Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation

Young Men at Risk

Transforming the Power of a Generation

Competition Information

Competition News

Voting is closed and the winners are announced below. The three winners will receive the prize of US $5,000 and all competition finalists will attend the Young Men at Risk Change Summit hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Please continue the community discussion and collaboration.

Welcome Letter

Dear Changemakers Community,

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is partnering with Changemakers to sponsor the competition "Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation." RWJF's mission is to improve the health and health care of all Americans. Our grant making covers a range of pressing issues, a large portion of which is devoted to increasing diversity in the health care profession, reducing disparities, and improving the health of disadvantaged populations. We are pleased to partner with Changemakers for this competition that represents a problem confronting countries worldwide. Local solutions need to be shared globally to achieve greatest impact.

The well-being of families, communities, and our nation are inextricably linked with the future well-being of young men at risk. Young men of color constitute more than 40 percent of American males under the age of 25, and at least half of them live in poverty. This is a large portion of the U.S. population we simply cannot let fall to the wayside. Yet, for nearly every measure of life outcomes-income, education, incarceration, health-young men of color are less likely to reach their full potential and contribute to society. They suffer disproportionately from the societal ills of gangs, addiction, crime, violence, accidental deaths, and increasingly, mental health problems. While they are held accountable as individuals for making poor choices, the institutions intended to improve their outcomes-the public education system, the private sector job market, the juvenile justice system, and myriad of public and private health and human service programs-are not. It is not surprising that many may feel that society has not only isolated them but also actively disinvested in them as a generation. As a result, these youth behave seemingly devoid of accountability, but may simply be mirroring how society and its institutions treat them. Further, this phenomenon is not unique to the United States, but is prevalent in many societies across the globe.

With this competition, RWJF is seeking to identify solutions and approaches that go beyond targeting the at-risk individual. Following the competition, selected entries will be invited to submit proposals to RWJF's Vulnerable Populations Portfolio for future funding consideration. A total of up to $1 million in grants is available to support promising innovations. Organizations must operate in the U.S. or its territories in order to be eligible for RWJF funding.

John Govea

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


Welcome Letter

Dear Changemakers Community,

Ashoka Changemakers is delighted to be partnering with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to launch a collaborative competition on "Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation". This competition is aimed at identifying the most innovative approaches to helping a generation of young people around the world fulfill their potential and become healthy, successful adults. While addressing the entire pattern of changes required for a shift, a major focus of this competition is reducing health disparities, and improving the health of disadvantaged populations.

We know that to be young and poor in today's society is to be at risk: at risk of missing out on a quality education; at risk of not having access to quality health care; and at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Young men in particular face challenges that few of our existing public and private institutions have successfully addressed. In order to help a generation of young men navigate their way to a successful and healthy adulthood, we believe that it will take the collaborative efforts of leaders working on innovations in areas ranging from music to mental health. Through this competition, we seek to identify those innovators who have proven strategies for transforming the future for a generation of young men by identifying the main social levers that will enable this transformation.

We invite you to participate in this unique competition by sharing your innovative approach to working with young men at risk between the ages of 15 and 25. Some examples have been mapped in Ashoka Changemakers Mosaic of Solutions - an overall framework of innovation for the field - that your insights will enrich. The competition offers you the opportunity to showcase your work to major investors, decision-makers, media and peers worldwide, and it provides RWJF and other funders and thought leaders with a uniquely valuable and rich opportunity to learn about promising innovation taking place around the world.

By visiting the online review option that accompanies each entry, you may share your thoughts, insights, expertise and reactions throughout the competition, and ask the innovator community any questions that you need answered - to grow your own change.

Thank you for joining us in this effort and we look forward to participating with you in an active, dynamic exchange of ideas.

Ashoka Changemakers Team

Welcome to the Changemakers “Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation” Collaborative Competition.

Eligibility Criteria

The competition will be open to all types of organizations (charitable organizations, private companies, or public entities) from all countries. We consider all entries that:

    • Reflect the theme of the competition: Young Men at Risk. This competition is aimed at identifying the most innovative approaches to helping a generation of young people around the world fulfill their potential and become healthy, successful adults.
    • Entries are invited from organizations in all countries.
    • We are looking for innovations that are beyond the idea stage.
    • Entries must be submitted in English or in Spanish and be complete.

Assessment Criteria

The winners of this Changemakers Collaborative Competition will be those entries that best meet the following criteria:

    Innovation: This is the knock-out test. The blueprint must clearly describe how the innovation reflects the ability to systemically transform the situation young men are in. The entry should be very explicit about how it helps young men realize their highest potential.
    Social Impact: It is important that the innovation has already begun to have an impact on the field it addresses. Some innovations will have proven success at a small level, while others will have scaled to engage millions of people. Regardless of the level of demonstrated impact, it is important to see that the innovation has the ability to affect the world and not just one village. This will be judged by considering the scale strategy, ability to be replicated, clear how-tos, and a clear description of how you plan to scale up the work.
    Sustainability: For an innovation to be truly effective it must have a plan for how it will acquire financial and other bases of support for the long-term. Entries should describe not only how they are currently financing their work, but how they plan to finance their work in the future. Go beyond describing whether you charge or not for your services, and describe your business plan. Is there a clear financial plan in place? If so, please share as much as you are comfortable disclosing.

Competition Deadlines, Procedures, and Rules

The phases in the competition are:

    Entry Stage – November 7 to January 23, 2008: Entries can be submitted until 6 pm Eastern US time on January 23, 2008. Online review and discussion can go on during this entire entry period. Entrants are strongly encouraged to consider feedback and edit and revise their blueprint throughout the entry period.
    Online Review and Judging – January 24 to February 25, 2008: Online review and discussion continues. The Young Men at Risk judging panel will select 7 to 15 finalists from the entry pool.
    Voting – February 26 to March 11, 2008: The Changemakers community votes online to select the three award winners from the field of finalists. The voting period will end at 6:00 EST on March 11, 2008.
    Winners Announced – March 11, 2008: The three finalists that receive the most votes will each receive a cash prize of US $5,000.

Participating in the competition provides the chance to receive feedback on your blueprint from fellow entrants, Changemakers staff, judges and the Changemakers community. Showcasing your blueprint and the challenges involved in creating social impact advises potential investors about how best to change funding/investing patterns for the sector and to maximize the strategic impact and effectiveness of their future investments.

Disclaimer—Compliance with Legal Restrictions

Ashoka complies fully with all U.S. laws and regulations, including Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations, export control, and anti-money laundering laws. All grants will be awarded subject to compliance with such laws. Ashoka will not make any grant if it finds that to do so would be unlawful. This may prohibit awards in certain countries and/or to certain individuals or entities. All recipients will comply with these laws to the extent they are applicable to such recipients. No recipient will take any action that would cause Ashoka to violate any laws. Additionally, Ashoka will not make any grant to a company involved in the promotion of tobacco use.

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Discovery Framework

Young Men at Risk:

Transforming the Power of a Generation

To be young and poor in today's society is to be at risk. Young men in particular suffer disproportionately from the disconnect between what society expects of them and what their environment can offer. Our public institutions often fail young men - low-quality schooling tracks youth into unequal occupations; then unstable and low-wage employment exacerbates that inequality, which magnifies the risk of drugs, violence, and crime, prompting society to react with punishment.

Thus, many young men are caught in a vicious cycle of inequality, instability, and institutionalization. The result is anger and disengagement and a lost generation of human capital.

But what if the public and private sectors focused on investing in the human capital represented by these youth? What if we focused on changing the trajectory for a generation of youth as a way to tip the balance of violence and despair in so many communities? What will lead schools, employers, law enforcement, and funders of numerous well-meaning programs to embrace a collective responsibility toward the health and well-being of young men in our society? And how do we bring forth these youth as the change agents of their own futures?

Some of the entrepreneurs listed in the mosaic have taken the first steps toward enlisting these institutions as allies, rather than treating them as bureaucratic hurdles or agents of failure. They have re-imagined the way their society works, and created programs and systems that break down old thinking and create unique partnerships with positive influencers. Companies such as DeBeers in Botswana, Volkswagen in Brazil, and Eskom in South Africa, are investing in curbing risky behaviors to protect not only their workforce, but also their bottom line. Others, such as Cemex's housing construction loans in Mexico, are investing in, literally, building opportunities. Such "unlikely allies," as Ashoka fellow Van Jones calls them, are those who regardless of ideology or class will not accept inequality and institutionalization as inevitable.

We ask the entrepreneurs for this competition to help re-frame the conversation about young men at risk, from one of achieving the potential of one individual at a time to one of realizing the potential power of a generation of young men to develop successful adult lives.

(Barriers and Principles are organized in order of implementation/occurrence.)

Innovation Principle:
Create Communities 
that Foster 
Successful Adulthoods 

Main Barriers to Engagement & Fulfilling Potential:

Low self-value and stability leads to risky choices
Individual/behavioral level
Young men's missing voices and input leads to disconnection and failed policies
Individual and systems level

Culture/environment of conflict exposes and enlists young men in violence
Individual and systems level
Market failures and shakeups displace young men's opportunities
Systems/structural level
Culture of no accountability: Neither society nor men at risk act accountable to each other
Cumulative effect

Create stability and safety without condescension or judgment

Sara Diestro, Peru
Creates boys' soccer clubs paired with health checkups, nutrition monitoring, school attendance conditions, and guidance sessions about discipline, honesty and respect. Sports focus attracts and involves fathers, steers boys away from crime.

Jeroo Bilimoria, India
Childline is a helpline staffed by and for street children who tap their peers' advice for handling threatening police or other encounters. Marginalized boys gain legitimacy and community.

Homeboy Industries, USA
Train and employs former gang members combined with peer and adult counseling.

*Precious Emuele, Nigeria
Diffuses tension around resource distribution by committing young men and employers to each other. Trains young men to work for, or create businesses that appeal to, international investors in oil-rich communities. Works with transnational firms to secure jobs for young men with proven experience and stability.


Award responsibility with support

Jorge Lyra, Brazil
Creates boys' soccer clubs paired with health checkups, nutrition monitoring, school attendance conditions, and guidance sessions about discipline, honesty and respect. Sports focus attracts and involves fathers, steers boys away from crime.

*Cemex & Accion, Mexico
Private/NGO partnership offers housing construction loans for migrant fathers to direct remittances toward building homes for their family. Construction also helps bring jobs to young men in unstable towns.

Van Jones, USA
Turns culture of violence on its head by giving urban youth a voice to change the punitive legal and justice system through civilian reviews of police conduct and lawyer referral services.

*Reciclar, Brazil
Trains youth in Sao Paolo slums to excel in school and recycle paper. Brazil's biggest companies buy their high-quality paper products, and sales revenues are invested in Reciclar and paid to youth participants.


Create credible choices and opportunities

*Debswana, Botswana
Recognizing that its migrant male diamond miners are at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, the public/ private partnership subsidizes 90% of HIV prevention education and treatment, as well as family support. Requires sub-contractors to follow suit.



David Domenici, USA
Charter school that recruits kids from jail, foster care, drop-out programs and other institutions, and provides job and tech training, counseling, and rigorous academics to prepare them for college and work.

Laxman Singh, India
Trains rural youth to design and implement locale-specific blueprints for water conservation in drought-prone districts of Rajasthan. Validates tribal traditions, thereby eliminating privilege of formal education or caste. Success of techniques wins young men support and status.

Unleash creativity that channels experiences of risk and vulnerability toward leadership



Adam Rusilowski, Poland
Treats troubled youth as leaders and uses media as a means, not an end. Youth-led theater and media productions tackle social issues and team affluent with marginalized youth to address persistent violence.

Marvin Hall, USA
Captures imagination of at-risk urban youth in developing countries through robotics workshops and competitions where he instills critical science skills and kids showcase their creative talent.


Change surrounding cultures to create a society that values and enriches young people's transition to adulthood


Lesley Ann Van Selm, South Africa
Youth rehab and reintegration program begins while in prison. Run by ex-offenders, it is shaped, vetted, and critiqued by the inmates themselves. Focus is on increasing emotional maturity and decreasing recidivism.

Denis Mizne, Brazil
Instituto Sou da Paz
engages young people in self-monitoring gun violence in their communities and works through regional partnerships to fight the black market arms trade.

Souleymane Sarr, Mali
Teams unemployed university graduates with unemployed street children to create micro-enterprises. Trains them in artisan techniques, without the stifling apprenticeship process. Tackles unemployment as key risk issue. Eliminates class barriers by making formal and informal education equally valuable.


* Corporate partnership


  • Low self-value and stability leads to risky choices (Individual/behavioral level): Young people, particularly those living in poverty, may not have enough stability to know where they will live tomorrow, let alone where their next meal will come from. Such uncertainty often can lead young people to disengage or disinvest in building relationships, setting goals or committing to choices that will benefit them in the long run. Young people may not believe in their own potential to lead a different life than what they witness. As a result, young men in particular may begin unsafe sexual relationships, or join gangs to feel a sense of belonging. Suicide is disproportionately high among young men around the world. To be sure, young people need to take responsibility for their self-esteem. But a social structure that promotes and rewards risky behavior also needs to change.
  • Young men's missing voices and input leads to disconnection and failed policies (Individual and systems level): Over the past 10-15 years, policies intended to address young men have only further marginalized them. A few examples include: punitive fines for crimes involving low-income men, increasing institutionalization of young men in foster care or the corrections system, and welfare policies that either ignored or penalized poor fathers. Worse, this dismantling of the opportunity structure occurred in many countries with very little input from men. As a result, neither the public policy nor private sector community represents the constituency of young low-income men and thus excludes their voices from vital decisions. In particular, the disenfranchisement of the growing number of incarcerated men ignores those who most need society's support.
  • Culture/environment of conflict exposes and enlists young men in violence (Individual and systems level): The growing duration and intensity of international, civil and local conflict has affected young men in particular. Recruited as soldiers, many die young in international conflicts. Recruited into gangs, many lead a life of instability, if not crime. With no other sense of mission or no other demands made of young men, they may find themselves continuing a cycle of violence they hoped to leave behind.
  • Market failures and shakeups displace young men's opportunities (Systems/structural level): The changing global economy has either eliminated manufacturing jobs once occupied by men or forced men to migrate and separate from their families in order to keep working. These changes can ripple through communities, creating unintended tensions as young men compete with their more experienced elders, or immigrants compete with young men for the few jobs remaining. Meanwhile, because of the growing research favoring women as productive users and consumers of credit, loans and subsidies, many public, private and citizen-sector programs effectively exclude men from the creation of a new opportunity structure.
  • Culture of no accountability: Neither society nor men at risk act accountable to each other (Cumulative effect): The accumulated effect of the previous barriers is a problem of perception and action. Young men see a system that rejects, isolates, and disinvests in them. Society sees a cohort or group that seeks risk and whose choices hurt themselves and those around them. Thus, neither young men nor society behaves with accountability to each other, reinforcing the perception that the other does not warrant their time or understanding. This culture of missing accountability creates a roadblock that stalls policy discussions and a sort of prisoners' dilemma in which neither party is willing to trust the other.

Innovation Principle: Create Communities of Enrichment that Foster Successful Adulthoods

We present these principles roughly in the order that successful programs implement them. The idea is that a single program may evolve through these phases with the young people they address, or that society as a whole must manifest these steps in order to create a true path to excellence for its youth.

  • Create stability and safety without condescension or judgment: Young people, men in particular, often feel judged-not only about their music and clothes, but also about their beliefs and values. Such a sense of judgment often isolates and marginalizes youth. Programs that create a sense of belonging and safety by involving youth in an authentic way can engage youth in a more lasting dialogue and relationship. Often this involves meeting young people's interests and building a scaffold of support and stability around that. It also means that young people do not want programs that smack of charity or patronage. Connecting young people with their peers to create their own safety networks may be as important as pairing them with a mentor who advises them more directly.
  • Award responsibility with support: Young men in particular need to feel trusted, but not isolated, with a challenge. From fatherhood to employment, young men want to assume roles of increasing responsibility, and are more likely to maintain those roles if they feel they are guided, not controlled. Presenting young people with opportunities paired with guidance is a critical step toward placing them on a path to understanding and fulfilling their potential.
  • Create credible choices and opportunities: Many young people are tired of being told they are the future when no one and no institution around them is engaged in creating that future with them. They often find a disconnect between job training and real work opportunities; in effect, programs focused on the input rather than the consequence. Young men in particular need to see choices and value in those choices available to them. Often this means not just offering incentives to attend school or to acquire IT skills, but also ensuring that those incentives link up with practical opportunities. To work with youth sincerely, it requires delivering on realistic promises. For instance, they need real jobs don't take people out of their communities or overwhelm them with expectations of being the exception rather than the rule.
  • Unleash creativity that channels experiences of risk and vulnerability toward leadership: Today's youth often avail themselves of multiple media - from blogs to neighborhood murals to street theater - to express their hopes and fears. As youth experience international migration, the consequences of environmental change, and other bellwethers of a changing world, young people may be those most vulnerable to change but also best prepared for what is to come. Programs that tap into young people's creative dimension may create a lasting engagement that allows them to discuss and diagnose change, and to use those experiences to move into leadership positions.
  • Change surrounding cultures to create a society that values and enriches young people's transition to adulthood: Respecting young people's experiences is an important step toward changing a culture that often blames or punishes young people for society's ills.
    Entrepreneurs in this field need to think beyond incremental approaches or the program flavor of the day. Instead, they need to build communities built on respect for young people, which can then motivate, expect and create competence. Setting and fostering those expectations requires engaging young and old, business and government alike. Such a shift toward respecting and building communities demonstrates trust in young people's potential, as well as a commitment toward supporting that path. With trust, support and a positive set of expectations, the path to adulthood seems tangible and desirable, laying the foundation for communities and coherence around a shared vision.