Richard Murphy: Remembering a Youth Work Legend

A great moment in the history of American youth work occurred in 1990 when Richard Murphy changed the mind of his boss, New York City Mayor David Dinkins, on a critical decision about public safety.

Murphy talked Dinkins out of spending $5 million on a prison barge, a floating tribute to the city’s choked corrections system, and convinced him to put the money toward his vision of establishing schools that would be open to youth and parents beyond the classroom hours.

Not coincidentally, it would be the Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, founded by Murphy in 1970, that led the Beacon movement, which quickly spread to other U.S. cities and informed the Clinton Administration’s Community Schools model.

In New York, Murphy’s protege Geoffrey Canada would grow the program into Harlem Children’s Zone, a wrap-around community effort good enough that President Barack Obama would secure funding for its replication through the Promise Neighborhoods initiative. About $100 million has gone out in grants through Promise Neighborhoods since 2010, according to the Department of Education.

It is not hyperbole to say that Murphy, who passed away on Valentine’s Day, is one of the most influential people in the history of youth and family services. He helped invent the delivery of community school approaches to youth development, and then began the ongoing movement to use community mapping as a way to connect youths to opportunities and assistance.

Behind the achievements was a man who served youth workers as well as he did youth. Following are some thoughts from colleagues that knew Murphy well…

David Dinkins
Mayor, New York City, 1990-1993

Dinkins brought Murphy on as commissioner of youth services in 1990. The following is an excerpt of Dinkins’ eulogy for Murphy, delivered on Feb. 16:

“He viewed the youth of this City as our most precious asset – not to be squandered or misspent, but to be nurtured…and as those who must receive our most earnest political, our most generous financial, and our most genuine emotional investments.  In large part because of him, the Beacon Program has survived for 20 years as a brilliant example of the effectiveness, responsiveness, and vision that government can deliver when skilled, committed, dedicated public servants take up the challenge.

What Richard did, he did not from personal pride or political pragmatism, but guided by his deep and abiding commitment and caring for the potential, the promise, the futures of the young people of New York. He gave more than lip service to his belief that we must all shoulder the responsibility for each and every human being, including the sick, the powerless, the most vulnerable…the youth.  And he worked long and hard to ensure that this City…his City…met that measure.

When I got word from Patrick Gaspard on Tuesday morning, I went to see Richard at Lenox Hill…knowing it might well be our last meeting.  We spoke of many things, reminisced a bit, and said our goodbyes.  I was told later that he noticed that I wore a polka-dot bowtie of my own, in his honor.

The passing of Richard Murphy gives us reason to mourn, but his life gives us so much more to celebrate. Richard has left us with more than memories – he has left us a rich legacy of his friendship, a legacy of caring, and a legacy of doing for others.

It is said, my friends, that service to others is the rent we pay for our space on earth. Richard Murphy departed us paid in full.  Let him not look down and find any of us in arrears.”

Mike Arsham
Executive Director
Child Welfare Organizing Project, New York City

Arsham now leads CWOP, a parents’ organization in New York City that has helped reduce the city’s reliance on foster care in favor of family preservation strategies. He got his start in youth and family services with Murphy.

“I went to work for Richard Murphy at Rheedlen in 1981. It was my first job out of graduate school and I was still in my 20’s. I was not too far removed from being a thuggish adolescent. I had issues with authority, and I was impulsive and confrontational.

People who know me now may say ‘Yes, and how is that any different from how you are in your 50’s?’, but believe me, I was much rougher around the edges then.

Murphy put up with a lot from me. He gave me second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, well after many other employers might have derailed my career. It wasn’t because he was soft. In fact, he was a very tough employer – driven, relentless, demanding the same selflessness and excellence from his staff that he personified in his own work.

I believe he persevered with me because he recognized my belligerence as a front, and saw through it to my potential for excellence. He had a way of doing that with young people in general, and his perceptions were often correct.

This was reassuring. As I grew older, I found myself wanting to validate his belief in me through my own practice. I have saved, and still treasure a simple Thanksgiving card Murphy sent me in 2004.  It said: ‘Michael, I have to believe that you and your work is one reason why so many more children are now staying with their families.’

When Giuliani derailed Murphy’s career, I was shocked and saddened by how some of the people who had benefited from his vision suddenly distanced themselves from him, not because they suspected Murphy was actually corrupt, but because they feared offending Giuliani. Years later, Murphy told me he forgave those people.  He even said he “didn’t blame them.”

He did not go so far as to say ‘I would have done the same thing.’  He never would have.  He was not a saint, but he was a genuinely good man, and one of his greatest strengths was his loyalty.

Once you were confirmed in his loyalty, nobody could change that, not even you.”

Paul Schmitz
Founder and CEO
Public Allies, Milwaukee

Murphy was a longtime member of the Public Allies board. Schmitz shared the following on the website of popular advocacy website, Spark Action:

“Richard was a legend in the youth development field. His innovations at Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, the City of New York, The Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, Food Change, and iMapAmerica inspired and changed the field of those who develop our nation’s youth to their full potential. Everything he did was ahead of its time, and replicated across the country.

I remember when he sent me the book, Good to Great and a toy bus to put on my desk to remind me of the lesson “get the right people on the bus before you decide where to go.” He sent me a book on Bayard Rustin with a note encouraging me to remember it takes the leadership of many to create change. Richard would meet me for lunch, tell me I worked too hard and needed to open myself to more inspiration, and make me go to a museum or movie. He had already bought the ticket. And he was an amazing story teller with a marvelous laugh.

Richard served on our national board of directors for 15 years. We couldn’t imagine letting him go. His contributions to our strategy, development, and leadership are felt throughout the organization. When our New York City site had problems a few years ago and almost shut down, he moved them into his office and almost single-handedly helped them re-launch and grow.”

Shawn Dove
Open Society Foundation’s National Campaign for Black Male Achievement

Decades ago, Dove was lured away from a job in sales to head up The Dome Project, a youth-serving organization he had participated in as a child. Dome had a subcontractor relationship with Murphy’s Rheedlen Center, and Murphy took Dove under his wing.

When Dove left The Dome Project, his life having spun somewhat out of control, his relationship with Murphy only intensified.

“I had resigned from The Dome to go into recovery, and get in check an addiction to marijuana, cocaine, alcohol.

I wasn’t going to stay in youth development. I had a good deal of shame, embarrassment. It was Murphy, on the corner of 106th and Broadway, who convinced me I was going a great job, and the field needs you.

He, on that corner, shifted my perspective and my mind. That’s how I came on board at Rheedlen. I credit him for affirming me permission to stay in field.

He’s just been amazing friend, mentor, coach, counselor, and most of all challenger. He’s the type of mentor that would constantly raise the bar.”

Dove found out from Geoffrey Canada, who turned what Murphy started with Rheedlen into the nationally-renowned Harlem Children’s Zone, that Murphy had terminal cancer. Instead of a catch-up session both men had struggled to get on their schedules, Dove would have only a chance to say goodbye.

“On his deathbed, he told me: ‘You have so much more in you, you have barely scratched the surface.’

Then he kicked me out of his hotel room because I had a board meeting. He said, ‘Positioning in the room is everything, you gotta get there early.’”

It wasn’t the first time Dove would hear from Murphy. This week, a few days after Murphy’s service, Dove received an package from, ordered  by Murphy for him just days before he passed.

In it was an illustrated copy of a Maya Angelou poem:

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Bad dogs barking loud
Big ghosts in a cloud
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Mean old Mother Goose
Lions on the loose
They don’t frighten me at all

Dragons breathing flame
On my counterpane
That doesn’t frighten me at all.

I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won’t cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don’t frighten me at all.

That new classroom where
Boys all pull my hair
(Kissy little girls
With their hair in curls)
They don’t frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

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