John Pepper cropped
CYC founder John Pepper looks back on the pivotal moment that inspired him to create Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. 

It was one of those dinners which I wished I didn’t have to attend, coming at the end of a long day, with an unknown speaker and an associated reception and likely “small talk,” which I always wished was over before it began.

It was 1986. I was serving as a member of the board for the National Alliance of Business. We were at a hotel to listen to a talk by then-Assistant Secretary of Labor, Roger Semerad.

That talk changed my life. Semerad discussed the challenge our nation would face if we could not radically change the path of the development of our youth. He pointed to a fast-changing world that would require greater education and preparation for our youth, preparation and education he identified as sorely lacking. He pointed to gaps between what our nation was accomplishing in youth development and what other countries were accomplishing. I had been out of the country for much of the previous five years, and had been so totally consumed by my work and family that I paid little attention to the subject.

He alarmed me. I approached Semerad after his talk and told him that if his purpose had been to sound an alarm bell, he had certainly done that, at least for me. I asked him what solutions and actions he suggested. He had some compelling answers, and I returned to Cincinnati committed to see if there was a way that we, at least in our own community, could take action to address this challenge.

I formed a network, person by person: fellow business leaders, then Vice Mayor Ken Blackwell, and some folks from Cincinnati Public Schools whom I had come to know. About a year later we had created a very strong committee of business leaders, including Joe Pichler, then CEO of Kroger, John Barrett, then CEO of Western-Southern, and a lawyer who I came to greatly respect, Nelson Schwab. Together, we launched Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, dedicated to giving young people the experience and support needed to enable them to graduate from high school and go on to post-secondary education or a good career.

We were blessed to recruit Sister Jean Patrice Harrington, the former President of Mount Saint Joseph College, as our first President.

We began with a broad agenda, including preschool education, teacher and principal training, and, what would become the core of our effort, the recruitment and support of mentors and tutors. All this was made possible thanks to our strong ties with the Cincinnati Public School system and local businesses.

John Pepper and CYC students, circa 1994
John Pepper and CYC students, circa 1994

It was an enormous amount of hard work, but the way the community rallied behind our mission was amazing.
Joe Pichler and John Barrett went out to raise what became $20 million for last-dollar scholarships. We brought an internal focus, with enormous help from Miriam West and Maria Cholak and, of course, CYC’s leaders: Sister Jean Patrice Harrington, then John Bryant, Myrtis Powell, and most recently, Jane Keller.

Cincinnati Youth Collaborative has brought so much to my life. My mentoring relationship with Kevin Andrew generated a heightened awareness of the power of family in enabling him to be the first in that family to go to college. My family and I attended his two weddings–one an African ceremony, the other a civil ceremony. We have come to know his lovely wife, Linda, and their children.

John Pepper and his mentee Kevin Andrew
John Pepper and his mentee Kevin Andrew, circa 2002

My involvement with CYC has taught me the enormous challenges people face and the two different worlds in which we can live, marked evermore by a chasm between disadvantage and need, and privilege and abundance.

CYC and its mentors have shown me the power of the human spirit and the contributions we make to one another—the fact that with support, just about everyone on this earth can succeed, and that providing that support is one of the greatest privileges any one of us can share.

CYC, as with so much else in my life, has shown me the importance of leadership. We’ve had six leaders of CYC over its now 28-year history. Four have been outstanding; two were miss-hires for which I was responsible. I can recall fewer greater learnings than the importance of taking ultimate care when it comes to appointing the leader of an organization, never being too hurried by a deadline to say, “No,” to someone whose credentials just don’t measure up to the task.

Above all, CYC shows the enormous responsibility we have as individuals, as a community, and as a nation, to support young people, from the earliest age, so that they have the opportunity to grow up and fulfill their potential. There is no excuse for allowing the future of a young child to be so largely predictable based on the zip code in which he or she is born. We can do better. We must do better.  

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