Last month, America’s Promise Alliance Youth Trustee Maria Salmeron-Melendez sat down with our new CEO, Mike O’Brien, to learn more about his background, values, and vision for the Alliance’s next chapter. The interview transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I think it's partially my experience at iMentor that helped me realize just how much of the responsibility for responding to these current crises is falling to the nonprofit organizations that are working on the frontlines to support young people every single day. And how those organizations respond plays a big role in how we emerge, rebuild, and heal from the challenges of these last couple of years. That has me really, really inspired to build the most engaged and supportive practitioners’ community in the country. To bring the nation's top leaders together around their most important questions, and then to surround those practitioners with everybody who can accelerate their impact, whether it's philanthropists or researchers or subject matter experts or corporate partners. If we can do that, we can play a big role in how powerfully our field responds to this consequential moment.
This is one that I am so passionate about. I think for a long time our field has been built on this idea of working on behalf of young people and not with young people. Sometimes on behalf of communities and not with communities. I think in places that is starting to change, and that change is exciting to me. The next opportunity that I'm really excited about is providing young leaders with the responsibility and the support to improve outcomes in their own communities, and to do that work as a collective, and to do it with real financial resources at their disposal and with the leading social sector leaders supporting their work. We have an opportunity to rally our Alliance to make this new model of empowering youth leadership a reality in communities across the country.
Like so many things, it starts with relationships. There is no authentic engagement without real relationships. Now, in that relationship building, it’s important to start with real, true mutuality—that we are co-equal together in this relationship. You have to be deeply curious about that person's experiences, perspectives, and insights. There are no shortcuts to the amount of time it takes to create real and durable trust. All of those things can be powerfully achieved when there's a sense of shared purpose, when you're working on something together.
The first step for us to make that work a priority was not separating it from all the other work of the organization. Instead, it was about bringing that lens and that priority into each aspect of the work. It was more about a willingness to change, the financial resources to do the work well, the culture that you need to build for authentic dialogue, and the ways to hold ourselves accountable. We thought about that in how we built our program, how our curriculum was written, and the ways we employed and empowered students to work in our program. In our organization, it was, of course, about the diversity of the staff and leadership, but it was also about decision-making frameworks and how we cultivated a sense of belonging and joy. How we made it safe to challenge each other and to examine and ultimately change some of our underlying practices. We also thought about it in terms of how we used our platform as an organization, how we used our voice, and how we stood in solidarity with everybody else we were doing this work alongside.
Think about the enormous advantages our field has. We are already extremely proximate to young leaders. We have proximity to their energy and their moral clarity and the real-world consequences that structural racism has on their opportunities, wellbeing, and outcomes. But this proximity has not yet added up to the fundamental change we seek in our own institutions. There's both a deep desire and a real responsibility right now for that fundamental change to happen. I think the unique role that America's Promise Alliance can play is to understand what those needs look like at a field level, to convene the organizations most passionate about engaging in that work, and to secure the resources and steward the process in a way that, by the end of it, we've created the individual and organizational change that we deeply want, that this moment demands, and that the young people we work with deserve.
I think it's important for me to recognize and have some humility about the limits of my own experience and perspective. But it's equally important and long overdue that we don't let the burden to prioritize and lead around this work fall solely to the leaders of color in our communities and our organizations. So I think it starts with just finding the balance between those two things. In terms of my positional leadership as the CEO, the first thing I can do is make sure that this work is a priority for my organization. Make sure it's not sidelined, resource it as deeply as we resource all our priorities, and try to build a culture and a way of working that fosters the trust and candor and authentic desire for change that's necessary to do this work in the right way.
I had a bunch of experiences in high school that meant that I needed the support and concern from lots of different members of my community. And that seeded an appreciation for me on the power and potential of a community to step up and help someone at some of the hardest times in their lives. I think that was the spark for me.
We've been living through a year of uncertainty and pain and challenge, and I've been casting around for what I can believe in and what I can control. I've started to get really inspired by this idea of chosen communities—that each of us choose communities to be a part of, and within those communities, we have an enormous amount of agency to make them as affirming and powerful and impactful as they can be. As I come join America's Promise Alliance as its next CEO, I believe that the power of the chosen community we build—the organizations we support and all the young people we elevate—has the opportunity to have an incredible impact on the world.