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Taking the unconventional approach of incorporating youth culture into education modules, Edward DeJesus and Derrick Dolphin’s joint entrepreneurial venture is helping troubled teens achieve their goals. “Every young person, without exception, wants a chance to succeed,” says DeJesus, 33. And he should know. In just five short years, he and Dolphin, 32, co-owners of the Youth Development and Research Fund (YDRF), a 6-year-old, Maryland-based advocacy firm that provides program training, staff development, and public policy initiatives for at-risk youth, have worked with more than 20,000 teens. “Out of all those young people, I’ve never met a single one that didn’t want to do better,” he says. “They just need the right opportunity.”
With three full-time and two part-time employees and a host of consultants, YDRF expects solid revenue growth–from $470,000 in 2001 to more than $530,000 in 2002, thanks to clients such as the U.S. Department of Labor, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and The Source magazine.
There are some 5.2 million out-of-school youth in the United States and only 200,000 federal training opportunities for them. DeJesus and Dolphin, New York natives, keep quite busy conducting and disseminating qualitative and quantitative research on service providers for at-risk youth and advocating for more youth programs and training. They, along with an array of consultants, analyze specific programs for strengths and weaknesses, and provide methods of correcting any shortcomings they find. DeJesus and Dolphin also manage The Source magazine’s Youth Foundation.
Surprised by the adult-oriented nature of and lack of youth involvement in teen programs, DeJesus, who earned his M.S. degree from the New School for Social Research in New York City and graduated from New York’s Fordham University, began YDRF as a part-time business while working full-time as a program director for the National Youth Employment Coalition. He borrowed $3,000 from his mother to publish Making It, a compilation of research he put together while studying at the Sar Levitan Center at Johns Hopkins University. DeJesus sold copies of the study and used the profits to purchase computers, create a company Website, and build a database of outreach programs. In 1999 DeJesus began YDRF full-time. Dolphin, who met DeJesus three years prior when they were both doing advocacy work for the National Youth Employment Coalition, became part of the venture in 2000.
Continuously seeking new ways to motivate today’s teens, the pair expanded beyond research and training in October 2001 to create Alive and Free Records, a hip-hop recording label that emphasizes positive messages and downplays misogyny and violence. The label’s debut album, Strength of a Nation, is the first of a four-volume series and also features rhymes from Dolphin, who goes by the alter ego Prophecy. “We became cognizant of the void that needed to be filled in hip-hop,” says Dolphin, explaining the overwhelming need to combat the negative messages so prevalent in many hip-hop lyrics.
While some may scoff at their optimistic approach to empowering wayward teens, DeJesus and Dolphin are letting the numbers speak for themselves. After