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YMCA CEO committed to youth development work

Saphia Suarez
YMCA CEO committed to youth development work
James Morton

YMCA of Greater Boston CEO James Morton is both a proponent and the product of successful youth development work. The support he received from childhood mentors taught him how impactful youth development work can be, and he credits many of his achievements to them. He made his way to leading the YMCA after practicing law for 18 years and then becoming a high school teacher and coach.

Morton’s goal is to make the YMCA of Greater Boston “America’s education YMCA.” He has turned his focus to supporting the children he serves not just physically, but academically. One of the ways he and his team do that is by tackling two major obstacles to closing the so-called “achievement gap” — hunger and summer learning loss. He spoke to the Banner recently about his path and goals.

How did you become interested in youth development work?

I am the beneficiary of people who saw in me more than I saw in myself. As a young kid growing up, I had three mentors. I had a teacher, Mrs. Mary Lee, who told me that I was not a slow learner or juvenile delinquent, and that if I worked hard she would get me out of a class that was set aside for slow learners and juvenile delinquents, as they were identified at that time. I worked hard and she got me out of that class. Then I began to work for an African American small business owner in my community who had a janitorial service. I worked for Mr. Fox from age 13 to 21, off and on. He showed me the value of hard work, and was very supportive of me in a time of great need. He encouraged me to go to college and be a good student in school, and I followed his advice. Thirdly, as I got to high school I knew that I wanted to go to college to prevent things that had happened to my family from happening to other families. In order to go to law school, which at the time I thought was the right profession through which to do that, I would have to go to college. I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it unless I got an athletic scholarship, so I started to focus on track and field. My coach said to me in my sophomore year, “Jimmy, if you work as hard in the classroom as I see you working on the track, I’ll get you to college.” And so my coach did coach me to college, but not as an athlete — I got to college on the basis of my grades. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, then ended up at Northeastern Law, which got me to Boston originally.

What got you from law school to working as the CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston?

I practiced law for 18 years, and then decided that I wasn’t making the kind of difference that I wanted to make, and began to look for another profession. That led me to education. I became a high school history and law teacher and a track coach at the High School of Commerce in Springfield. It was at the High School of Commerce that I had my first opportunity to witness the power of young people transforming their lives with the support of caring adults around them. I was able to be one of those caring adults, and I had this transformative experience. I wanted to do more of that work, so I volunteered at the YMCA of Greater Springfield at a program called Youth & Government, which provided high school students with the opportunity to pretend that they were legislators, lawyers and journalists. I watched them gain confidence in their ability to communicate, both orally and in through their writing. I watched them develop networking skills, and I watched our Youth & Government delegation become one of the best in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, even though our children did not look like the other children in the program, and did not come from the same economic circumstances of most of the other children in the program. Seeing that convinced me that that was the work that needed to be done and the work that I wanted to do. Then the YMCA of Greater Springfield began a search for a new CEO. They asked me if I would consider applying for the position, which I did. I have now been in the YMCA movement for the last 10∏ years [working in Hartford, Connecticut before taking the reins in Boston in 2015].

Why do you think the YMCA in particular is in the best position to prepare young people for their futures?

The YMCA is an organization that makes it a priority to serve young people. We believe that our future will be determined by how well we serve young people in the communities we exist in. In Boston in particular we have the added benefit of having a full-service YMCA in eight of the major neighborhoods. That gives a physical presence, where young people can go and be engaged by our trained youth development staff. So that puts us in a really tremendous position to serve. We’ve made an organizational commitment to youth development. We are part of a network of youth service organizations in Greater Boston. We don’t compete with other youth service organizations, because our only competition in this work is poverty, despair, and hopelessness.

How does the YMCA respond to those challenges you just mentioned?

We see those major challenges as being hunger, the achievement gap and youth violence. So we intentionally create strategies to address each of those major concerns. With respect to hunger, we are a part of a network that has enabled us in 2016 to serve more than 523,000 meals and snacks to the children of Greater Boston. Our goal in 2017 is to serve more than 600,000 meals and snacks to children. Many people wouldn’t think of the YMCA as being involved in the mitigation of hunger, but that’s a major commitment that we’ve made as an organization, and we’re very proud to be engaged in that important work. We believe that hungry children can’t learn. Part of our commitment is to make sure that every child has everything they need in order to succeed academically and in school. We believe that the pathway out of poverty is education.

With the rise of college tuition rates, as college becomes less and less accessible for those not in the top 1 percent, has your approach for preparing students for college changed at all?

We are fortunate to be in Boston, where our mayor and governor have some strategies about making college access more affordable. I really do believe in the “2 + 2” program, where you do two years of community college, which is extremely affordable, and then transfer into a four-year college to get your four-year degree. I think that’s a viable option for many of our young people. The other response is, college is not for everyone. Young people today can make careers in other professions — carpentry, plumbing, electricity; there are apprenticeship opportunities that are available that young people can pursue, skills and crafts that will also help them earn a livable wage. Our strategy and the way we pursue our work is we’re preparing students for post-secondary education.

We help the young people we serve in completing their financial aid applications. Our strategy is to partner with those organizations that already exist in Boston whose purpose is to provide that support. We don’t believe that we have to be the organization that does it all. We do believe that we must find the partners in the community who do that kind of work best, and to connect ourselves with them. We are also working with an innovative firm that is creating an app that will help high school students from ninth grade forward to begin to set themselves up for college and set themselves up to complete all of the applications and the FAFSA in a timely fashion. We’re exploring the opportunities to partner with the developer of that app.