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Roxanne Lawson & Kymberlie Quong-Charles of Youth Rise Texas: 5 Things You Need To Know To…

Roxanne Lawson & Kymberlie Quong-Charles of Youth Rise Texas: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization

Bring in people that challenge you. Create a board, and if you are a movement-building organization, a base that has a connection to the different functions of the organization from the very beginning, and includes people that will push you and ask the question “how is this going to work?” That goes for staff too. Hire people who ask the tough questions that will make you a better leader and your organization will also benefit from it.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roxanne Lawson and Kymberlie Quong Charles, Co-Executive Directors of Youth Rise Texas.

Roxanne Lawson and Kymberlie Quong-Charles are the Co-Executive Directors of Youth Rise Texas, a nonprofit based in Austin,Texas that is dedicated to creating the conditions for youth of color to rise from systems of oppression, heal from past traumas of parental incarceration and deportation, and become leaders in their communities that affect positive change. Both Lawson and Quong-Charles have more than two decades of experience working in community organizing, social justice, policy work, lobbying, and youth empowerment. Together, they helped Youth Rise Texas implement its Co-Executive Director leadership model in 2021, demonstrating the strength of shared power to the youth it serves, and setting a standard for collaboration throughout the organization.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

Kymberlie Quong-Charles: My mother immigrated from China to the U.S. as a child. I remember growing up in Augusta, Maine, where she was very involved in organizing resources to ensure that Asians in Maine were visible and respected, including engaging with lawmakers. From a young age, I was always involved in grassroots organizing and advocating for social justice. After 9/11 happened, I gravitated towards the anti-war movement. The rights and identities of Muslim, Arab and other students of color on my college campus were being threatened, so I got involved in a student movement against the war. When I graduated, I was living and working in Philadelphia at the American Friends Service Committee. That’s where I met Roxanne Lawson who, years later, became my Co-Executive Director at Youth Rise Texas. My social justice and movement-organizing skills were sharpened during those years, and I still have lifelong friends from those experiences. I moved to Texas in 2006 to attend grad school and began working on state-level public policy issues and state budget advocacy, including around the Texas criminal justice system. As part of that work, I coordinated national campaigns to end private prison contracts. During my time in leadership, we successfully closed a private prison in Texas, and it happened to be a women’s prison where many of the cases we lifted up as justification for its closure involved parents with children on the outside who needed them.

Roxanne Lawson: I was raised on the east coast of the United States by Black parents who grew up in a segregated South. Their experiences growing up under state repression rooted our family in the beloved community working together for social upliftment and Civil Rights. As a young person, I stuffed pamphlets, learning how to have an impact on my world, and learning how to advocate for groups of people who were marginalized or oppressed by the U.S. government. I began community organizing in high school and became politicized in earnest while attending Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington D.C. Prior to 9/11 I organized around economic justice and after 9/11, my gut instinct was to join the anti-war movement. I started with an organization called Black Voices for Peace and got my first paid organizing job planning the A20 Mobilization to Stop the War(s) in 2002. That protest was youth-led and mobilized over 75,000 people from all 50 states, to raise their voices against the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia and to hold elected officials accountable. From there I worked for the American Friends Service Committee, where I met Kymberlie, and was one of the founders of “United for Peace & Justice” — a coalition of more than 1,300 international and U.S.-based organizations opposed to the U.S. government’s policy of permanent warfare and empire-building.

In the mid-2000s I returned to my work on economic justice and ran the Life Over Debt campaign of the American Friends Service Committee, campaigned for energy alternatives at Friends of the Earth, and at TransAfrica Forum, all rooted in creating a just foreign policy regarding the African Continent. Throughout all of this I worked with youth in the U.S. and across the African Continent, finally moving to New Orleans where my work involved supporting homeless youth and grassroots organizing with young people impacted by the first all-charter school district in the country. Supporting and empowering youth has been at the heart of what I have always done; my anti-war work was rooted in the millions of Black and Brown youth who would be on the front lines of U.S. wars, debt cancellation and energy alternatives were rooted in climate justice and control over community resources for future generations. Which is why when Kymberlie shared her vision of what Youth Rise Texas wanted to do and become, I was excited to jump on board.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your nonprofit?

KQC: I had worked within the movement to reform the U.S. incarceration system, and I was compelled by Youth Rise Texas’ focus on youth impacted by parental removal, incarceration, detention and deportation. I was excited to utilize my skills to build systems for developing values-aligned policies to support the growth of an organization that sought to build power with these young people.

RL: I was drawn to Youth Rise Texas because I wanted to continue to put young people at the center of social movement work. To focus on how we develop leaders — not just for a political campaign, but to really develop as humans who are compassionate and accountable to each other and their communities. I wanted to support children of people who had been incarcerated, deported or detained and I saw this as a way that I could help root out inequities.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

KQC: We believe that healing is a right and is crucial for young people of color who have experienced the trauma of parental removal or incarceration. Our work at Youth Rise Texas is not just leadership development to help young people get jobs. We’re also working to ensure that those young people know how to heal themselves, their families and their communities, so there’s a ripple effect across marginalized and oppressed communities.

RL: I think one of the ways that we make a social impact is by being an intervention in people’s lives. We help young people make meaning of their life stories and reduce some of the trauma and shame that may come from having a parent deported or incarcerated. We normalize it. Millions of young people in our country have a parent who has been incarcerated, deported or detained, or a loved one who is undocumented in the United States. Some of the people we work with aren’t U.S. citizens. They’re Dreamers, they’re migrants from Asia and Africa, they weren’t born here, but they were raised here. Part of their families have been criminalized for living on the other side of an arbitrary line on a map or for overstaying a visa. We work to provide context to their lives and help them understand why this is happening and why certain people are criminalized. We help them restore their dignity.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

KQC: Yes, there’s one Youth Rise Texas program participant who was 15 years old when she first came to us. She’s been living in the United States while half of her family has been living outside of the U.S. for her entire life. She met a lot of other young people who had similar personal stories that she could relate to during our first summer program and has stayed involved. She has been on our staff now for two years. She’s a powerhouse! She has even expressed aspirations to be one of the Co-Executive Directors one day and has contributed to a lot of the institution building we have been doing. She really exemplifies what our hope is for the young people who come through our program.

RL: I couldn’t agree more. We were an intervention in her life at a time when her mental and physical health were suffering from the trauma of parental removal. Because she was undocumented, she couldn’t visit her parent for the five years they were held in ICE holds here in the United States. She hasn’t seen that parent since she was eight years old. She had to step up and help co-parent her family at a very young age. Through working with us, she’s been able to build a successful career without completing a college education. Youth Rise Texas and our community is full of people like her and being together and being seen normalizes the reality, but not the trauma of her situation.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Decriminalize immigration: Migration and migratory patterns are a natural part of our evolutionary history. We take it for granted that birds are going to migrate, and that seasons are going to change, and yet we police people’s ability to migrate — even to their ancestral lands.

Stop Policing Schools: Growing up in an age where police weren’t present in schools gave a different view of school as being a part of a community, and not just a place where people wanted to control us. We need to address our society’s fascination with policing Black and Brown bodies. We need to work to support and empower teachers to resolve conflict rather than creating a society where everything becomes a call to the police. We can change those systems. Young people can provide more training for teachers and aids, and conduct that training with both teachers and parents present so that they can help inform what type of education spaces exist in our communities.

Consider the Impact on Youth: There needs to be an awareness of the impact that incarceration, detention and deportation has on young people in our country. When adults are incarcerated, detained or deported, in many ways so are their children. But there are no specific interventions for these children on the part of these agencies that took their parents away from them. No interventions exist to provide support, or to ensure that these children are reunited with their families. That’s a huge part of our research and our work at Youth Rise Texas.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

KQC: The leadership that I work hard to practice in my own life is to share power and to understand my own positionality, regardless of if I’ve been assigned leadership or I’ve earned the leadership. I try to be consultative and collaborative, while also being bold and decisive. Leaders also have to take into account how their decisions will impact others.

RL: Leadership, especially for nonprofits, is about accountability and responsibility. You have to know who you are accountable to, who you serve and what they need. I believe our Co-Executive Director model represents good leadership because it models power sharing, as well as vulnerability and community. Being Co-Executive Directors means that there’s always going to be someone there who will interrogate every decision you make, both in public and in private. That’s a wonderful thing. We’re saying that we literally believe two heads are better than one. We have two people with different experiences and different values coming together to collaborate on how we serve our community, how we serve our staff, and how we influence larger movements together. Those differences make us stronger. We can also do so much more because there’s two of us. We can be in different meetings and bring our vantage point from different experiences to the table in different ways.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.

Call in the Consultants: Creating a nonprofit as a singular person is a huge task. I believe that in order to do it well, so that you can grow and meet your mission, you should be paying for consultancies and finding other organizations that are in the business of supporting nonprofits at their startup stage.

Create infrastructure that supports your vision. You need to invest as much in the back-of-house as you’re investing in the vision and the goals of your organization. Having a strong infrastructure that supports your goal and your mission is as critical as having a strong mission in the first place. Devoting time to build this infrastructure brings your non-profit closer to your values and your vision.

Bring in people that challenge you. Create a board, and if you are a movement-building organization, a base that has a connection to the different functions of the organization from the very beginning, and includes people that will push you and ask the question “how is this going to work?” That goes for staff too. Hire people who ask the tough questions that will make you a better leader and your organization will also benefit from it.

Make Tomorrow Possible: One thing to think about is “what can we do today to make what we want tomorrow more possible?” It’s important to think about things like that when starting an organization. If your end goal for example, like us, is to end parental removal, then what conditions do we need to create now to do that? It doesn’t happen overnight, but you have to keep your eye on the goal at all times. We also need to not see our issues as mountains that will be here forever. We need to regularly assess how we’re serving our mission, and if we’re getting closer to achieving those goals.

Have a Plan, Not Just an Idea: We often come to nonprofits because we have good hearts and want to make things better for people. But without good systems for human resources, fundraising and operations, it’s just good feelings and we can sometimes actually do harm trying to do the good that we want to do. It’s important to ensure a vision for infrastructure that allows your budget to be a moral document and not just numbers on a page. Your vision should align with operations that bring you closer to the world that you’re trying to build so people can see that change. Make sure your vision represents what you want power to look like, how power is shaped, and who gets to have power. Discussions about who is in power and what that power gets for the people in this country is at the heart of every conversation we have at Youth Rise Texas.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

KQC: I would love for Diane Guerrero — she was on Orange is the New Black — to see this and take an interest in our work at Youth Rise Texas. She has her own story of being impacted by parental removal. I would love for her to see this article because I think our work would really speak to her child-self.

RL: It’s hard to pick. I would talk to any women of color leaders that have a vision for their community and are using that to run a nonprofit. If I could talk to people who are no longer here, I’d talk to Audre Lorde or Ida B. Wells. Folks who have devoted their lives to trying to make the world a better place for their communities, even if doing so came at a great cost to themselves.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

KQC: I have the same one that I always share. Don Miguel Ruiz, author and spiritual teacher said, “We’re all living in our own dream of reality.” What that means to me is that we all carry things with us because of our own personal life journeys — our families, our cultures, our ancestors, and the way we dream. Everything that we carry shows up in our interactions. We will never know all about what people have been through, or where they come from. We should aim to be the best version of ourselves and understand that others are showing up as the best version of themselves too.

RL: The poet, essayist and activist June Jordan said, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.” I think it’s super relevant and important for our young people today to know. They’re the ones that they’ve been waiting for. No one else is going to fix the system for them, but youth can fix systems of oppression with our support and help.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can learn more about our program work and everything ongoing at Youth Rise Texas by visiting YouthRiseTX.org, or by following us on Twitter (@YouthRiseTX), Instagram (youthrisetx) and Facebook (@YouthRiseTx)

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.


Roxanne Lawson & Kymberlie Quong-Charles of Youth Rise Texas: 5 Things You Need To Know To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.