008, more than 3,700 young people ages 13-21 have gone through RYSE Center’s programs onsite. Ninety-eight percent of them are youth of color; some of them have experienced trauma, violence, and failure. An additional 10,000 have been impacted through in-classroom workshops and community events. Stephanie Medley, RYSE’s education and justice director, is a Richmond native and went through the public school system before going to law school. She is in an ideal position to understand how vital the center’s work has been and is in changing the futures of Richmond’s young people.

She, and a staff of eight in the education and justice division, direct and coordinate several programs to help RYSE members stay in school and achieve success. They also work within the West Contra Costa school system and alongside parents to reach those same objectives. For example, Medley said, “We look closely at school climate and culture, and how this impacts student success. That is new for this district.” In working with parents, RYSE recognizes, she said, that many are working multiple jobs, and some may need child care to attend meetings. “We meet them where they are,” she said.

College Access, Study Up, and Case Management Support are three RYSE programs available to members. “Not all kids are going to go to college,” said Medley of College Access. “But if they do decide to go, we want to provide them with all the rigor, support, and knowledge they need.”

The program helps students understand what admission requirements are and what financial aid might be available. Participants can attend college tours to northern and southern campuses, and the center sponsors a “college week” during which students can question current college students and recent grads about what college life is like. Career panels bring in employees from places like Google and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Study Up is a tutoring program that addresses subjects from math to English to history, and more, and encompasses one-on-one and group help. College-bound members can get concentrated help for their SAT and ACT tests, and former RYSE members are often recruited as tutors.

Case Management Support involves a collaborative process in which adult allies support youth who want to meet their education and career goals. Those who have been in the juvenile justice system can focus on successful school reentry and community reintegration. “We look at why problems are happening,” Medley said. “Is it absenteeism? Is there parent support? We talk to teachers and school counselors about the student and create a group plan.”

Those who remember when “college track” students were almost exclusively white will understand why Andrew Yeung, the RYSE economic justice program manager, distrusts the term. “When some say, ‘College isn’t for everyone,’ they really mean that college isn’t designed for working class, low-income students,” he said. Although some RYSE programs explain the benefits of a college diploma, and the barriers students can face without one, the center also explores trade schools, the arts, and entrepreneurship for students interested in different paths.

“We make sure the members know about all the programs and services we offer and try to capture where they are and what they intend,” Yeung said. He mentioned the RYSE Scholars Club for college-bound students and its access to an “academic counselor” to check in on goals. When students do go off to college, RYSE continues the mentorship.

Since the 60 to 80 kids participating daily at RYSE are as young as 13, Yeung acknowledged that many are “trying on new identities,” so the center gives them a safe environment to discover who they are, how they learn best, and what might be the best fit for them.

Born in Rhode Island, Geo Jones was raised in Richmond in a family with 13 brothers, one sister, and parents who were supportive of his intelligence and drive. While a student at Lovonya Dejean Middle School, he encountered RYSE through friends. “When I came here, all the staff checked in with me. They said I seemed down. Not many people asked me that,” he remembered. “People here are here for the youth. [Youth] can be themselves here.”

His RYSE experience has been both positive and informative. “I have had a lot of chances here to discover that my voice is valuable and to learn to lead with love,” he said. He described participating in RYSE leadership institutes, exploring “the hierarchy in our community and how intersectionality plays a part. What is valued and what should be valued.” Jones is now a member of the RYSE Youth Organizing Team, assisting other youth, and District Local Control and Accountability Plan fellow, meaning he’s an advocate for young people.

Jones revealed he’s also addressing one of his own issues: Learning to open up. He does this partly through poetry jams, where he reads his work onstage. He plans to go to Johns Hopkins or UCLA for medical training.

“I could tell this was a safe space,” said D’Ana Clark of her first encounter with RYSE. Now in her third year at the center, she participates in arts and social/educational programs. “My participation has helped me grow as a leader,” she said. She’s been offered an $80,000 scholarship by Oakland’s Holy Names University, although she’s keeping her options open. “I was involved in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “RYSE staff helped me negotiate it. I have been able to reach out, try new things, and experience opportunities.”

In 2012, Cynthia Ezeokoli became a RYSE member. She was enrolled in advanced “middle college” high school courses and was tutoring for math and English at RYSE. Ezeokoli is the first in her family to graduate from college, but her parents “were very focused on education,” and RYSE helped equip her for college at UC Riverside. She is considering work in the health-care industry, or business and plans to continue to pay it forward.

“I share the background of the youth at RYSE — low income, minority. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood,” she said. “RYSE supports you, and there is a sense of community.”

Medley was excited to share that RYSE’s decade-long success is leading to a major expansion. In 2019, the center will break ground on RYSE Commons. The expansion will create a 37,000-square-foot facility and increase the center’s capacity by 300 percent. The age range of those served will increase to 11 to 24. Medley sees it as no less than an opportunity to “change the landscape of Richmond and the West County.”

RYSE leadership is examining how to create innovative spaces to incorporate projects such as “Hidden Genius,” which will develop minority youth technology skills, and a 15-month intensive for young black men focusing on leadership development. RYSE Center’s next 10 years, Medley predicted, will be just as fulfilling. And the largely untapped potential of Richmond’s youth will be the natural resource that powers it.

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