UrbanPromise: Building A Better Future

The organization helps underserved Wilmington youth with academics and leadership

It’s clear as soon as he begins to speak that James Russell didn’t grow up in Delaware — or anywhere in the U.S., for that matter. His British accent — born of the London neighborhoods where he first served the city’s underserved youth — is incongruous in Wilmington neighborhoods, where he works these days as director of UrbanPromise’s StreetLeaders program.

But for Russell, his mission in Wilmington is the same as it was back home in the U.K. — to help young people who have limited opportunities to grow, flourish and lead.

UrbanPromise was founded as a Christian-centric program designed to “equip children and young adults … with the skills necessary for academic achievement, live management, personal growth, and servant leadership,” according to the organization’s website. 

It’s a mission that’s been ongoing since 1994, when Rob Prestowitz, now the executive director of Wilmington’s UrbanPromise, first volunteered with the flagship organization in Camden, New Jersey. It was there that Prestowitz saw the program in action in what was at the time one of the region’s most dangerous and underprivileged cities.

Prestowitz’s experience there inspired him to open a sister branch of UrbanPromise in Wilmington in 1998, beginning with Camp Victory, a summer camp on the East Side where StreetLeaders got its start. Over the subsequent decade, the program expanded to include five summer camps, an elementary school and a middle school. 

First College Grad

By 2009, James Whitely became the first StreetLeaders program participant to graduate from college. Since then, the program has added a high school — Urban Promise Academy — a sports ministry program, and a sixth summer camp.

The StreetLeaders program that Russell heads is designed to give jobs as counselors, teachers and role models to youth ages 14-18 from the neighborhoods UrbanPromise serves. The teens work at UrbanPromise summer camps and in its after-school programs. The focus on StreetLeader participants is building leadership skills and providing job training and employment, college preparation, mentoring and tutoring.

The program works to not just keep the StreetLeaders in school and headed in a positive direction, but to offer positive role models to the other students and participants in UrbanPromise schools and camps, Russell says.

“We don’t want each other to fail, we’re all in this together — that’s the biggest factor,” he says. “They’re their own leaders and they’re pulling each other along.”

Within the hierarchy of the StreetLeader program are team leaders who are responsible for larger groups of participants.

“So, it’s their job to take an interest, to care,” Russell says. “And they’re teenagers, so they get things right and wrong. At their best they literally go knocking on doors saying, ‘Hey, why weren’t you at work today?’ They care. And we try to give them the resources to go and do that job.”

Secondary to providing work and a sense of belonging is the opportunity to provide the tutoring and other academic support to help students and the UrbanPromise schools succeed. But that’s just the start, Russell says. Parents understand when they enroll their children in UrbanPromise schools that they differ significantly from public schools. 

In-House Testing

“We track grades, attendance and disciplinary infractions,” Russell says. “We track our own in-house testing that lets us know if students are on grade level, regardless of what their grades say. And then we tell all that to the parents and we work alongside the parents with the tutors and student to make individual plans to help them do better.”

The results speak for themselves. Though not every teen who enters the StreetLeader program continues until graduation, of those who do, 100% graduate from high school and 85% will go to college based on numbers over the lifetime of the program, Russell says. Of the remaining 15%, many either enter the workforce directly after high school or enlist in the military.

“Because we have a high school now and it’s a very small environment, we can identify students [who need help] and that’s a real resource for parents if they want to take advantage of it so their kids can get a really excellent education with lots of one-on-one attention and a ‘you cannot fail’ attitude,” he says.

That attitude is especially important in the face of what the program’s participants deal with every day. On the day we speak, Russell is preparing to help counsel StreetLeaders and other students dealing with a shooting outside an UrbanPromise program just a few days earlier.

Coming from London, Russell was familiar with the myriad challenges of underserved urban youth, but he admits his experiences in the United Kingdom differ significantly from those he encountered when he first interned with UrbanPromise in 2002. First, London tends to be segregated by economic status rather than race or ethnicity, he says.

“In England, especially in London, everyone’s kind of in there together. If you don’t like your neighbor, you have to figure it out. I had a neighbor who was Jamaican, someone else from Nigeria, a guy from Russia … it was very, very mixed,” he says. “When I moved to [Wilmington’s] East Side, I wasn’t used to such a mono-race situation.”

No Breaking up Fights

Another shock was the level of gun violence. Because of England’s strict gun laws, “typically if you have a fight, you often get up to fight again another day,” Russell says. “In my work in London, I used to break up fights, but people here would stop me going to do that.”

Since being in the U.S., he says he’s tried to immerse himself in the history of Wilmington to understand the economic disparity, systemic racism and daily violence his students face. As a result, he’s built empathy for teens whose parents, grandparents and other community leaders are often absent.

“Because of the continued disadvantage, everyone’s stretched thin,” he says. “And if you’re stretched thin, you’re either trying to make ends meet or you’ve got different chaos in your life. So those resources and the time available is all stretched a little thinner than in more affluent communities that don’t have to struggle with some of the things we struggle with in the city.”

Much of that disparity is related to 400 years of slavery, segregation and discrimination, he emphasizes. “It’s like a gift that’s been not wanted [but] handed to a neighborhood over centuries,” he says. “Busing and all kinds of historical things have really put our neighborhoods on the back foot. I think the more we offer resources and make changes, that’s great. And then each individual is responsible for their own choices.”

It all takes a hefty dose of faith, in both the secular and religious context. And if Russell sometimes sounds like a missionary to a foreign land when he discusses his work, that’s because it’s exactly how he sees it. UrbanPromise is funded in large part by local church congregations and individuals at those churches, and Russell and the others who run UrbanPromise reach out to encourage others to financially support their salaries. The hustle for funding, combined with what are often 55- or 60-hour weeks, means it takes a special kind of person highly focused on servant leadership to do the work.

But in the end, Russell is emphatic about giving the credit for the program’s success to his kids. 

“They’re amazing young people who every day come to work with students after school, after they’ve already been in school all day. And they do it with grace, humility and power, and the world should see them working,” he says. “The kids are the heroes.”