The Power of Relationships: Reflections on CPE’s 25th Anniversary

May 6, 2019

On April 11th, CPE marked its 25th anniversary with more than 300 guests who saw firsthand how the Power of Relationships can promote life-changing academic success for low-income youth. I have been leading CPE for 18 of those years, so the event and the milestone it marks have been especially significant for me personally. While I am normally a person who focuses on the opportunities that lie ahead, the past several weeks have been a rare time of reflection for me, highlighted by great pride in the accomplishments of the hundreds of students who have passed through our program, and the incredible relationships I’ve enjoyed.

CPE’s sold-out gala event was held at The Showroom, in Washington, D.C., and included alumni who flew in from all across the country to participate, as well as longtime volunteers, supporters, and partners- many of whom have been involved with CPE for more than a decade. As I stood at the podium to welcome our guests, I saw alumni who I first met as 14-year-olds when they applied to CPE who are now lawyers, pro athletes, school counselors, entrepreneurs, graduate students, IT administrators, and education policy officials. What’s more, I saw one alumna, Sarah Iddrissu, who is now on CPE’s Board; two alumni, Antonio Beard and Tasha Casey, who have started their own nonprofit organizations serving youth in the D.C. area; and several who are now current mentors. One of my highlights of the evening was seeing alumna, Bennisha Lucas, who came with her longtime CPE mentor, Debbie, who has grown into a big sister over the past 17 years. Bennisha is now a CPE mentor herself, and her 16-year-old mentee, Yessinia, was also in attendance. As anyone involved in education will tell you, seeing your former students achieve in adulthood is incredibly rewarding, but when they achieve and then reach back to help the next generation, it is priceless.

Beginning in 1994 with only 4 students and no staff, over the past 25 years CPE has supported more than 700 students, provided millions of dollars in scholarships, and paired nearly 1,000 mentors who volunteer their time to promote our students’ success. The organization has grown each year and is stronger today than ever before, supporting 424 students this year. It is rare for nonprofits or businesses of any type to remain both relevant and solvent for 25 years. CPE has only been able to do so because we’ve adapted our program model and worked to meet the changing demands of our evolving marketplace. When many nonprofits were forced to close their doors following the recession in 2008, CPE embarked on a new strategy expanding its mentoring program into D.C. charter and public high schools and through our students’ college years, which lowered our cost per student and led to significant growth in our student body.

As I reflect on my experiences over nearly two decades as CPE’s leader, I’ve learned it is the relationships we’ve been able to foster with youth, volunteers, partners, and supporters that stand apart as CPE’s strongest asset. Strong relationships are what drive human beings forward, and when we lack those relationships, it holds us back. We know that in low-income communities in the U.S. that far too many youth lack access to adult role models, or “natural mentors” who can support their personal and academic development and expose them to career opportunities that will lead to economic mobility. Poverty is the main driver of this mentoring gap. Many things have changed in the D.C. community in the 25 years since CPE opened its doors, but inequality and opportunity gaps unfortunately have not. Despite the great overall economic success in our city, D.C. continues to have one of the nation’s highest rates of income inequality. And although school systems have improved, they remain largely segregated by race and income, and our black and Latino students continue to struggle academically. Without the personal connections to the business community in D.C., they will not share in the economic prosperity that so many youth from higher income families will enjoy.

CPE will continue to work to fill the mentoring gap that limits the opportunities for youth in our city’s low-income neighborhoods with an aggressive expansion plan. We have already grown our student body by 250% since 2014 and plan to expand further by as much as 50% to serve 650 students in 2021. Our model is reliant on community support with a volunteer workforce that contributes thousands of hours of mentoring guidance to our students each month, and through the financial contributions of hundreds of individual and institutional donors. I can speak for everyone at CPE in expressing how grateful we are for the thousands of people who’ve supported our students over the past 25 years. We look forward to an even brighter future for the youth of D.C. in the years to come.