In September, Kwamaine Much was just starting his new job in his hometown of Rochester, New York, when the need for his work as a youth advocate became all too apparent: Protesters flooded the streets chanting the name of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died after Rochester police suffocated him while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Just a few weeks later, gunfire at a party in the city killed two teenagers and left at least 14 other young people wounded.
As the Monroe County program director at Youth Advocate Programs, a nonprofit that connects youth and their families with counseling, mentoring, work opportunities and community-based alternatives to juvenile detention, these tragedies made the tasks ahead all the more urgent.
The program known as YAP works in 150 communities across the country and is only now moving into Rochester, where it works with youth ages 13 through 18 who are transitioning out of detention centers and group homes and returning to their families or are in foster care. They include young people dealing with family, behavioral or mental health issues and those who have been sexually exploited or found to have committed a range of criminal offenses.
Much said supporting these youth, who have experienced poverty and trauma, is directly tied to the Black Lives Matter demands for equality. He feels fortunate to be launching the Monroe County program when the movement is a focal point nationwide. “What better position to be in than to fight for justice,” he said, “giving these young people an opportunity where some people may have written them off.”
Born and raised in Rochester, Much, 31, has deep local connections. He has previously worked as an admissions counselor at the University of Rochester, a long-term substitute teacher in the Rochester City School District and a career counselor with Urban League of Rochester. He said he loves the city’s cultural diversity, including local festivals celebrating African American, Caribbean, Hispanic and Greek heritage.
That breadth is also central to the Youth Advocate Programs’ mission, he said, which includes considering cultural competence when hiring to ensure that employees come from similar backgrounds as the young people they serve. In some cases, he’s been able to employ community members who have already been mentoring youth and connecting with families in their neighborhoods on a volunteer basis.
His organization relies on a “strengths-based” approach, recognizing that all young people have unique skills and interests they can harness and build upon. For example, if a teen is handy around the house, YAP might place them in a paid apprenticeship doing carpentry or repairs at a local business. If a teen loves video games and has a knack for understanding how they work, that could lead to a job in coding.
Participating youth get the chance to explore career paths and gain skills for independence while earning money. The supported work program is a win for the local business partners too, with YAP paying the cost of the young people’s wages.
“The more opportunities that you’re exposed to, the more you’ll seek them out,” Much said. “A lot of young people don’t actually know their strengths.”
Reinforcing their abilities is key to preparing youth for career success, Much added, and he hopes to help his hometown recover from the current pandemic-related recession as well as economic woes that predate the coronavirus.
One of Rochester’s best-known companies, Kodak, once employed 60,000 local workers, but now has just roughly 4,900 worldwide. Xerox, another major local employer, left the city in 2018 and moved jobs to nearby Webster.
When he was a kid, these once-booming businesses sustained the community, and their workers shopped at thriving mom-and-pop stores, but the local economy has since suffered. Before the pandemic, close to a third of Rochester’s population and 51% of its children were living below the poverty line, according to census data. Much envisions a future with flourishing local businesses that can employ more people in their neighborhoods — including, he hopes, some companies started by entrepreneurial YAP graduates.
Raised in the church, Much was “over the hills” about basketball as a kid and credits his parents, his pastor, coaches and mentors at the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club as role models growing up. As the oldest sibling of four, his love of mentoring began at home — he helped his younger brother Deyshonee land a full college scholarship in a Division I basketball program and has been proud to see him grow as a leader among his peers.
That includes watching his brother come into his own as a mentor. “He had a good friend that was going the wrong route,” Much said, “but he also helped guide him.”
After he left for college, Much’s parents became foster parents to 27 children and adoptive parents to three. “These are your siblings,” he recalled his parents telling him when he came home from school. “We don’t make anyone feel like they’re not a part of us.” The experience of helping create a home where his foster siblings felt they belonged has stuck with him. As he works to form relationships with youth in Rochester, Much said one of the most important things is to make sure they know they’re heard. “We have two ears to listen and one mouth to speak,” he said. “I try to embrace that when dealing with young people.”