Photo of Derek taken outside of the Social Justice Learning Institute building
“Nonprofit organizations need to ensure people have economic freedom so that they have the capacity to get more involved with their school systems, local politics or even work environments. That’s how we’re truly able to create liberated spaces.”Derek Steele
For this blog, we had the opportunity to sit down with Derek Steele, executive director of Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI), an organization that empowers youth and their communities to drive change. Learn more about Derek and SJLI’s work to improve the well-being of youth and communities of color through research, training and community mobilization below.
Derek Steele was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “As a preacher’s kid, I grew up focused on service. My pops was always on me about being super conscious of the world, liberating all folks, and centering Black folks and their lived experiences in the fight for equity. He even had me reading the ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X’ at age 10,” shares Derek.
It was in Baltimore, Maryland while attending the historically Black college Morgan State University, however, that Derek gained an even greater sense of self within Black culture. Through campus life and mandatory courses like “African Diaspora,” he found inspiration in seeing people who looked like him come together and be intentional about learning.
After graduating from Morgan State with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Derek moved to Inglewood, California for a career opportunity as an engineer with Northrop Grumman, where he learned about using a systems approach to wield outcomes. Using the tools and skills he acquired at Northrop Grumman, Derek began serving as a volunteer 14 years ago at the Social Justice Learning Institute and stayed after seeing the impact SJLI was making in educating and organizing communities of color.
Today, he is now an executive director with a team of 53 members. In his role, Derek leads SJLI’s work to improve health, education and well-being for people of color.
“A lot of our focus is on participatory research, with the aim of equipping youth and communities with the tools to perform qualitative and quantitative data so they can then use it to lead social movements. The participatory research helps them understand what is going on around them so they can identify and rectify injustice and advocate for policies that address their needs, all through the context of both lived experience and evidence-based research,” says Derek.
Participatory research, however, is just one of many of SJLI’s focuses. Through their various programs, SJLI youth participants have helped start the police-free schools movement in Inglewood and build the city’s first community garden.
SJLI’s flagship program, Urban Scholars, serves middle and high school students representing 22 schools in both Houston and Los Angeles. The program supports them through four key areas: academic and career development, socio-emotional support, self-esteem development and youth leadership. To date, the program has served over 3,000 students. 95% of students in the program graduate from high school and 80% go to college.
“We don’t just support the ‘talented tenth’ through this program. We reach students who might have barriers to completing their education and need more wraparound support. We help transform them into leaders for them to go on to create positive change in their schools,” says Derek.
Derek believes that education bridges the economic gap by equipping those most impacted by inequitable systems to create people-centered solutions that help individuals live full, free, thriving and healthy lives.
“It was the people and community organizers who helped to get Measure J passed in Los Angeles, which requires at least 10% of locally generated unrestricted revenue be invested into communities and alternatives to incarceration,” he says.
SJLI’s work to educate communities encourages people of color to drive change and live a life of abundance, not scarcity. Understanding the barriers and challenges facing Inglewood residents, SJLI is supporting their economic stability through the building of its new headquarters, which will now include 120 units of affordable housing, in collaboration with Venice Community Housing. The development is scheduled to be completed in 2026.
“Nonprofit organizations need to ensure people have economic freedom so that they have the capacity to get more involved with their school systems, local politics or even work environment. That’s how we’re truly able to create liberated spaces,” says Derek.
Derek hopes that by supporting boys and men of color and focusing on their lived experiences, SJLI can help communities rethink public safety and create shared abundance.
“The systems that are created through centering Blackness can then be extrapolated and scaled to help all communities,” he says. Recognizing that thriving communities can’t be achieved without women and girls, the organization is also piloting an Urban Scholars for Young Women program this fall to help support the next generation of women leaders.
Derek advises philanthropic and government organizations to focus more on people-centered economies. “Philanthropy – do the work to put yourselves out of business. Be thoughtful about how you can use funds to be transformative. Government – get out of the way. Steward the resources to help people and give them what they are saying they need. Both entities need to let nonprofit, faith-based, and community-based organizations be the foundation of change,” he says.
To stay updated on SJLI, follow them on X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram at @SJLI_CA or visit their website at sjli.org. To get involved in one of their programs, visit sjli.org/get-involved.