Alumni Spotlight: Yasmine Arrington, ScholarCHIPS

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Yasmine Arrington is the Founder and Executive Director of ScholarCHIPS, a nonprofit that provides college scholarships, mentoring, mental health assistance and a support network for children of incarcerated parents, inspiring them to complete their college education. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Yasmine about her experience leading ScholarCHIPS and her time in the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Arrington: I was introduced to the concept of social entrepreneurship at 15 when I was a junior in high school. I was enrolled in an extracurricular after school program called LearnServe International. LearnServe is a nonprofit based in Washington, DC that takes large groups of high school fellows through a year-long curriculum around social entrepreneurship. It was through this program that I had the opportunity to meet and hear from entrepreneurs, specifically social entrepreneurs, people who had for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, and hybrid models that were focusing on addressing some social issues in our community. It was this program that challenged me to identify an issue in my community that I wanted to change and improve. I identified mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex as the social issue I wanted to  focus on solving, which is very complex and multi-layered. LearnServe challenged us to come up with a venture project, which proposed a creative solution to a social problem.

At that time, my two brothers and I were living with my maternal grandmother—her entire career has been in early childhood education—so I always understood the importance of education and knew that I was going to college, but the question remained, how was I going to afford it? My grandmother and I began researching scholarships online that I could apply for, and my grandmother made a very interesting observation. She said to me, “You know Yasmine, there are so many creative scholarships out there, but I don’t see any for young people who have incarcerated parents.” That was my “aha moment”, so to speak.

After reflecting and doing some research as part of my LearnServe project and finding out that there are over two million people who have had an incarcerated parent in the United States from the time they were born to 18 years old, I realized I wanted to focus my venture on creating scholarship and mentorship opportunities for young people like myself who have incarcerated parents, and that’s how ScholarCHIPS was born!

CPNL:  What has been the biggest challenge in your position as an Executive Director in responding to the struggles that youth with incarcerated parents currently face? What advice would you give to other leaders in this field looking to do something similar?

Arrington: I have three big challenges. The first one is that needs of the young people who have incarcerated parents are so great and they face a multitude of challenges. They need tuition assistance for scholarships that aren’t loans and that won’t have interest rates. They need additional financial support to help purchase books and pay for food and living expenses. While it’s amazing that ScholarCHIPS is in existence and we are an integral part of our scholars’ support network, working with young people who have incarcerated parents brings to the forefront many other needs that are still unaddressed. Every year we are adding new services to our organization to help our scholars matriculate through college and reach their personal and professional goals. This year, every new scholar received a brand-new MacBook laptop that they can use throughout their time in college. We also just added a mental health and wellness program. But it’s important that we keep in mind that we’re just barely scratching the surface of the needs of this population.

My second challenge, which is a challenge for many nonprofits, especially those that are not endowed by millionaires and billionaires, is sustainability. My capacity is constantly overextended, because I’m going between providing direct services for our scholars in real time, completing administrative tasks, managing staff, managing relationships with the board, managing relationships with donors, and also seeking out funding while applying for grants. All of these things are very time consuming. It is difficult to look for new grants while still being able to find the time and capacity to maintain the resources and grants you already have. It basically feels like I’m on a hamster wheel, and as I’m solving one or two problems, three or four more show up.

My third problem is finding a healthy balance in my work and personal life. I’m realizing that I’ve allowed this work—because I’m so passionate about it—to consume so much of my brain capacity, my mind, my life, that I’ve had to step back. I’ve had to step back and define what does it mean to take care of myself in order to maintain my mental health and my physical health, while I am helping to address the challenges and the needs of so many others.

One piece of advice I would like to offer to nonprofit leaders and folks who want to get into the field of social entrepreneurship and social justice is to try not to lose yourself in the process of helping others. I believe that the people who are most successful in doing this work are people who have this internal sense of responsibility for their neighbors, for our fellow man. But if they are not careful, they can give all of themselves away to everybody else and have nothing left for themselves. So, my advice is—we have to, we have to, we have to learn how to set healthy boundaries, in addition to making sure that whoever is in our inner circle is genuinely supportive and can respect your boundaries.

CPNL: Besides being ScholarCHIPS Founder and Executive Director, you also host and produce your radio show and podcast, “Millennial Minds.” How have you used your online platform to reframe how youth with incarcerated parents are understood and supported?

Arrington: One of the things that I realized from my vantage point is that we don’t have enough positive media coverage, especially on national levels, that highlight the stories of young people who are doing positive things and making positive changes through their technology, skills, initiatives, policy reform, and research. This is why I thought it was necessary to launch my podcast Millennial Minds. While the podcast itself is not limited to only young people who have or have had incarcerated parents, we have previously highlighted stories of people with incarcerated parents, in addition to returning citizens, who come to talk about their published books and about their life journeys.

Ultimately, this podcast is a safe space that allows people with incarcerated parents to talk about their experiences being impacted by the criminal justice system in an empowering way that is often not captured elsewhere. A space that is non-exploitive and does not re-traumatize the speaker. Young people with incarcerated parents who come on the show are able to tell the good, the bad, the ugly and be honest about the challenges that they faced with that stigma, but also how they’ve been able to succeed in spite of it. I’ve had some of our scholars on the show who have gone on to be the first in their families to get college degrees, some of them are lawyers, some of them are prenatal nurses, etc. The things that they’ve been able to accomplish in spite of what the statistics predict has been phenomenal. My number one goal is just to provide a platform for young people to share their stories in empowering, transformative ways.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Arrington: This work can be very lonely and what tends to happen is you end up doing the work in silos. Now, fortunately, I’ve started to break out of that. I have made sure that I have become intentional about building genuine relationships with other nonprofit organizations and leaders, especially women and minority women nonprofit leaders. It’s just a beautiful thing to hear people’s stories and to exchange experiences. To discuss challenges and successes, while celebrating and supporting one another.

I’ve been intentional about establishing community, but this work comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. When you put yourself out in the forefront, there are people who will overlook the good that you do and find things to criticize. Ultimately, I have had to free myself from people-pleasing so that I can stay focused on doing the work and the mission of my organization. Another big challenge is managing relationships with the board. I can’t speak for other nonprofit executive directors but managing relationships with the board can be very complicated and messy at times. Having a consistent understanding of everyone’s roles, whether it be governing or managing, is super important. Sometimes the waters can get kind of mucky if folks are not intentional about educating themselves on the healthy governing functions of nonprofits.

CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?

Arrington: First of all, I am so glad that I went through Georgetown University’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program! Actually, a couple of our certificate program facilitators have ended up becoming consultants of ScholarCHIPS. Mike Gellman, CPA has been such a blessing to me and ScholarCHIPS. He has been able to educate me on more advanced accounting practices for nonprofits through his organization, Fiscal Strategies 4 Nonprofits. I have also partnered with Shereen Williams on board governance training. As a result of working with her, we were able to identify our strategic priorities for the next 2 to 3 years in addition to developing committees for the board.

One of the top items on my list is Dr. Kathy Kretman’s class on Philanthropy, Power, and Politics. As a result of going through the Certificate Program, I learned about Dr. Kretman’s class and was able to apply for a capacity-building grant by working alongside one of her students, Lauren Augustine.   ScholarCHIPS ended up receiving a $7,500 grant that helped us hire a new accountant to advance our accounting controls as well as a grant writing and development consultant.

As a result of participating in the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program, I was also able to network with other nonprofit leaders across the DMV, which has been amazingly helpful. It has opened more doors for ScholarCHIPS, and various nonprofit professional development opportunities for me personally. For example, after doing the certificate program I became a member of Leadership Greater Washington’s 2023 cohort.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?

Arrington: As Nike says, just do it! I am a big advocate of this program. I believe that it’s worth the investment. For minority women nonprofit leaders who wish to be a part of the program, if you need financial support, the Crimsonbridge Foundation has a scholarship opportunity called LeaderBridge to help offset some of the financial cost of the program. I would also encourage nonprofit leaders, if they’re hesitant about the cost, to engage their board and/or a trusted donor or funder. Let them know of your intentions to participate in this professional development opportunity and see they would be willing to help invest to make it possible. Ultimately, your professional development in nonprofit management is going to help the organization that you’re working with as you become more educated and more equipped.