Three threads bind the honorees. They all built their organizations through tenacious individual initiative without significant support from large institutions. Each chose to serve a group now largely marginalized. And all have operated with a philosophy centered on empowering individuals.
Odbert and her friends were graduate students who wondered if they could marry their passion for urban planning and architecture with their belief in social justice and inclusion. That question took them to the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, the home country of one student in the group. There, they spent two weeks listening intently to local residents before producing a plan to develop flood control, public spaces, and broader economic development in the area. Since then, they have brought “play streets” to low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods; a culture festival and public park to impoverished North Shore, California; and other innovative developments to areas of Haiti, Ghana, and Morocco. “Regardless of the scale or type of project,” Odbert said, “it is always done through an intensely participatory process that puts residents at the center of decision-making.”
While managing a short-term shelter for homeless LGBT youth in New York, Barnhart was frustrated by the inability to provide them long-term services. So she started convening regular Sunday dinners, followed by life coaching, to stay more involved with young people who passed through the shelter. From that modest foundation she built New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth, which provides counseling, education services, and training to help young people transition out of the shelter system. “In the program we created,” she said, “we are sometimes the only stable adults these people have ever had in their lives.”
Stewart, founder of the Lost Boyz program, could say the same. While coaching his Little League team one day on Chicago’s South Side, he was stunned when gunfire rang out near their practice field in broad daylight—and the kids hardly flinched because it was so common to them. After the league folded, he kept his team together on a shoestring and gradually developed Lost Boyz, which combines sports with training and mentoring to steer boys and girls away from violence and toward educational achievement. The group’s name, he explained, refers not to the kids involved, but to the adults who let children lose direction. “If the kids were lost emotionally, spiritually, physically,” he said, “it [was] the adults’ fault.”
Taylor and Libert were working as TV journalists when Taylor received a letter from a death-row prisoner in Texas (who was later executed) who had committed murder as a teenager while living under difficult circumstances. Taylor produced a story on the man and kept in touch, exchanging letters about books they would read together in a sort of long-distance book club. Soon, Taylor and Libert began volunteering to read with prisoners, especially juveniles convicted as adults in Washington, D.C., jails. Their work spread as the first juveniles were transferred to federal prison at age 18, and expanded again when the prisoners eventually needed help reentering society after incarceration. Now, Taylor and Libert’s Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop helps hundreds of current and former offenders imagine a future beyond prison walls. “When we first meet them … and we say ‘What are your plans and goals?’ so many of them don’t have any, because they don’t think they are going to be alive at 21,” Libert said. Changing that is how the group measures success.