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Foundation Friday: Becoming agents of change 

The Social Justice Learning Institute and Capital IDEA Houston empower their Texas and California communities.

SJLI and Capital IDEA Houston aim to make a positive change across the nation.

Juneteenth, commemorated on June 19th, marks a pivotal moment in American history. While Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, it also serves as a solemn reminder of the long-standing systemic injustices that African Americans continue to face. 

In recognizing the historical and ongoing struggles for racial equality, the NBA Foundation has committed itself to advancing economic empowerment and social justice.

The Social Justice Learning Institute and Capital IDEA Houston are two nonprofit organizations embodying this mission. 

Addressing the need 

SJLI, based in Los Angeles and Houston, has been at the forefront of addressing youth justice, social determinants of health and the educational equity movement for over 15 years. Their programs target young people of color, promoting academic success and health equity.  

Capital IDEA Houston is dedicated to helping people achieve a thriving lifestyle through fully funded education, career training and workforce development, providing participants with the skills and credentials needed to secure stable, well-paying jobs. 

“We cannot exist, if there is no social injustice,” Megan Hayward, national director of development at SJLI said. “That’s just a perfect world that we don’t live in.” 

It all starts with a need, Hayward says.  

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza founded SJLI in response to extreme racial violence and other inequities facing young Black men. Its work began with the Black Male Youth Academy at Morningside High School in Inglewood, Calif.

The goal was to support young Black men on their academic journeys while empowering them to become civically engaged in their communities. Personal circumstances led SJLI Executive Director Derek Steele to collaborate with Scorza. 

Galvanized by Derek’s hypertension diagnosis at 25 years of age, he and Nicole began their journey re-creating local food systems to solve health disparities and food insecurity in their community,” Steele said.

Together, they implemented the ‘100 Seeds of Change’ Initiative by building 126 school/community/home gardens, distributing 6000+ fruit trees as solutions to the need for health in the built environment,” said Hayward. 

Over time, SJLI has grown to advance educational and health equity by engaging youth, their families and communities in advocacy efforts that change systems. SJLI empowers through education, creates thriving communities, and changes policies and systems. The ultimate goal of SJLI is to achieve equity and liberation for marginalized communities. 

For Jesus Contreras, Capital IDEA Houston changed the trajectory of his life. 

“He originally started with the Capital IDEA Houston with a goal of being a nurse,” Annica Gorham, director of operations stated. “While Jesus was a great student with a 3.7 GPA, English was his second language and he could not pass the entrance exam for nursing.”

Gorham formerly served as an advisor for Contreras, and recalls showing him all healthcare options the community college offered. She provided resource materials and when Contreras returned to Gorham, he envisioned a clear career path. 

“He was like ‘Ms. Annica, I think I want to go for the nuclear medicine program. I only need one class and I can enroll in it this summer and then I can apply.’ And he did it,” Gorham said. 

Three years later, Contreras graduated with an associate degree in nuclear medicine technology.

Jesus Contreras and his family smile for a photo.

Success for both organizations 

Both SJLI and Capital IDEA Houston have been successful. SJLI was named the 2023 Nonprofit of the Year in California, while Capital IDEA Houston boasts a 90% job placement rate for its graduates within six months of program completion.

However, the journey of both organizations has not been without challenges. 

When Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017, Capital IDEA Houston stood by their students, many of whom lost everything. Through curating personal plans and check-ins, Capital IDEA Houston kept their students on track and stable, said Gorham. 

Capital IDEA Houston’s application process pairs programs that align with students’ interests, making engagement easier when disaster strikes. While their initiatives are fully funded, Capital IDEA Houston also provides resources like gas cards, bus cards, books, uniforms, food scholarships and more.  

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, SJLI launched the Youth Justice Fellowship to address structural racism and achieve racial and social justice in Black communities.  

“[We] started a virtual town hall for our youth because we wanted to give them the opportunity to express themselves,” Hayward said. “It was just a very difficult time, and it was interesting because with all that our youth experienced, they still felt like, ‘OK, but what more can we do? What can we do to help?’” 

The virtual town hall spearheaded the inception of an intensive leadership development program that engages an annual cohort of 10-12 college-aged youth leaders in community-based organizing and action research. 

“Youth leaders come together to function as a think tank and action team to reimagine community safety and the institutional systems that impact Black communities,” Hayward shared. “As part of their interdisciplinary research, youth leaders also engage in an immersive international experience so that they can explore what community building looks like from a global consciousness.”