Taking Luck Out of the Equation

Uva: [00:00:00] Welcome to our Wellspring. Of course, before we get started, I just want to do a bit of a human [00:01:00] being to human being check in.

How are you in this moment?

Dunn: I'm great. I'm feeling really good. Excited to be in conversation with you. And the work that I do now, I don't get to spend a lot of time with students, but I got to spend a lot of time with students today. And at YouthBuild today, young people received vocational certifications.

And as I was leaving today, about 10, 15 of them came by my office, excited about the work and what they accomplished. And so I think it's, for me, it's those moments which is why I do the work. And I'm further away from those moments, but getting to sit in that. So had I not had that experience, I might have had a different answer.

But I'm great. I'm great.

Uva: Well, I'm glad, I'm glad that you are coming in and transitioning from some time well spent with students and we'll talk about them and so much more about YouthBuild, of course. But before we do that, of course, I have to sing your praises, give you your flowers, talk a little bit about your work The work that you're currently doing and a little bit about what you've done before.

We know that you have recently stepped into the role of CEO of [00:02:00] YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School. And although this role is relatively new, we also know you are not new to leadership by any stretch of the imagination. You were, The principal, was it at Simon Gratz High School, where you spearheaded an anti gun violence initiative that was later adopted by the Mastery Charter System and implemented across all secondary schools.

You also launched CTE, or Career and Technical Education Programming, to ensure students could have multiple pathway options post high school. And you've also worked as a school administrator. And all of this work and your position as an educational advocate started in your home state of Louisiana. I love that in your bio, you said Southeast Louisiana.

So I'm sure there's a distinction that we should, know a little bit more about where you began to see the possibilities inherent in alternative education models. And of course, in addition to being an educator, you are also, in my estimation, the best titles, a [00:03:00] husband to another educator and a father.

Suffice it to say, Dunn, you have done the work, and your current role is a new chapter as well as a continuation of an existing one. In my estimation, you are well grounded and rooted in education, and that's all the official bio, but for those who don't know enough about you or about YouthBuild. Tell us about if you were at a social event and someone asked about this thing called YouthBuild, how would you describe it?

Not with the elevator pitch, but like with the heart, what would come from that?

Dunn: What I describe to my friends and people that I might see out in spaces, the first thing that I say is that for the first time in my professional career, this is the first job and the first organization that I've worked for. in which I genuinely look forward to going to work every

Uva: single day.

Dunn: day and that's a whole 'nother conversation we can have.

But my wife is pushing me to set boundaries and be held more. We could talk about [00:04:00] that. But I think for me, YouthBuild is a space in which we see the full humanity of our young people. And our programming is representative of both what they need. What they've asked for. And we approach them in a way in which we're doing the work not to them or for them, but with them.

And when you're working in young people in that way, the school community, the staff, all of the work that we're putting in, it feels different.

Uva: Mm hmm. Full humanity. Certainly I'll sit in that for a little while and I have a feeling that's going to inform much of our time together. I want to go back before, before youth build and talk a little bit more about you and get to know you and your leadership.

I think who we are often informs what we do, not only how, what we do, but how we do it. And when I was reading about you, a thread that I saw [00:05:00] consistently was that your passion for your work, and this was a direct quote in your bio, stems from your own experiences, which are in some ways similar to that of your students.

Can you share a little bit about your own origin story and its connection to your work?

Dunn: Yeah, I can. And, and the first thing I'll say is that there are many aspects to my origin story that, made me who I am today. And there are also aspects, which I'll briefly hit on that I'm still uncovering and that I'm still learning.

But I will share that grew up in Southeast Louisiana and I say Southeast because it's been a significant portion of my life in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. significant portion of my life in New Orleans. I claim New Orleans and there's lots of pride and heritage there. But I grew up in a single parent home, me and my sister.

My mom is a remarkable woman who went through incredible. odds and sacrifice so many things so [00:06:00] that my sister and I could exist and live and have. And on her days when she was the most tired, she made sure we did our homework. She made sure we were taken care of. I still laugh with my mom when we talk about I talk about the fact going back to the, to the 90s and how.

Starch was such a big thing and, you know, I could not sit down in the chair because my pants were so well starched.

But I think for me, as I grew up, I learned so many things. Experiencing Hurricane Katrina. It was one of the first times where I had like this critical awakening and like really stepped into my critical consciousness And I realized that across Louisiana Communities where black folks live black and brown folks Those communities were either without schools or young people were educated in trailers and mobile units for years after Hurricane Katrina Whereas in communities that were primarily folks who either had access to wealth and are white people, those [00:07:00] students were back in school two to three weeks, two to three months after Hurricane Katrina occurred.

And so, I remembered living through those moments. And I think for me, the older I got, I began to experience life in this very different way. One, I'm a six foot six, 325 pound black man. And so just by walking into the room, the way that people look at me and how they respond to me, I was dealing with that throughout my life and folks always assuming I was 20 years older than what I was.

Not having access to resources. I didn't realize until I was much older how truly poor my family was. Because there was so much love. There was so much love. But I did not have equitable access to opportunities. And so when I think back about folks who I grew up with, either in my family or who were in school systems or live in the same neighborhood, where I sit today and what I've been able to [00:08:00] accomplish and the people I can talk to and what I have access to is because I got lucky. I got lucky enough to find that teacher who wanted to mentor me. I got lucky enough to go to a school where I could participate in a mock trial competition. I got lucky enough to have a mentor who saw that I got opportunities to participate in internships when I was in college. But so many people didn't get those opportunities. And had I not got those opportunities, I would not be able to sit here today. And so when I think about the work that I do with young people, Young people want better for themselves, they want better for their communities, but young people don't have the opportunities and they don't get the support to be able to do the work that young people are passionate about.

And so for me, I feel like it's important to take the luck out of the equation. And so all young people should have opportunities to unearth who they are and what they want to [00:09:00] do. And I think for me, growing up and coming home and there were eviction notices on the door. I think for me growing up in food deserts.

I think for me growing up and not having access to mental health resources. Not being socialized to think.

That mental health was important and something that you should talk about. For me, I see those similarities in the young people that I serve now. And far too often, we expect young people to walk into schools Sit down, pick up a pencil, answer question number 24, but we don't see their full humanity.

We don't see what they've been through, and we're not willing to have those conversations. We're not willing to support them with what they need. But I think because of my lived experiences, I'm uniquely positioned to support them. The other thing that I'll say, and I talked about there is still some learning that's taking place.

And so for [00:10:00] me about eight months ago, I found out for the first time about my father in my adult life. And so for me growing up, if I walked by my father on the street, I would have no idea who he was. But as an adult who now had a wife, who had a a son, found out about my dad for the first time.

And by the time that I had found out about my dad, my dad had already passed away.

And it likely–I appreciate that–it was likely a combination between drug use and COVID And so i'll never meet my dad and there are questions that I can never ask and that void will always be there but I think for me knowing who your parents are, knowing your family history and lineage, that's a very big part of your origin story.

And I think for me as an adult who out now has a wife and kids and family and a job, I'm still figuring out that very big piece of me as I'm continuing to exist in the world.

Uva: We could probably have several episodes to just unpack so much of even this part of [00:11:00] the, of the conversation. I just appreciate your candor and everything that you've shared so far. I am seeing you in your very starched clothes provided by mom. What's mom's name?


Amina. Amina provided those starch clothes can definitely relate to that. And you know, I'm picking up on on this idea that though there were inequities in the spaces you occupied the one space where there was just an abundance of something. It was home. It was love, right? I'm wondering how that then Touches your work.

Talk about luck, Dunn, and YouthBuild and your work being a space where you know that you need to remove luck and really create a bridge, right? That really fortifies the experience in the journey. We can't leave this up to luck. In your own trajectory beyond these people who mentored you and who were there to help you.

How did you then [00:12:00] go from Amina's care to the position you are in today? How did knowing about these inequities, how did the experiences that you have create a pathway for you to see yourself in the position that you're in now? How did you, how did that journey begin?

Dunn: as I was beginning to have these moments of critical consciousness and we can talk about Hurricane Katrina, we can talk about in Baton Rouge at the time, I was a part of segregating schools and forced busing. And so I traveled two hours each way to get from home to school to participate in that process.

I begin to just like get angry at the world and the society. And so why didn't my school have the resources that other kids and other schools had? I also, as I went throughout high school, went to four different high schools. My mom was doing my mom was working all the time to keep the lights on. Not for us to go on vacations, but to keep lights on.

And so my mom didn't have a [00:13:00] significant amount of time to check up on me, make sure I was doing homework. And so I wasn't doing those things. But now that I reflect back on life, I don't think I just opted out of doing those things for the sake of opting out of doing those things, but I likely was navigating a lot of mental health issues, and I didn't know how to navigate it.

And I think for me, I felt the responsibility to be a good kid and not burden my mom with that. And so that meant I didn't talk to her about that. But by the time my mom found out where I was and how I was struggling, I was essentially not on track to graduate high school. And so we had to work through those pieces.

Got back on track, eventually graduated high school, but once I made it to college, I had another awakening. I started showing up, I was doing the things that I was told I was supposed to do when I was in high school, graduated, get to college, and I realized I could barely write an essay. How could I barely write an essay when I thought I was doing all the [00:14:00] things that I was supposed to do?

And so for me, that was another moment where I was very angry. First generation college student, PWI University, navigating this space by myself. And now I gotta figure out how to write essays? Why was there no one in all of my support systems to give me the heads up? Why weren't my English teachers telling me how I was actually performing?

And so I had those moments as well. And as I learned to write, and as I worked while I was in college, and as I graduated college, I had this passion that I wanted to be able to support folks who looked like me. Because along my journey, it was very rare that I saw people who looked like me,

and given the lived experiences that I have, the lived experiences that so many folks have and for folks like me who did not have access to immense wealth.

There often aren't champions who are consistently lifting up our [00:15:00] voices and what we need and then following through on those promises. And so for me immediately after college and while I was in college, I knew that I wanted to do work to impact my community. Like I knew that I wanted to do that. I started off working with non profit organizations that were connecting organizations to vacant and blighted properties in New Orleans post Katrina.

and during that work there were a lot of charter schools in New Orleans. And New Orleans has more charter schools than traditional schools, so that's a very, it's a unicorn in the country. But while doing that work, I got connected with an advocacy organization and I was able to help found one of the first charter schools in Washington state.

And from there and when I learned the power of charter schools and the power of having a unique individualized educational experience to meet the needs of students, I was hooked. I was hooked. And so this is work that I'm passionate about. And now with the work that I'm doing at youth build, [00:16:00] I feel like in the charter sector or just in schooling in general.

There are very good models of middle and, of middle and elementary schools. All across the country, folks are trying to figure out high schools. And how can we serve the population of young people that are in high school. And so I'm very energized about that work. And I think it's critical work to be doing to help modernize high schools and figure out models that work in high school settings, particularly for youth in urban settings.

Uva: Mm You touched on this as you were describing your experience your early experience in education and then a little bit later on in college and there being some anger there, right?

And probably some frustration around how you got there without some of those core competencies that you thought you had. How did you transition from that space of, I think, deserved anger, right, to a space of, not only agency for yourself, but advocacy for others eventually, but it feels like there was a bit of a transition there and how were you able to harness your [00:17:00] feelings particularly without having the space, right, to deal with mental health, to address whatever was happening with you more holistically, what clicked for you or who stepped in to help kind of... light that ember for you?

Dunn: For me, I think it was a combination of multiple things. I think one, I ultimately wanted to make my mom proud. I wanted to be able to take care of my mom also my grandmother. And the two, those two women sacrificed so much for me.

And so, for me, it was very much a passion that I never wanted my mom or grandmother, one, to have to take care of me or to have to want for anything in life. And now I'm not talking about, I'm not buying my mom a Porsche because I'm an educator, but I never wanted her to have to worry about how she was going to pay her rent again.

I also felt such a significant responsibility to my family and my community. When I think about my cousins, when I think about my friends, the folks who had opportunities and the folks who didn't. I both felt the responsibility to, project like this honor on my [00:18:00] family, but I also felt the responsibility to some of my younger cousins to show them that , you can do this if this is what you want to do.

I remember growing up and so I mentioned luck and there was a lot of luck because I found out why myself in the right places with the right people who are willing to so into me. But I also remember there was an investment from my family or some folks who lived in the neighborhood.

Growing up there would be moments where whether or not it was my cousins or friends, they would get into cars and they would go and do things, and I wasn't allowed to go.

My cousins or my friends did. And my assumption was I didn't fit in, or that they didn't like me. But now going to therapy, now addressing my mental health and working through those things I now know and I can reflect back and look back, they were protecting me.

Because they were doing things that they didn't want me to be a part of because they wanted me to be able to have the option to go to school and not get into trouble go to jail and all those different things. And so [00:19:00] when I think about my mom, my grandmother The sense of responsibility to my family, the sense of gratitude for those moments where folks looked out for me and said, Nope, we are not going to let you get into this car.

And just out of a desire to just want to do better for the community in the world. There was just both like this curiosity, this passion, this anger, that's just a part of me and it's how I show up every day.

Uva: Mm hmm. I'm thinking about that protection that you spoke of as a form of leadership in its own right, right? And clearly there were, there were leaders in your life.

Your mom, Amina, Miss Amina grandma, and, and I'm sure many others. Beyond them, beyond family who would you say was your first model of professional leadership?

Dunn: I'd say my first model of professional leadership, I talk to him probably once a year His name is Professor Russell Jones and he was a former professor and vice chancellor at Southern University Law [00:20:00] School in Baton Rouge.

And he was my former mock trial coach. he was one, like, a very, a very sharp man. And so I think for me, very rarely did I see a black man in leadership. But he also had like this charm and this poise and like he carried his self in a way in which he was authentically him. And

He had this tone around him of like, I want to be me. I'm going to be unapologetically black and I am probably the most well educated person in this room. So try me if you want. And for me, I didn't see many examples of that. And so I gravitated to him. And he was one of the people that looked out for me.

He invested in me and spent the time pro bono coaching this mock trial team. The mock trial team ultimately went on to win state. He was also my mentor. who connected me to my first internship when I was in college. And my first internship, I was making 25 an hour. Like I was making more money in college than some of my family members.

And [00:21:00] I was like, what? And I think for me, that also taught me the power of community and connectedness.

But going back to that sense of responsibility, what he did for me and how he looked out for me, I felt that it was my responsibility to pay that forward for as many young people as

Uva: You are touching on intersectionality, right? You've touched on how your, identity, your gender, your race socioeconomic background, all ethnicity, culture, et cetera, how all of that has also informed your leadership and your work. How does operating in the fullness of your identity inform and impact your leadership today?

Dunn: I think for me, first and foremost I am unapologetic in what I feel is in the best interest of young people.

I feel far too often in educational spaces and or in [00:22:00] spaces in which folks are in positions to positively impact the lives of youth. We don't always make decisions that are in the best interests of young people And so I think when I think about my lived experiences, When I think about at youth Build the fact that we have young people with us for one year, I'm not wasting that opportunity.

We're not going to have staff members who are here to only collect paychecks and are not invested in the youth. And so I think for me I'm unapologetic in the pursuit of options and outcomes for young people. I also think for me when I was growing up I started to learn in high school and in college, that having a close proximity to whiteness was how I could find success.

And so that impacted the ways in which I showed up because I wanted to find success. And I wanted to become an administrator. And I think for me now, after going through counseling, after having several administrative [00:23:00] jobs I'm now in a place. in which I don't subscribe to those notions. I don't subscribe to white male dominated culture.

And I believe that in seeing the full humanity of our young people. We need to recognize the differences in culture and language and interests and how all those things manifest and how they all show up. And when I think about some of the challenges, particularly in high school settings and when I think about, for example, when I was growing up I talked too much.

And I wasn't supposed to talk so much in school but now I get paid to talk to people. And so when I think about How are school settings designed to support young people in their full humanity and bring about what they are interested in, what's naturally instilled in them, versus like punishing them and forcing young people to align with white male dominated culture or to align with this narrowly defined box of success?

I don't [00:24:00] subscribe to that. And I think I find a lot of, I find a lot of joy in creating environments in which Young people and staff members can show up and be their authentic selves and have their full humanity seen.

Uva: For anyone who's had an opportunity to step into YouthBuild space, it's electric.

There is a, a transformative, I think experience that, that naturally happens. What would you say is the sweet sauce? What happens At YouthBuild, that makes makes young people feel welcome, gives people, young people an opportunity to feel like this is space where they belong. What is it about your, your work, your curriculum, your own leadership, and that of your team, that makes that happen?

Dunn: At YouthBuild, young people have a seat at the table every step of the way. By telling us what they're interested in, by telling us what they want their programming to look like. By driving what their post secondary options are going to be. So you tell us where you want to go, [00:25:00] and as long as you're committing to doing the work, we'll help you get there.

We create a space in which it's joyful from the first second you walk through the door to the second that you leave. We create a space in which young people have multiple modalities to engage with themselves and staff members for support and resources. And we also we create a space where we're just real.

And I still get, YouthBuild is a very powerful organization and amazing work is taking place. Both the work that I've done over the last year and a half and the work that's been done over our 32 years as an organization. But when we bring people in to see the work that we're doing. I always randomly pull a group of students and I'll ask students to tell us what are the great things taking place here.

And I'll ask students like, what do we need to improve?

And every time I ask that question, I get incredibly nervous because I never know what's going to be said and it's not rehearsed. And almost every time we ask that question to [00:26:00] students, they either say nothing or they say improve the lunch.

I can live with improving the lunch.

I'm working on it.

But for me, I think that speaks volumes. Young people look forward to coming to school. And honestly, I think the secret sauce is recognizing their full humanity. That's the secret sauce.

Uva: Most of us can agree we just live in very divided times and I think when we consider generational divides We have a tendency to kind of look down on young people regrettably and not understand their full humanity as you, you touched on.

For those who are, this is a time when we have quite a few generations, I think up to five generations in the workplace at once. What would you what would you share as reminders for those of us who want to leverage the insights that young people bring to the table, the joy they can bring to the table, the fresh perspective they can bring to the table.

What do we, what [00:27:00] should old schoolers, if you will, keep in mind in this multi generational workforce environment?

Dunn: I would encourage empathy. understanding and a desire to learn. One of the things that I tell my staff frequently is that while I, while I did grow up poor in Southeast Louisiana, growing up poor in Southeast Louisiana at the time that I did versus young people who live in North Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia in 2024, while there are similarities, it's vastly different.

And so I can't show up assuming that I've experienced everything that our students are experiencing. And so there's a, there's an acknowledgement of that and it's being willing to learn. I was just talking about I was just talking with my staff from the perspective of The generation of young people that we are educating right now, they cannot imagine a world without internet.[00:28:00]

When internet was invented in my time, in my lifetime, and so I, I knew a world in which you couldn't click on Google and everything wasn't at your fingertips. Now young people don't know that. But I think young people are brilliant. And I, I also think young people are often left out of conversations.

That are deeply that will deeply impact them. And ultimately, across America we got a crisis with young people. And no one's inviting young people to the table and we don't have any solid solutions and we're sticking band aids on it. But I think young people are poised to be a solution to many of the challenges that we're facing.

But we gotta slow down and practice empathy. We practice understanding and be willing to learn and push our thinking and our views.

Uva: Earlier, you also touched on your mentors and allies, I think who were with you from the very beginning. I use, I'm using the word allies, but I'll defer to you [00:29:00] on, on what you experienced. How have these concepts of, of mentorship, of sponsorship, and even allyship supported your work along the way?

And how are you thinking about it as you are becoming the more senior person in some of the spaces you occupy.

Dunn: Still, to this day there are people who are family, who are friends, who are colleagues who support me in various ways.

And while I do look forward to going to work every single day, There are some exceptionally hard days. And that could be a loss of funding. That could be the tragic loss of a, the young person's life. Or I am navigating a space in which there is immense privilege or microaggressions or whatever that may be.

Those days are hard. But my, my support system, my village. They allow me and they support me to make sure that I can keep [00:30:00] showing up every single day. And when I think about my work now in this role of CEO it's not my role to just make change. It's my role to sustain change. And in order to sustain change, I have to be there and I have to be a part of that work.

And so I see it as my role to do that. And when I think about how that impacts my work, particularly at YouthBuild and with young people.

far too many young people. don't have access to adults who are able to be a listening ear and provide sound advice. And I text probably every single day, 30 to 40 different young people.

Everything from good morning, from I'm looking for you at school. I hope you have a great day. Make great decisions today because those small micro moments, they matter and they add up. And I think people often lose sight. That just because you got 25 different people telling you good morning, have a good day, how can I support you?

There are [00:31:00] people who walk through life and they don't get that. And when you're able to infuse those moments in students lives, that's also a part of why they look forward to coming to school the next day. That's also how they get to work through those difficult moments in their lives. Because of that encourage, because somebody's willing to allow, to be their sounding board, etc.

Uva: I appreciate the distinction that I think you're making around just the dynamic that we tend to have, we sometimes have with with younger generations, where we see ourselves as guides, right?

We want to impart wisdom, or what we perceive to be wisdom, rather than I think stepping into conversations, just ready to listen, right? Just welcoming, just greeting all the things that you mentioned. What would your advice be for those of us who want to continue to be, I think, in stronger and more meaningful relationships with younger people?

Dunn: I would say as someone who started going to therapy just over a year ago. That my first thought would [00:32:00] be that anyone who is planning or hoping to connect with, build relationships with young people and or anyone who is hoping to be a dynamic leader. You first have to know yourself. You first have to know yourself.

And I thought I knew myself. I thought I knew myself. But going to therapy has really helped me get to know myself. And I'm probably I'm probably still on a two to three year journey to like really unpack and get some things out there. Because I think young people, or people in general, when you are showing up and you are attempting to connect with them, and you are not sitting in your full humanity, and you don't know who you fully are, You are starting off with a gap that you are not going to be able to bridge.

And so I would say first it's just really knowing who you are and that is, that's difficult work. I can personally attest to that and I'm still on that journey. I also think a lot about To the point that you made far too [00:33:00] often, we try to impose our values and our beliefs on young people are just in leadership in general.

And I think both there is an obligation to listen. I think there is an obligation to ask questions. And I think when you are engaging with folks if you're being a good listener, if you're being a good thought partner, you're helping them understand if they support and buy into what they're saying, and is that aligned with their values and their beliefs.

But we're not telling them what our values and beliefs are and how that aligns with us. We're helping them understand if it aligns with who they want to be.

Uva: A check in is important. I think I'd be remiss if I didn't come back to this, this theme of just mental health and therapy, which you've, you've touched on several times.

And I think it's, it's critically important for all of us. What brought you, you mentioned you started therapy eight months ago ish. What finally got you there?

Dunn: [00:34:00] It was a lot for me. When I was the principal at Gratz I lost 25 young people to gun violence. And that's the young people I lost.

That's not the young people who are impacted and survived. I became a father during the pandemic. I was a high school principal during the pandemic. I found out the news about my dad and my dad's side of the family. I was also just navigating. my own upbringing, how that impacts me, what it takes to just navigate the world as a black man and to lead as a black man, and so often feel like my full humanity is not being seen.

And I got, I got to a point in which I was deeply contemplating leaving this work. And I said to myself, you know, maybe I should just go work for a management consulting firm and like, that's just going to be who I'm [00:35:00] going to be. And while that seems like a practical solution, I didn't feel deeply invested in that.

Like I was willing to do that. I was thinking about doing it, but not in a way in which that's what I, what my heart wanted me to and I also felt myself getting to a space in which I was starting to isolate from my friends, my community. And I think, you know, that was definitely a sign that I was probably like a very depressed man.

And I, I often went through life particularly while I was a principal, just on autopilot. Like I would show up, had a staff of 125, and I just did what y'all needed me to do. I had 1, 200 students. But I knew, I knew that I could have a greater impact if I was able to figure all of that out. And I, I also the older I get when I think about just like the health of black men when I look at Joanne Epps at at Temple.

I'm now also acutely [00:36:00] aware of the impacts of just mental health.

What your body is thinking and how it's feeling and so for all of those reasons I decided I had to figure out something because at some point something was going to give but I wanted to be in control of it

Uva: you mentioned Joanne Epps from Temple University, who we lost last year

In this moment where we are having what I think is a crisis in leadership with, with our black leaders, right?

We are seeing a host of, of things happening with Black leaders across the board, certainly with Black women in leadership. And I think there's a different conversation happening, not intra community, because it's been there. We have been talking about the weight of leadership on Black bodies and Black minds.

But because of some more public events, that lid has been, there's been a kind of a lid, unlidding, right, of, of these more internal conversations. As a black man in leadership in this [00:37:00] moment, what do you think is important for the world to know about the weight of leadership on, if we can't speak for all bodies at least, from your perspective your body?

Dunn: That's an important question. I'm thinking, and there's, there's lots of different places there's lots of different places I can go and I think I'm just going to talk about my experience. And so as a black man not only am I carrying the weight of what it is to be a black man in society, not only am I the father of a black son and helping to support and shape him and how he navigates society and how that plays out.

Not only do I have all my own lived experiences and I'm working to unpack some of my lived experiences right now actively as we speak. And I'm carrying the weight of my [00:38:00] family who many of them live in communities in which there's a lot of oppression and marginalization and the outright blatant racism.

And then in the professional setting, I have a unique connection and shared lived experiences with our core constituencies and stakeholders. And I, I recently in a professional setting I was looking at the handbook for the organization. And the handbook said that pants must be worn around the waist.

And I looked at everyone around the table and I said, Who, who is this this room for?

I looked,

I looked around the


like it's not for you, white man.

Y'all wrote this in the handbook for people who look like me, and so it's very hard. It can feel isolating and lonely. I've also experienced being a black man in education and leadership.[00:39:00]

Far too often, I've been invited to sit at tables for the convenience of other people. And for the first time in my career late in my career, I now feel like I'm in control and I'm choosing which tables I want to sit at. But I didn't even realize, right? Because Wow! You want me to sit at this table?

Thank you. But you wanted me to do the thing that you weren't capable of doing, but people would allow me to do that thing because of my lived experiences. But yet and all, you weren't willing to compensate me for doing that thing and you went home and were able to be fully present and visible for your family.

But I'm stressed out staring at a wall wondering how I'm the night and show back up to work the next day.

And so, It angers me. It frustrates me. I continue to double down and anchor on my values, on my village because as difficult as it is, and how frequently I think about just leaving the [00:40:00] work, I'm deeply connected and committed to young people, to having impact in the community, because I've seen what's possible when we do it.

But I often tell my executive team that the work is educating young people. Like, that's the The work is not figuring out team dynamics. Like, we don't come to work to figure out how we gonna work together. That's not negotiable. We gonna do that. The work is helping young people navigate this crazy world. And far too often in society and organizations, the work becomes amongst the people instead of what we're actually trying to do.

Uva: This is one of those moments, Dunn, where I wish that those who will listen to this Could have the opportunity to also have the visual, right, as you were describing your experience. I could see the, the weight of it is, is, is visible, is palpable but at the same time, every time you mentioned young people, there is a smile, right?

There's just a smile that comes across your [00:41:00] face. And so I want to lift that as well and pull on that string. Despite how difficult so much of this is unnecessarily so. What brings you joy? How do you get anchored in joy as well?

Dunn: I recently took a group of young people to visit a foundry and they saw a bronzing process.

And And at one point, I looked over and every single student, it was about 12 students, every single student had their cell phone in their hands and they were taking pictures or they were videoing because they were mesmerized by the process. And when I think about actively being a part of the lives of young people, exposing them to new opportunities and things and cultures because we travel with our young people as well, being their support system, allowing them to ask questions, creating a [00:42:00] sandbox to which they can try things out.

How do you ask for help? How do you communicate that you're angry? And we can do this in a way in which we can learn. You can test your boundaries. You can't test your boundaries in the community, right? You can't test your boundaries on the street. But at YouthBuild, we can test your boundaries. We're gonna work on this together.

I'm gonna give you some feedback sometimes. But being to have those moments with young people and see them light up, see them feel loved, see them say, I can see myself doing this profession. To hear young people say, I don't want to leave Philadelphia because I want to be a part of changing my community.

Like for me, if I had nothing else besides my family and these experiences with young people, I'd be a happy man.

Uva: One of the things that you talked about a little bit earlier and actually at the top of our conversation was that it's the first time you are in a role in a position where you look forward to going in every day, despite, you [00:43:00] know, the, some of the challenges and that your wife reminds you of, you know, I'm sure your, your wife has some thoughts about that, right?

Why don't you want to spend so much time at work? So boundaries

Dunn: She said, what

Uva: up for me.

Dunn: podcast? Are you sure you're going to talk on this podcast? Yeah,

Uva: I love it. I can appreciate it. So we'll get you out of here on time as well. Boundaries. How do you create boundaries that are, I think, respectful, mindful of what matters most? So work matters. Yes, but As a human being with a family, a village, and so many of the other things we mentioned, how do you create boundaries that allow you to still show up in the fullness of your leadership and still allow you to have a full life?

Dunn: I remain particularly for my family, and so my family's in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, my wife's family in Chicago and so we don't have any family in Philly. And for me, time with my family is critically important. My job is crazy, it's busy, but three times a week, I take my [00:44:00] son to school. And that means that sometimes I have to miss a meeting, or sometimes somebody has to take notes for me.

But for me, that's a commitment. And me and my son, we go to the bakery. Without fail, he gets a chocolate croissant. he wipes it all over my clothes.

Without fail, I have to go home and change. But that's routine for me, and I'm committed to doing that. I'm also really present with my family in the evenings and we take trips together.

And for me, those moments also helped me to re ground myself and re center myself. Because I'm no good if I'm showing up to work and my cup is empty. And I'll also say my partner is just incredibly patient and understanding and committed because I spend a lot of time. And what, one of the things that I'm working through in therapy and I'm in terms of like being present, there would be times where I would be at home and I would be with my son and my wife.

But my brain was racing around all the things I needed to do or what the impact I could have if I just did these six things.

And so even though I was [00:45:00] sitting in the room, I was not fully present. And so I'm doing a lot of work around being fully present. And when I'm with my family, I am with my family.

And that's taken a lot of intentionality and practice.

But I think for me, just being really present with my family. And I will say in this work. You can't really turn it I can't have a young person reach out to me and not be available. Because I'm committed to doing that. And when, I believe it's important that with young people.

I'm not saying that you can't set boundaries. But whatever you have committed to doing, you've got to see that promise through because so many young people have had promises made that haven't been followed through. And so for the group of young people that I work most closely with and that I personally support I do have to make time to be available and be consistent for them.

And so I do a lot of multitasking, a lot of juggling but it works

Uva: It's



Mm hmm. What would you say is your highest aspiration not only for the work you do at YouthBuild, but in the context [00:46:00] of just the work you do more broadly, your highest aspiration?

Should your son sit across from someone, I don't know, 10 years from now and have an opportunity to talk about the impact you've had at YouthBuild and in the field? What would you want to have him say about that?

Dunn: I'd want to take the luck out of life and out of education. I had a moment with my son recently. And this is a whole nother conversation we could have, but my son attends a private school. And I also recognize that based off of where I am now in the position that I hold, my wife and I are able to do that.

But I had a moment with my son the other day in which he asked the question, he said, dad, what's that? And I said, that's a school. And he said, why doesn't that school look like my school? And he's three years old. And you and I know that school don't look like the other school for lots of reasons.

And it ain't just money, but for lots of


Uva: can see the school already.

Dunn: And I didn't know, like, I didn't, I didn't know how to describe. That's a great question. And how do I describe that to a two or three year old? [00:47:00] Because it doesn't make sense. I couldn't make it make sense even for a three year old because it doesn't make sense why all schools don't look the same and have the same things and so I think for me using that example It's taking the luck out of young people's lives and making sure that young people have opportunities to fully thrive

Uva: As we are coming to a close, we want to make sure you get home on time, you know, respect those boundaries. I want to ask just a few questions. One, what are you reading? What are you listening to? What would you recommend for others that might be helpful? And this could be about relevant to the work you do or, or beyond.

What's, what's anchoring you and feeding you? It could also be something you would just

Dunn: So in terms of what am I reading, and I

Uva: as

Dunn: opened Spotify because I'm listening and I'm and not reading. Um, but what I'm listening to right now, um, there is a, um, self health book that I'm reading that I'm and it's called [00:48:00] _Care for Black Men: 100 Ways to Heal and Liberate_. Um, and so that's one thing I'm listening to. I'm also listening to The _Ache_ by Courtney B. Vance, and it's black men identifying their pain and reclaiming their power in his voice, and that's great. Um, and then for fun, I'm also listening to, uh, Leslie F ing And so, narrated by Leslie Jones Rock. And then for music, love everything Neosoul. stuck

in the 90s and 2000s. I don't want anything else. I'm

proud of it.

Neosoul. Neosoul I'm

Uva: stuck

Dunn: but that's what I like.

Uva: tired of it. That's all And you're in Philly, so, you know, that, that helps out as well. Love it. Love it. We're going to make sure we add those resources to this episode. I'll ask you to finish these prompts as we close out with a word or two or more, if you'd like.

Education is.

Dunn: Education is a tool to liberate young people.

Uva: I am grateful for.

Dunn: I'm grateful for my health, my [00:49:00] family, my peace um, my school community at YouthBuild.

Uva: I am paying attention to.

Dunn: I'm paying attention to my health. I'm paying attention to my aging family.

I'm paying attention to my three year old son.

Uva: I am learning that

Dunn: I am learning that everything is not in my locus of control. I am learning patience. I am learning to love myself. I'm learning to slow down. I'm learning to slow down

Uva: And finally, I am optimistic about,

Dunn: I am optimistic about our future because of young people

Uva: I think I'm even more optimistic about them after this conversation done. I am beyond grateful to you. Thank you so much for coming in, spending some time with us with our wellspring. Thank you.

Dunn: Appreciate the opportunity to participate in this conversation. [00:50:00]

Taking Luck Out of the Equation
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