We talked with Derron Coles, executive director of nonprofit The Blueprint Foundation, about his organization's work, which -- among many other things, is substantially improving high school graduation rates for local Black youth. Derron shares his vision for The Intertwine Alliance, and what he hopes partners will take to heart.
For Intertwine Alliance partners and friends not yet familiar with The Blueprint Foundation, can you describe your vision and work?
Members of the Portland Chapter of the historically Black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, Inc. (PBS) founded The Blueprint Foundation in 2014. The organization seeks to significantly impact the academic and professional development of Black-identified students using project-based learning that attends to pressing community issues, while solidifying learning competencies necessary for success in college, career and civic life.
In the four years prior to forming The Blueprint Foundation, PBS facilitated group mentoring with cultural outings for “at-risk” Black youth at Roosevelt High School in North Portland. Mentoring adhered to our core values:
- challenge youths' perceptions of what is possible
- maintain high standards and expectations for youth
- remain committed and accountable to youth development
- be adaptive to issues impacting youth
- encourage youths' positive self-image and cultural pride
Derron, and all members of the board of directors, are African American males who have lived the reality of the Black youth impacted by Blueprint Foundation's programming.
Outcomes were promising. Our students’ graduation rate was 96 percent, well above nonparticipating Black peers. This was a celebrated achievement during a period when only 39 percent of Roosevelt High School students graduated on time (Oregon Live, 2010). Additionally, we documented anecdotal successes, such as one student who transitioned from “disconnect imminent” to earning a Gates Scholarship following participation in our program.
In 2013, PBS partnered with Oregon State University to implement pyramid mentoring, where we trained Black college students to mentor the high school youth. Exit data showed that many of our students’ career interests solidified to match their mentors, prompting us to develop curriculum tailored to specific career paths. Consequently, we now offer three pyramid mentoring with service learning programs:
General Group Mentoring -– Weekly group mentoring sessions at Roosevelt High School to help Black students develop academic, personal and professional skills. Mentors also join the students on cultural outings and engage in workshops highlighting Black history and accomplishments, strengthening cultural pride and identity.
Grounding Waters -– Project-based mentoring program in which Black youth learn about careers in environmental science while taking an active role in environmental stewardship. Multigenerational mentors join students on projects and field trips to fish hatcheries, green infrastructure tours, student-facilitated classroom presentations, tree planting, and restoration projects in both urban and wildlife areas.
Constructing Careers -– Project-based mentoring program to begin Fall 2017, in which youth will develop their interest in construction-related disciplines (with a focus on green building) through site visits, job shadowing, community enhancement projects, campus visits, a summer hands-on career exploration program offered by our collaborating organization Constructing Hope, and referrals to apprenticeship programs.
Our 2015-16 cohorts, each with 12 to 20 students per year, had a 96 percent graduation rate compared to the Portland Public Schools rate of 70 percent.
The Blueprint Foundation's 5-year strategic plan includes development of healthcare and computer science programs. We have also begun expansion of our board, partnerships and mentors with the intent to add gender-specific mentoring to all programs.
I, and all members of our board of directors, are African American males who have lived the current reality of the Black youth to be impacted by our programming. While community partners involved in current activities are not exclusively African American, all are either underserved individuals, or allies committed to social justice programming.
Our overarching purpose is to provide developmental experiences using change agents who are directly connected to the community in which participants are spending their formative years. Therefore, The Blueprint Foundation has intentionally selected partners who live and work in the project area. Doing so ensures that those involved share some portion of the participants’ cultural experience and are equally invested in strengthening local communities.
Most of our activities occur in the community, and we do not rent a physical office. Colas Construction, where one of our board members is a project manager, has been very kind to offer meeting space and an address as our physical office.
Tell us a little bit more about you, personally, and how you came to this work.
I am an engineer and learning strategist with over 14 years of experience designing learner-focused competency development training.
My portfolio is wide-ranging, running the gamut from learning solutions for technical topics, like a globally utilized online training on river system analysis, to interpersonal skills training, such as my lauded cultural competency curriculum.
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I came to visit a friend in Oregon while a college undergrad at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — where I completed my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering — and fell in love with the access to natural areas and number of waterways ripe for study. Since I wanted to switch majors to civil engineering, I moved to Oregon for graduate school. After completing my graduate studies, I came on as full-time faculty and purchased a home in Portland — as Corvallis was a bit too small for me.
I spent eight years as head of mathematics for the OSU Educational Opportunities Program, leading culturally responsive efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented science and engineering students.
I am now owner and principal consultant for DRC Learning Solutions, where I evaluate and develop project-based curriculum for technical and social justice-oriented education programs.
After getting involved with The Blueprint Foundation to help form and secure funding for Grounding Waters (the first of the career-specific mentoring programs), I was asked to extend my contract to take on executive director duties. I was happy to do so, as the job allows me to continue my efforts to diversify key industries affecting communities of color and environmental health.
How big is the staff of TBF? How are you funded, and are there opportunities for Intertwine Alliance partners to get involved?
Blueprint is a mean and lean organization, with only two employees. Consequently, the board supplements the efforts of program director Jason Stroman and myself.
Two grants, one from the Oregon Department of Education and one from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, currently fund us. Our construction program is to be funded using sponsorship funds and grant dollars secured by our partner the National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon. We are in the process of submitting additional grant requests to fund Grounding Waters over the next biennium.
We would be grateful if partners alerted us to any grant opportunities for which they feel we are a good fit. Similarly, we would be delighted to learn about opportunities for our students or college mentors who are ready to take on an internship.
How and why did The Blueprint Foundation become a partner in The Intertwine Alliance?
I first learned about The Alliance last year at an EPA Making a Visible Difference meeting. I sat next to Lauren Gottfredson (Alliance operation and projects manager), who approached me afterward for a meeting.
Deciding to become a partner was easy. We are major proponents of the village approach to change.
I see The Intertwine Alliance as a way to increase the capacity and impact of each participating organization. For example, we met two organizations looking to diversify their volunteer workforces. Consequently, we are staying abreast of their event schedules so that we can join in the stewardship when possible. This is beneficial for us because we want our students to spend as much time as possible interacting with career environmentalists and experiencing how environmental science can lead to real solutions to issues in their community.
Beyond propping each other up, I think there is value in sharing challenges and solutions across organizations. Timely advice from those who have overcome setbacks is often resource-saving and impact-enhancing.
A recent Intertwine Alliance health-and-the-environment leadership event greatly informed the direction we are going with our upcoming healthcare mentoring program. I would like for each program to include both social and environmental civic engagement. The information gathered during the event provided us the links we needed to ensure that our healthcare program could include projects that address environment-related issues.
What wisdom and resources would you like to share with fellow partners?
I hope to share cultural knowledge that will help members of The Alliance with outreach to communities of color. I am a firm believer in the notion that wide-scale progress can only happen when members of various cultural communities (racial, religious, ethnic, generational, etc.) come together to create change.
Is there anything you need -- short- or long-term -- from fellow partners?
The success of our programs to recruit and retain students in environmental science and green building depends on educational opportunities and civic engagement events that the partners implement. Our motto with regard to partnerships is: Help us, help you, help students. We hope that Alliance partners will take this to heart and collaborate with us to change who is considered an environmentalist or scientist.