“We’re not excluded from the experience of the youth here…there’s no such thing as other people’s children.” – Marea Perry, JK Movement team leader
On a sub-zero February morning – and with the smell of BBQ from Hickory Hut already hanging in the air – the JK Movement team gathered in their space at the corner of Dale and University Avenue in Saint Paul. The table was filled with Post-it notes and markers. Johnny Allen, the founder and executive director of JK Movement was there with his teammate Lou James. Both were wearing tee-shirts sporting a bear and the words “Humble Grizzly,” a nickname Johnny developed at the gym and one that he feels embodies an aspiration for the young people they are working with. Marea Perry, another JK Movement team leader, joined the table as the group started discussing short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals of a new contract JK Movement had received from Ramsey County to work with 10-18-year-olds in the juvenile system.
Changing the minds, bodies, and spirits of young people
JK Movement has been working with young people in Saint Paul for the last eight years. Its mission is to empower and inspire effective change in the minds, bodies, and spirits of young people. It does this by providing mentorship programs that build strong interpersonal skills, educational and career pathways, and a sense of hope for youth in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas.
The “JK” stands for Johnny Knuckles, a character who for Johnny Allen represents the superhero inside everyone. “The JK speaks to our alter ego – who we are and who we can be when we face a challenge,” said Johnny. JK Movement’s youth programming and curriculum are designed to teach and encourage marginalized youth, particularly African American youth, to see themselves as positive role models and to emulate positive behaviors.
“No such thing as other people’s children”
The team is all familiar with the challenges facing the youth they work with, many of who come to JK Movement with a lot of unresolved trauma. Like Johnny and Lou, Marea grew up in Saint Paul. “My family is a pillar in this community, and we know what it takes to build community and be part of it,” she said. “We’re not excluded from the experience of the youth here…there’s no such thing as other people’s children.” The JK team firmly believes that building trusting relationships with the young people they work with is the first step. As Lou stated, “Kids won’t care until they know how much you care.”
Throughout the day’s conversation, whether talking about curriculum or reimbursement requirements, the team kept coming back to a grounding in community and what would be best for the young people. “While the goal for Ramsey County is no recidivism, how do we keep top of mind that we’re doing more than that?” asked Marea. “When I think of success for these young people, I think of hope, of surviving, of conquering, of being a living testimony.”
Preparing for Growth
Propel Nonprofits started working with the JK Movement through its involvement with the Council of Black Male Success through the Saint Paul Foundation. Johnny worked with Mario Hernandez, Propel Nonprofits’ strategic services director, to lay the internal capacity and build his own leadership to take the organization – which he started in 2011 – into the next stage.
From there, the team invested in board development to get clarity of roles, assess composition, and align around the nonprofit’s strategic plan. “Working with Propel helped us to open our eyes that our board needed to catch up with our programs so we’d have a strong board that matches our strong program,” said Johnny.
JK Movement had traditionally been funded by grants and donations, which require different cash flow management practices, different reporting tools, different accounting practices, and accountability to different stakeholders. When Johnny started working toward the Ramsey County contract, he knew that meant learning a different skill set and managing a different set of relationships.
“I wasn’t aware upfront that this was a reimbursement grant,” said Johnny, highlighting a common theme for organizations when first receiving a government contract. To bridge the reimbursement payments, Johnny worked with Lu Hang at Propel Nonprofits to get a loan. “For an organization like us still in a growth phase, if you don’t have support or the opportunity to apply for upfront loans like we were able to get from Propel, it can be hard to continue to grow.”
At the end of the February session with Mario, the team had a sense of immediate priorities, a shared understanding of expectations – of Ramsey County, of each other, and of the youth – where they are going, and a full wall of Post-it notes. Now, a few months into the contract work, things are off to a smooth start with a steady pace of youth referrals coming in from Ramsey County. “There haven’t been any surprises, but from the procedures and steps, it can be tough for nonprofits like ours without support like we’ve gotten from Propel Nonprofits,” said Johnny.
As far as Johnny’s time as an executive director of a growing nonprofit, he’s committed to still working directly with young people. “I’m putting together a strong team of leaders that I can delegate things to, but I’ll always serve in some way and try to be a role model to the youth,” said Johnny.
To learn more about JK Movement’s work, visit its website.