Juma Crawford was named executive director of The Lewis Family Foundation in 2013. Established by Alan and Harriett Lewis, the foundation has been a major BASE supporter since its inception. A native of San Mateo, California, Juma holds degrees from Amherst College, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and Boston College Law School. He previously worked at Codman Academy Charter Public School, Community Charter School of Cambridge, and College Bound Dorchester. In an interview at his downtown office, he discussed the foundation’s mission and why he is personally committed to helping inner-city youths reach their full potential, in college and beyond. Excerpts below:
How did your upbringing influence your career path?
Womb luck. I was born to very strong parents who stressed education. My neighborhood was a tough one, where guys would either go to prison or go to college. So I was lucky to be exposed to a rich diversity of class and race and passions. What really changed my life, though, was going to private (high) school and learning not just how to get to college but how to succeed there.
After graduate school, did you think you’d become a teacher or lawyer?
Actually, I wanted to be a veterinarian. While at Amherst, though, I started student teaching at Holyoke High School. After moving to Boston and teaching at a charter school, I found what I cared about most was leveling the playing field. How? By disruption through creation. That’s really how you solve problems. To disrupt a system, you need to create an opposing system.
Where does your foundation work fit into that vision?
It has allowed me to leverage resources around a passion I already had for creating access and opportunity. Specifically, through getting a four-year college education as it applies to economic mobility.
Your foundation supports several nonprofits working in this area. What unites them?
Getting the measures right. Can they show impact? Do they know where their young people are? Do they know that, because of their help, these young people are in a better place? We need them all to do that. And to keep doing it better.
What are the critical measurements of success?
Four-year college graduation numbers and full-time job placement. That’s it. We’ll look at other data. But to really simplify it – and I believe that simplicity leads to transparency, which leads to truth – those are the final measurements of whether we succeed or fail.
How do you see The BASE and others changing perceptions about urban youths nationally?
Good question. The focus has often been slanted towards the high-risk and the underserved. People absolutely need to understand those issues. But there’s also all this talent there, all this brilliance. Both need to be understood and appreciated. If you just focus on the deficits, you definitely should not be doing this work.
In the current political climate, is it harder to focus on the positives?
Sometimes I feel like we’re putting Band-Aids over bullet wounds. I’m optimistic, though. Because what’s happening in the country right now is galvanizing. People had gotten comfortable. It’s good for everyone to get really honest and ask themselves, where do I stand? Am I really progressive? Or just playing it safe?
As you look at The BASE, what stands out?
Its greatest asset is its culture and sense of expectation. Robert and his staff love those young people as if they were their own children. And that’s critical. They care by insisting on discipline and accountability, and they care through celebrating success.
Its biggest challenge?
Sticking to structure and focusing on what The BASE does best, which is baseball and baseball training. The young people are showing up. The baseball is excellent. Now, be strategic. Four years in, it’s pretty amazing what Robert and his team have already accomplished. The next four years, in my humble opinion, will be all about growing smart and measuring impact.