Michael Lynch, co-founder of Improve Your Tomorrow

Photo by Michael Mott

Harvesting Dreams to Reality, a fundraiser for Improve Your Tomorrow, takes place on November 3, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., at Antiquité Maison Privée, 2114 P Street, $50.

People aren’t surprised when Michael Lynch gives the stat: 68 percent of black men who don’t graduate high school go to prison by age 35, according to the Brookings Institution. For whites, it’s less than 10 percent. That’s evident in Sacramento, where nearly half the felony juvenile arrests in 2014 were of young people of color, according to UC Davis’ Center for Regional Change.

Lynch was fortunate. After growing up with a supportive father, he graduated from Valley High School, earned two college degrees and went to work in the state legislature. A few years later, Lynch and his former football teammate, Michael Casper, returned to Valley to help.

Their nonprofit, Improve Your Tomorrow, has seen great success: Since 2013, 70 students have graduated from the program, and all have gone to college. The program has grown from the first class of 17 students at Valley four years ago to more than 600 across several high schools. Lynch said work remains. “High school graduation rates have increased. But in comparison to our peers? We’re nowhere near equitable,” Lynch said.

How did Improve Your Tomorrow come about?

My graduation class in 2006 was primarily African American, and very few men of color went to college—I want to say less than 10, total. I wanted to come back to my neighborhood and help change that. For both myself and Michael, college was a gateway to a more stable life. Many of our friends weren’t ready or didn’t have the resources. As an athlete, I had specialized tutoring and coaches that were invested in us. For my friends who weren’t into sports, we wanted to help them get through college, too. Our program is unique, since we serve young men all the way through college, a 12-year commitment since middle school. And we hire students to work on staff once they’re in college.

What’s the program like?

We turn a classroom into an office space and assign students mentors who meet weekly to talk college and be a big brother and life coach. We have college workshops and go to two or three a year. Tomorrow we’re going to [University of the Pacific]. They’ll see two or three a year and in the summer can join an internship where we partner with the mayor’s Thousand Strong initiative or a couple of employers that hire college and high school students. Our program is about providing the brotherhood mentality. We work to improve the whole circle of friends. Our mentors are student advocates who form relationships with teachers who will go with the student to make a plan with teachers if they missed class time from problems at home.

What challenges do young men of color face that others may not?

One, poverty is really prevalent. Fatherlessness, too. The third challenge is communities have been marginalized: We operate in some of the most violent neighborhoods here. There’s a movement to support young men of color led by the Sierra Health Foundation, the My Brothers Keeper collaborative. We meet on a monthly basis to go beyond service, whether it be pushing the state or school board to improve equity issues. I run our program at Valley, and I still see the same stuff as when I went to school. Too many young men get involved in the criminal justice system.

You’re seeing astonishing growth and success. Why is that?

It was never intended to be this big. But schools and districts saw a solution in addressing education equity issues facing young men of color through us. It’s very much like a brotherhood. Once our students get into it, they’re on a special path of success.

What can schools do better?

They can do better for young men of color by not suspending them so often. There’s a better way to deal with discipline. School leadership is key. For me, it’s really all about cultural competency. A lot of teachers don’t come from similar backgrounds or cultures as their students. If I’m a Latino male, there’s certain things I do teachers might not understand, or see as threatening, but in reality, the teachers need more training to be effective. The best teachers form relationships with kids. They care beyond the classroom. The more positive adults a young person has in their life, the better. It takes a community to raise a student.

You mentioned fatherlessness. Why are mentors so important? Did you have them?

For me it was my dad. I was one of the rare black males with a dad at home. He modeled this behavior my whole life, giving constant service to others: I saw it on a daily basis. I see myself as a product of those who helped me. Often, students are great apples that haven’t been picked yet. Now, my parents bring food to our gatherings and support us and know the impact they had.

What’s the future of IYT? And how can people help?

We’re holding our fall fundraiser “Harvesting Dreams to Reality” on November 3. We’ll offer a silent auction, art sale, appetizers, no-host bar, live performances, spoken word and more to help break the school-to-prison pipeline. We’re at ten schools now. I would love for it to spread across the region and eventually, the nation.