Meet & Greet: Promise Night Honoree Chekemma J. Fulmore-Townsend

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Meet and Greet: Promise Night Honoree Chekemma J. Fulmore-Townsend

In anticipation of America’s Promise Alliance’s fifth annual Promise Night, we’ll introduce you to each of the night’s honorees, who are all outstanding individuals helping to deliver the American dream to young people across the country.

In the hot seat first: Chekemma J. Fulmore-Townsend, who as the President and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network works to give a voice to underserved youth, drive transformation in poverty and inequity, and ultimately create a pipeline for an educated, engaged workforce.

From breaking barriers to her vision to help Philadelphia’s youth to her best advice, we asked Chekemma to answer some tough questions, which you can check out below!

Describe yourself in three words.

Servant, Cheerleader, Change-Agent

Complete this sentence: People who really know me, know that I...

Am a prayer warrior, I truly enjoy my family and nothing comes before being a wife and mom, I will break out into a dance, mostly the shimmy to celebrate a success, I live for a good nap, I work-out 6 days a week with a crazy group of women, and I love a fabulous shoe!

As the CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network, what is your overarching vision for the organization over the next 5 years?

I truly believe in the brilliance, talent and power of all the young people we serve. 5 years from now, my hope is that we have found more ways to empower young people to chase their dreams, to find caring adults and navigate the challenges that comes with growth and development.

Based on your work in Philadelphia, what are the biggest barriers to alleviating the root causes of poverty and preparing young adults for the workforce?

There are many contributing factors to poverty, such systemic barriers and limited access to opportunity, and these are not exclusive to Philadelphia. This is why one of the biggest goals we have in our organization is to provide access to academic and workforce efforts and work on a larger scale with system partners to help young people interrupt the cycle of poverty, and that it will equip with them with the skills to navigate the complex choices that lie ahead of them.

How can those barriers be overcome?

We believe one of the strongest anecdotes is the relationships young people build with adults in their schools, workplaces and communities. Ensuring that adults are equipped to engage productively with youth to help them enter and advance along their chosen career path is one of the ways PYN is working daily to overcome some of the barriers youth face. We know that stronger outcomes are produced when programs are high quality, and skilled adults are a critical element of high-quality programs.

How do you incorporate youth voices into your decision-making at Philadelphia Youth Network?

I spend a lot of time listening to young people and trying to connect with our alumni to learn how their PYN experiences continue to impact their lives. We have incorporated the voice of young people on our Board and we seek direct input from youth in a variety of ways. We interview youth during and after their experiences to understand their experiences and what improvements we can make. We invite young people to help us improve with our surveys and we make changes to our design and our strategies based on their feedback.

Before becoming President and CEO of PYN, you served in various roles within the organization. Do you have any advice for young people who are just starting out in their careers and want to be successful working for a nonprofit?

The best advice I could share is one that my 2nd grade teacher taught me through our relationship. Make excellence your signature. That means do it all to the best of your ability. Anytime I was given an assignment, no matter what is was, collating papers, designing new programs, or building performance management systems, I did it with excellence and to the best of my ability. Do every task to the best of your ability and when you show your skills, your talents will make the way for greater work and position.

Have you overcome any specific adversities or challenges in your life? If so, how did you overcome them? Was there a specific “caring adult” in your life who helped you overcome or navigate the hurdle?

There have been many adversities I have faced, but I always had the support of my family. I have had a community of caring adults supporting me every step of the way. Although I grew up in poverty, I really didn’t know it because my world was as big as my neighborhood and I was in community with so many folks in the same situation. I had so many wonderful adults, mostly women, to pour wisdom and hope into me and that helped me build confidence and courage to leave home at 14 to enter into Groton School and that decision changed my life. I would say my grandmother was my first “caring adult.” She taught me the power of prayer, which is the cornerstone of my spirituality and she always encouraged me to get my education and reminded me that I could be anything I set my mind to, and I believed her. There was Evelyn Woods, my 2nd grade teacher who is still a mentor to me. She helped me understand, embrace and operationalize what it means to be excellent every day. There was Beverly Kirkland who always gave me a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen, and a compliment to remind me that I was special and Nikita Jackson, who took me under her wing in college, taught me a lot about professionalism, and stepped in to make sure I had everything I needed for my first apartment. The help I received along the way far exceeds any barrier I ever faced.

What keeps you doing this work? Are there any success stories or moments from your work with the Philadelphia Youth Network that come to mind that inspire and encourage you to keep giving back?

I know that this work is a part of the call on my life. I feel sheer joy and the energy of the divine in every young person I encounter. I am living evidence to them that their dreams are not beyond their reach. I do this work to say thank you for every opportunity I have been given. I do this work because I know how isolating, lonely and scary it can be to break the cycle of poverty, to navigate life without a blueprint or a map, and to have few examples of the vision you have in your head. I do this work because I am the youth that our programs are meant for. I know what it is like to grow up without your father because jail separated you time and time again. I also know what it is like to heal the pain from that hole, to understand that every challenge was designed to bring you closer to your destiny. I do this work because I know that nothing or no one can keep you from our destiny, and that the choices you make either take you closer to who you are destined to be or those choices can lead you on a detour. I want young people to see the choices they have, know how to asses the options and find the support they need to make the best choice, and the next best choice and the best choice after that until they find themselves on the other side of poverty. I grew up in poverty and I have lived long enough to see the first generation of my family out of poverty. I am not to far removed from any of it and it is with that energy and knowledge that I hope will help some other youth find their way out of poverty and find themselves breaking their cycle and pushing future generations of their family into a prosperity.

How did you end up where you are? Were there any pivotal moments in your education, life, or career journey that set you on your path to serving young people?

Becoming an Albert G. Oliver Scholar and entering Groton School changed my life. Going to boarding school at 14 years old, leaving my family and community and entering an elite world of privilege, talent and service was a pivotal moment for me. I often say if my time there, with all it’s adversity, challenge did not break me, nothing can. Groton truly taught me the power of education, but it also exposed me to wealth and power on another level. It shaped my commitment to service, it nurtured my critical and strategic thinking and it truly made me believe in myself. Many changes are happening to you as a teenager and to do that without the daily guidance of your parents on a beautiful, campus in the small town of Groton, MA where few people looked like you, took a lot of determination, fortitude and grit. A lot of who I am as a person was grounded by my Brooklyn roots and shaped by the lessons and friendships fostered at Groton.