Eugene Young: Being the Change

To Eugene Young, Wilmington has a lot to offer. While the city has earned a bad rap for crime and violence — notably named Murdertown, USA, by Newsweek in 2014 — Young has a different perspective. To him, Wilmington is home; a place where he learned to serve his community.

Alumnus Eugene Young is happy to serve his community.

His dedication to the city has driven him to raise $30,000 for an organization he co-founded, secure 30,000 books for local children, and to knock on 50,000 doors as a mayoral candidate.

“I’m just giving back to a city that has given me so much,” says Young. “I’ve seen firsthand how tight-knit our community is because I’m a product of it. People like my next-door neighbor, Mike Dorsey, have always treated me like a second son. My coaches have always gone above the call of duty. I can’t say enough about our community.”

Young’s picture of Wilmington is a far cry from what most know about Delaware’s largest city. It’s not one of guns, violence and drugs, even though he grew up on the 500 block of East Pine Street, a hot spot for violence. His parents, Eugene and Diane Young, enveloped him and his sister in love and support. He recalls many community members and coaches who mentored him through the years. They saw his potential and shielded him from distractions that could’ve led him off the college track.

“They kept me accountable because I knew I couldn’t get away with much,” says Young. He also jokes that his height alone forced him to be accountable. (At 6’7″ it’s hard to go unnoticed.) For as long as he can remember, Young has towered over his peers, making it hard to get into trouble without getting caught.

It worked in his favor.

Young earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he received a dual degree in Sociology and Information Systems. In 2004, he was happy to return home but was disheartened by what he found.

“A lot of guys my age were having trouble with the law,” says Young. “The realness of  seeing family members and friends letting their talents and genius go unused was too much.” He saw many ravaged by drugs or the drug trade and those whose records prevented them from finding jobs. He wanted to make a change.

Young connected with friends Shannon Watson and Logan Herring, and together they spent $30,000 of their money to create Delaware Elite, a mentoring program for young men.

Herring remembers the first grueling years of beginning the non-profit. “The passion for seeing the boys turn into well-round citizens kept us going, but it wasn’t easy,” says Herring.

Feature Talk: Eugene Young

Eugene Young talks about his feature article in the Spring 2017 edition of the WilmU Magazine

The initial focus was to work with young athletes in the city just as his previous coaches had done for them. Young and his co-founders soon realized more problems needed to be addressed beyond sports, like academics and leadership skills. The organization evolved to create a safe space for a cohort of about 75 young men to see them through elementary school to college.

Delaware Elite focused on the same group for years, vowing to be a consistently positive force as the boys grew into adulthood. Today, more than 200 young Wilmingtonians have been a part of the organization.

“Today we have guys in universities all over the country,” says Young. One of them is Tyaire Ponzo-Meek, a senior majoring in accounting at Wilmington University and is a starting point guard for the Wildcats.

“It’s good to know that you have someone looking out for you and encouraging you to go to college,” says Ponzo-Meek. “Not everyone is as fortunate to have that.” Ponzo-Meek joined the group in eighth grade and has maintained a relationship with the co-founders.

It was Delaware Elite that drove Young to Wilmington University. But it was his desire to learn how to serve better the young men that acted as the impetus for earning his master’s in Public Administration in 2011 from WilmU’s College of Social and Behavioral Health.

“Wilmington University did a great job by providing amazing professors that were helpful (regarding my) personal progression,” says Young. “I was able to establish amazing, fruitful relationships (while) learning and meeting like-minded people.”

During that time Young worked in the Delaware General Assembly with Representatives Helene Keeley and  Stephanie T. Bolden, both of Dover. The experience helped him understand the workings of govern-ment. Young then became the aide to then Newark, N.J. Mayor Corey Booker (now a U.S. Senator), and focused on criminal justice and social justice reforms in Newark, a city that faces challenges similar to  Wilmington’s.

One of Young’s most exciting ventures is a book program he created with My Very Own Library and the United Way of Delaware. In 2015, he enacted a citywide push for literacy, connecting the two organizations to secure 30,000 free books for 3,000 students in Wilmington. That effort went statewide to 15 schools a year later.

Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, a local education advocate and vice chairperson of the WilmingtonEducation Improvement Commission, understands how hard one must work to cover that much ground in one year. She witnessed Young’s leadership skills as he pulled together a coalition of nonprofits to bring a meaningful project to life.

“When Eugene first mentioned this project to me,” says Lockman, “I had no idea it could succeed within the current school year. I watched as he quietly stuck to his plan and found the money to complete the job. There are already plans to expand the effort next year.”

While Young has been working behind-the-scenes with his organization while holding down a full-time job as advocacy director for the Delaware Center for Justice, many Wilmingtonians got to know him when he ran for Wilmington mayor in 2016.

“People liked that this campaign was something everyone could latch onto,” says Young. “We were able to provide a campaign where whether you were from the East Side, West Side, Hilltop, Highlands — no matter what neighborhood — you could identify and see yourself in (it).”

Young and his 250-member volunteer force reportedly knocked on 50,000 doors during his campaign.

“We understood that we needed to engage everyone regardless of neighborhood, race or socioeconomic status,” says Young.“We understood that the city is a product of all these different groups of people.”

He applied the lessons he learned from Booker, particularly how Booker focused on engaging with diverse groups, including corporate professionals, neighborhood parents and small-business owners.

According to the News Journal, which also endorsed Young, the Justice Advocacy director earned the second most votes, collecting 21.78 percent,  but he lost to former Riverfront Development Corporation executive Mike Purzycki.

Still, Young generated enthusiasm from residents who wanted change — and that’s no easy feat. He is still dedicated to his personal mission of recreating the Wilmington community.

Young reflects on his time with the international Global Shapers program, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, and finds inspiration from
the experience.

Young, who had the honor of attending the forum in Switzerland in 2014, says the event provided him the opportunity to network, study and learn from people across the globe.

“It exposed me to people from Senegal, Toronto and Moscow, to learn best practices in growing a successful city,” he says, adding that those practices inform his current ideas about pushing Wilmington forward.

He believes cities are incubators for innovation and new technology, and that people move to cities to work together and create opportunities for themselves and others.

“That’s what (the people of) Wilmington are learning, and what we need to take advantage of,” says Young. “We’re not on a regional or national stage, but a global stage.”

Young is figuring out the next steps of his journey. Right now, the best part of his multifaceted life is to be a good husband to his wife, Dr. Nicole Young, and dad to Madison, his 2-year-old daughter.

“Being a father changes you in that you want to make sure you leave this world a little bit better than when you found it,” says Young. “I want Madison to have more opportunities than I had. This greater idea of service is also for my daughter. She will come after me.”

It’s safe to say that Young doesn’t plan on quitting his city. WU

– Britney Gulledge

Photo by Paul Patton