Sacramento/San Joaquin

“What you see is what you become. That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to showing young people how they can improve their tomorrows, so they will see themselves as successful young men of color, before the world around them tries to show them otherwise.”

“I recently met a young person in North Stockton, who had gotten into some trouble, and I wanted to talk to him about the work I do with young people across Stockton and Sacramento. He told me he lives in Polo Run apartments, and when I told him I used to live there, too, he couldn’t believe it.

“Polo Run is a community that has experienced neglect and violence, and young people of color who live there often grow up with little hope for their future, because they don’t see other options.

“I told this young person, ‘Listen, this is just where you are now, but it doesn’t determine where you want to go. I went to college, I worked at the Capitol, and then I helped start an organization to support young men of color like you.’

“His face lit up. Seeing that I went to college and succeeded, he knew he could, too.

“Growing up in Stockton and Sacramento, I wasn’t sure who I would become. I wanted to be an attorney, but I never saw one in my neighborhood. I was 21 by the time I met a Black attorney.

“My father was an incredible role model for me, raising my siblings and me on his own. He was the first person in his family to go to college, but he didn’t graduate, and he wasn’t able to live out his own dream of becoming an attorney.

“After high school, I was recruited to play football at UNLV. The first week of training, I got a call that one of my high school friends, who had been like a brother to me, was shot and killed. I was sad to lose him and frustrated that nothing would change because of the circumstances around my high school.

“As a college sophomore, I went to a campaign rally of a guy talking about hope and change – that guy was Barack Obama. I realized I had to do more myself. Once I graduated, I committed to doing what I could for young people to have access to positive role models.

“I started out working at the Capitol, using my position to help pass legislation around education and public safety, but I didn’t get to see the real-world results of the work.

“Six years ago, I founded Improve Your Tomorrow, Inc. (IYT) with Michael Casper, to help young men of color get to and through college. We offer wraparound support including student development, weekly tutoring, internships, college tours, parent engagement, and mentorship. Young people can enter as early as seventh grade and remain in the program for a maximum of 12 years, or until college graduation.

“We are committed to supporting young people to be part of what we call the college-to-community pipeline, disrupting the current school-to-prison pipeline many young people are caught in. Our college-to-community pipeline brings young men of color back into the community to help the next group of students get to college.

“Our program has met with success and we are now one of the largest education nonprofit serving only young men of color in the country. One hundred percent of our college academy students graduate high school and 90 percent attend college.

“We also work on policy change because we know the conditions of our neighborhoods and communities have to change for our young people to have a real fighting chance. In 2017, a bill we helped sponsor with the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color to shift funding away from prisons toward schools and youth became law.

“The bill, AB 2944, gives taxpayers the option of contributing to a Schools Not Prisons California Voluntary Tax Contribution Fund, to fund nonprofits like IYT who invest in the state’s young people and keep them in school and on track for success.

“There are so many incredibly bright and talented young people in our communities. We have to show our young people we believe in them and invest in and support programs and policies that will improve their futures. It’s the only way they will see what we see: beauty and potential.”

Michael Lynch is Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Improve Your Tomorrow, Inc., based in Sacramento, California.