Alumni, Community Keep YLI Strong

YLI Zoom Meeting (Photo courtesy YLI Council)

In 2020, dozens of nonprofit agencies were forced to shut their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its financial consequences. As of February, many remain shuttered.  

But one nonprofit, the Youth Leadership Initiative, is rising again because of the community’s demand, and the determination of some alumni and former staff members.  

Based in St. Paul, YLI is a nonprofit focused on teaching leadership skills to high school students, especially those from ethnic and cultural minorities. For 14 years, it was a program of the Wilder Foundation. But in May 2020, facing the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilder abruptly cut funding for all leadership programs, including YLI.  

However, YLI was too important to the communities it served to let it end, said Lori Vang, an alumna of the program.   

“From my YLI experience,” Vang said, “I learned about communication styles, resolving conflicts, knowing when to lead and when to follow, public speaking skills, interviewing, cultural awareness and serving the community.” 

She also learned important things about herself, including self-love, self-confidence and standing up for her beliefs. 

The skills Vang learned, said Nou Yang, former YLI executive director, are important in raising a new generation of leaders within minority communities, and in the larger effort for diversity and inclusion.    

Everybody knew there would be program cutbacks in 2020 because of the pandemic, but the abrupt decision to terminate YLI caught staff and volunteers by surprise, Yang said. 

“We were informed that we had a month left to close out. And then our jobs were being eliminated (along with the program). We were on our own.” 

Because they believed in YLI’s value to the community, a group including alumni, staff members and volunteers started thinking about how to keep the program alive, Yang said.  

The group first formed a transition committee and aimed to find another parent organization, for legal and financial purposes. It didn’t find a new institutional home, but instead found a financial sponsor and began applying for funds. First came a $40,000 transition grant from the St. Paul Foundation and its partner, the Bigelow Foundation, with an additional major grant from the Office of Justice Programs.  

YLI, which is now being legally incorporated as a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has raised $137,000 – compared to its $350,000 budget in its last year at Wilder. The group continues to search for additional funding while figuring out how to minimize operating expenses. 

The core team is training new staff and volunteers and hopes to enroll new youth groups by fall 2021. 

The important thing is YLI didn’t give up. It’s still alive. 

“Young people are the future,” Yang said. “We’re about continuing a program that will be empowering for our youth, and healthy and nourishing for our community.”