As part of our series with of interviews with the winners of the The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, I spoke with LaVonte Stewart, the founder of Lost Boyz Inc., a baseball and softball program that steers children in his Chicago neighborhood away from violence through social-emotional development.
Stewart explained how he used a social theory he hadn’t yet realized existed to build up the organization from scratch. Here’s our interview, which has been edited for space and clarity.
Leah Askarinam: Did you have any prior experience before Lost Boyz in working with kids or trying to solve this problem [of youth violence]?
LaVonte Stewart: I hadn’t had much prior experience with the violence prevention stuff, I had already been coaching little league baseball for like three years—let me backtrack on that. I would say I had some experience with some of these issues, but … it wasn’t community-based experience. It was a setting in a correctional institution.
Askarinam: Can you explain that a bit, that it was in a correctional institution?
Stewart: Easy to explain. As a young man, when I was 19, I got myself into some trouble while in college, and I ended up incarcerated in Missouri. At some point during my incarceration, things finally kind of sunk in, and I got back to a point where I, for lack of better terms or words, got myself back in sync with my higher power. I got a lot more focused while I was in an institution, so I started doing what I would consider good while I was there, in terms of trying to get involved in things that would help me better myself and my fellow inmates to better themselves. For example, I had an instrumental role in creating one of the first, what you call a therapeutic community, in the prison environment. That was in like 1997.
Askarinam: I’m not familiar with that. What is a therapeutic community?
Stewart: It’s an arrangement within a prison setting where you create an isolated housing unit or situation, and it’s more about incorporating now what we would call “restorative justice” practices. And there's a lot more: The rules are a lot more stringent in terms of, like, if you get into a fight, immediately you're kicked out. So it sets up this safe-living place within the prison. It's a place we didn't have to worry about getting stabbed, jumped on, and it was all of this programming that was running that was not available to general population.
Askarinam: Did it teach things like coping mechanisms?
Stewart: Yes. For example, since I was instrumental in helping build it because I was on the inmate council—which is a mixed council of inmate and staff people—I was also allowed to create and teach a course. So, I came up with a … sensitivity/diversity course. It was a workshop which brought together a diverse population that was in the prison, and we began to figure out how to listen to one another vs. judging one another and … kind of already existing issues between races or cultures or religions. So, it was a time that we would just share with one another things about our culture, whether it was our music, a story—whatever it was that would give each other insights into our cultures and into our communities and ways of life … We were able to bring in [a university] to help run some workshops. We also even brought in the community college system in the state of Missouri so that we have college courses, and inmates could pursue associate’s degrees.
Askarinam: You started this class and created this therapeutic community—and then you got out. Then what happened?
Stewart: Then, it was the see-saw thing … Trying to figure out who I am, what direction I'm going in. It was very positive. But the world itself wasn't very positive or receptive to having me. [There were] huge barriers to employment. I was able to find a few jobs here and there. Didn't work out too well. So, I got a little discouraged and turned back to some old ways. Got myself in a little more trouble, back in 2001, and after that trouble, I pretty much straightened out. And so, from there I kind of started looking at some different things.
Askarinam: At what point did you decide to start Lost Boyz? What was going on around you at that point?
Stewart: I think it was around 2004. My now-wife was a woman I had been dating for a couple of years … And she found these flyers about the local little league that was coming back, and it was a league I had played in. So this guy was kind of resurrecting it. And that's how I got involved in coaching baseball. The first year in, my team won the league championships. It kept going for a couple of years and then, kind of out of nowhere, [the league folded], and I was faced with this crisis situation, where the question was: Do I pass these kids off? Or do I keep going? And that's when we ran into that incident that occurred. … I was going to give these kids over to neighboring leagues … and we experienced that traumatic incident, where in the middle of the day, summertime—and I was between jobs, so that's what allowed me to be out there in the middle of the afternoon—but we have these guys chasing this other guy across the field … you know, with guns. And so, that was kind of the moment then that I knew I had to stick with these kids.
That was kind of the beginning right there. And we just started off that first year with what you call a barnstorming club, meaning we would just kind of loosely [run] this youth baseball team, and I had to kind of scrap things together, and kind of make up some uniforms, and reach out and find opponents. It wasn't something really organized. It was something that was more akin to kind of a throwback to the days of what black ball players did before integration of the majors—they did a lot of barnstorming to get games …
Askarinam: So, you had no source of funding at this point?
Stewart: Absolutely nothing. I was kind of scraping by with what I had in my pocket, and friends in the community giving me a bit here and there. And my then-girlfriend, who's now my wife, what she was able to give me, and I take a little bit of my unemployment, and spend it on them.
Askarinam: How did it to turn into Lost Boyz? How did it evolve?
Stewart: I kind of coined that name right at that very moment, that very day. But the reference really wasn't necessarily to the kids themselves. The reference was more an indictment on the community—that we had allowed things to get this far. So, if the kids were lost emotionally, spiritually, physically, it would have been the adults' fault and not the kids' necessarily. So, that's where I coined the name from.
Askarinam: When you say the "adults' fault,” is that the community members, or the guy who dropped the team? Or … ?
Stewart: Everybody. Him, community members themselves. I mean, when brazen acts like that—where a person can willfully assault and try to do bodily harm or bring death to somebody else in a public way, like a park, in the middle of the day—then there is inherently something wrong with the members of that community, that people would be so brazen to do so. You know, a strong community that's very active, and very concerned about that stuff, they're not going to allow that to happen …
So that's kind of how we got going. After that first year … I met a gentleman while I was trying to solicit support from an organization, and so I went in trying to get support for what I was creating with Lost Boyz, and ended up walking out with a job doing violence prevention. That was my first real job that was violence-prevention-based, and this organization … had funding to do something about gang intervention. So, they brought me into help run that program, and we really built something amazing.
And so in that second year in 2009, again I went to them looking for support for my nonprofit that I had created, so I found that support in that year after they hired me. They gave us, through a grant they were hosting through the community program, we were awarded $8,000. So that was our second year.
That was my first major grant if you will. And that gave us a huge boost … and in that year, they were sometimes allowing us to utilize that space for stuff, so that year, the mission and vision of that organization grew out from to be a little league, because of all the challenges I was experiencing in 2008 and in 2009 with the kids—the lack of parental participation, the inability to afford a program, or to purchase the requisite materials or apparel or supplies to participate in this program—sometimes the attitudes and the issues I would deal with with the kids was far beyond anything I had experienced so far as a baseball coach.
So it really got me thinking, and I kind of started reconfiguring or redeveloping what the organization was about and what we were going to do. And I still wanted to use that theme of baseball, so I kind of willed baseball to be this tool for youth development.
Fast-forward … I started doing a master's degree at DePaul University, and lo and behold, I was doing something on Lost Boyz, and I learned that what I was doing actually was a social-science theory. So, a new theory had emerged in the social-science field, and it was called “sports-based youth development,” and it was derived from some other theories, the main one being positive youth development. … So a couple years ago, while I was doing my master's degree in public administration, it confirmed what I thought all these years ago: that sports could be used as this positive tool to develop children ...
That just confirmed what I thought seven years ago and what I had been trying to articulate without much evidence or without much guidance. So, it was kind of like feeling your way in the dark, each year, just trying to figure this stuff out and watching people around me. And thinking and drawing out of my own experiences, I knew that a lot of my own personal development, aside from my parents, had come out of sports and from coaches. I just thought about how much regard I held for coaches throughout my life, so I knew that could be a huge catalyst. So 2009, that's where the whole youth development through the platform of baseball came about, and that's when I started incorporating with the board I had put together, and we started looking at stuff like service learning and cultural enrichment and academic enrichment for tutoring, and we started creating the model then.
Askarinam: What led you to believe, looking back at starting when you saw those boys running after each other on the field, that “I should be the person trying to fix this problem, I can independently, without government or a big corporation backing you, be the person to start working on this problem?”
Stewart: Honestly, it was kind of twofold: One was, as as Christian, there was a spiritual connection because I know that when I was younger, I came up in a great two-parent home, we were an upper-middle-class family, and I got led astray when I was an adolescent … [by] the toxic influences of the community. So to some degree, I don't know if “regret” is the proper word—but yeah kind of, it was regret that I contributed in some negative fashion to my community. So that was part of the impetus, was my faith and my convictions of my own … in that community.
And I guess the second part was my love of sports and particularly my love of baseball. And so I think those two things kind of together, and for me, those added up together, was kind of redemption and repentance for what I had done as a young man in that community when I was [age] 15, 16, you know, 17, it was just a way to repent and to redeem myself.
Askarinam: Have you ever thought though that there should be a government system in place here? Was that something you thought should happen or would happen? Or was that not even in your thought process?
Stewart: I mean, later down the road it was … Why aren't there more programs for the kids? Why aren't there more organizations? I guess the biggest stickler for me was: Why aren't more community members willing to roll up their sleeves and mentor kids? Because that's what happened to me in that community as a kid—there were no mentors to step in between and keep me safe from the kids that were the bad kids. It was this “survival of the fittest” thing in the community. You adapted … because you were just overwhelmed by the kids who were bad or that were doing bad things.
Askarinam: Do you think there is a place for government to look at what you're doing and help spread it? Or should it be done on an individual basis?
Stewart: I believe that now more than I ever have in my life, because simultaneously for the last six years, I spent my day working and earning my income as a district staff member of a state senator. In fact, I work in the old state senate office of [former] President Barack Obama. So, I now have had six years to really see government up close and personal for myself, and learn government to a degree that I had never understood. So now, I can emphatically say, heck yeah, there's a place for government, there's a role for government in this.