Disrupting the Cycle of Violence, Poverty and Incarceration

by Bethany Snyder

Children who grow up in communities mired in poverty and violence often find themselves trapped in a cycle of incarceration and recidivism. Youth development provides a foundation of education, opportunity and access that can help break that cycle. Hasan Stephens ’00 uses personal experience to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth.

Hasan Stephens ’00 grew up in The Edenwald Projects, the largest and arguably one of the most notorious housing projects in the Bronx, home to more than 5,000 residents. Stephens recalls the “daily atrocities” he saw, “walking by drug addicts in the hallway and watching people die regularly from gunshots.”

Education was the tool Stephens used to escape. A scholarship program for academically high-achieving youth from low-income families named Prep For Prep led him to Horace Mann School, a private college prep school in the Bronx, and from there to Hobart and William Smith, where he completed an independent major in film and music. Working at WEOS put him on the path to a career as a disc jockey, which eventually brought him to his adopted hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., where he earned top ratings at iHeart Radio stations. He later pursued graduate studies in business at LeMoyne College. Stephens has served as an adjunct professor of political science and Africana studies at the State University of New York at Cortland for 10 years.

“Because of my experiences growing up, I value at-risk youth more so than I believe the world does,” he says. “They deserve a chance, just like I was given a chance.”

To give that chance to others, in 2009 Stephens established the Good Life Youth Foundation, an organization that uses hip-hop culture to help marginalized youth understand financial literacy and entrepreneurship and, ultimately, live better lives. The board of directors includes fellow Hobart graduates Henry Culbreath ’99 and Winfield Prass ’99 as well as Syracuse mayor Ben Walsh.

“We work with kids the world has thrown away and turned their backs on,” Stephens says. “We’re teaching them how to be innovative, how to be creative, how to take their natural talent and use it to add value to the community.”

A key initiative of Good Life is the R.E.A.L. program (Ready to Enter and Accept Life), which focuses on life skills, asset building and financial education, entrepreneurship, career readiness and health and wellness. Participants are paired with a life coach and engage in group mentoring, experiential learning activities and cultural development projects.

Good Life also created three companies: full-service promotional print and embroidery company GL Imprinting, vending machine company Good Eats and lawn care company Good Lawns. “These social ventures, as we call them, allow our youth to generate personal income while also providing sustainability for the organization,” says Stephens.

And it’s working. Good Life recently purchased a 37,000-square foot building that will become The Hip-Hop Center for Youth Entrepreneurship. Along with providing headquarters for the organization’s social ventures, the space will include a café to support culinary interests and a gallery for the display and sale of original artwork. Stephens is working on developing corporate and collegiate partnerships to help “establish this building as a creative central hub for the youth of Syracuse to learn how to be entrepreneurs,” he says. In addition to an ongoing capital campaign, partial funding for the building project has been secured from local foundations and state grants.

Stephens notes that Syracuse is among the nation’s top locations for concentrated poverty among African Americans and Latinos and is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. But where some see only hardship and trauma, Stephens sees hope, opportunity — and a proof of concept. “If we can affect change here, then we can do it somewhere else,” he says. “We’re building a replicable model that can be used everywhere.”

Find out more about The Good Life Youth Foundation website.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.