An interview with Otis Gates
Our December 16the podcast will feature members of the JFYNetWorks Board of Directors, who come from a variety of backgrounds and provide their insight and expertise to staff. Their dedication to JFYNetWorks adds up to over 75 combined years of service.
The board of directors of a nonprofit is the foundation of the organization. Board members serve as custodians, guardians and advocates of its values and mission. JFY is fortunate to have senior board officers whose personal values align with the organization’s mission and whose longevity in office gives them the historical perspective to understand JFY’s evolution and its relation to the social and economic conditions of the times.
Otis Gates, the chairman of the JFYNetWorks Board of Directors, is a founder of UHM Properties (formerly United Housing Management), the largest minority-owned developer, owner, and manager of affordable housing in Boston, founded in 2003. Otis grew up in Roxbury and graduated from Boston Latin, Harvard College and Harvard Business School before beginning his business career. He has been a board member of JFY since 1980.
In this preview of the December podcast, he discusses with Executive Director Gary Kaplan the origins of JFY and how he came to be part of the organization. Be sure to listen to the JFY podcast for more of the conversation with Otis and other board members when it is available on Thursday, December 16th.
GK: Otis Gates, our chairman, has been on the board of JFY since 1980. Otis, how did you initially become aware of and affiliated with JFY?
OG: I was contacted by one of the board members who happened to be on the Youth Services Committee of the United Way, as was I. We were in charge of giving United Way funds to support youth services– Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs and other youth organizations. He was the publisher of the Boston Globe at the time, Bill Taylor, and he was also on the board of JFY. He invited me to join the organization.
GK: What was it that interested you about the organization?
OG: It was 40 years ago, remember. He explained that the organization was helping young people get their first jobs out of high school, teaching them the kind of protocol that they had to follow in order to get a job. How to dress, how to talk to employers, the right things to say, that sort of thing. They called it Job Readiness. That was the main focus of what was then named Jobs for Youth—that’s where the JFY comes from. Interesting that we’re now using the term College and Career Readiness. Same idea, but different economy and much different job market, much higher skill requirements.
GK: And that was an issue, a cause, that concerned you at that time?
OG: Well, of course. I was involved in the youth services area. This was just a continuation of the same thing, but working directly with an organization that touched young people in a concrete way.
GK: And how about now? We’ve changed quite a bit in the intervening years. We’re no longer doing the exact same thing that we were doing in 1980. What is it that keeps you connected to JFY for 40 years?
OG: Well, after being there a while, about four or five years on, it was becoming pretty clear to us that the real difficulty about getting jobs had to do with education. So we began to focus on education, on skills. We brought that into the services we were trying to provide.
I was very fortunate to go to one of the exam schools that everyone wants to get into, Boston Latin, and then on to Harvard. And it struck me that I was very fortunate. I didn’t understand why the other schools weren’t as good. There were lots of other students who were just as smart as me and much smarter than me, kids I knew who didn’t go to those schools and didn’t do quite as well as I did. I didn’t think that was fair, and there had to be something we could do about it. I eventually began working in the field of computers. I did that for about 20 years and even then I could see that what we were doing there could eventually have some impact on delivering education to students.
GK: Where was that?
OG: Arthur Andersen. It’s now Accenture. I did that for almost 20 years
GK: And you saw that it could do something with education.
OG: Well, a lot of time passed before we got to that. It wasn’t until the nineties that we started to really focus on education at Jobs for Youth. Around 2000 was when we began to look at software that would become available for use in schools. We were pioneers in that area. There were people in other places working on it, but we were the only ones in this area that I know of. We began to work more directly with schools. In fact, we have had schools not only here in Massachusetts but also consulting arrangements as far afield as Chicago, New York, Hartford, Washington D. C., Baltimore, Texas and other places. That’s why we changed our name in the early 2000s to JFYNetWorks, because we were operating an extended network of schools linked by a computer network.
GK: So what is it about JFY that keeps you connected?
OG: Early on before we got to the point where we are now with online learning, the students we served came to JFY for adult education classes and job training courses. In the spring we would have a graduation ceremony for all the programs, education and job training, and that ceremony was absolutely amazing. The graduating students would bring members of their family—parents, siblings, friends. You’d think they had won the Super Bowl when they got their diplomas. You see, these students were the ones who were left behind, the ones who didn’t get into Latin School, who didn’t graduate from any high school. This was an accomplishment to get that diploma or job training certificate.
I’ll give you one example. There was a young woman who came to us as a single mother on welfare. She went through our G. E. D. program and got her high school diploma. Then she went into our Environmental Technology job training program—it was sponsored by EPA– and got her HazMat certificate. She got a job at MIT, the Broad Institute, working on the human genome project. She came back to us as a speaker at our graduation ceremony. There she was, explaining what the human genome was about. It was way over my head. She had risen to the level of supervisor. She told her story: a young person who was so shy and lacking confidence that if there were more than two people in the room she wouldn’t open her mouth. Now she was supervising a team of researchers at the top laboratory in the country and speaking to a room full of people. Just seeing that kind of thing is what makes this worthwhile.
Sometimes it feels like we’re out here with a spoon trying to shovel sand into the ocean. But I can tell you that that one grain of sand, that one individual, makes it worthwhile being in an organization that can help someone that way. We have other examples. There are many others I could cite. That’s the reward you get for doing the kind of work we do. There are a great many talented people everywhere. Talent is distributed randomly. It’s not distributed on the basis of exam schools and Ivy League universities and the rest of that. The problem is how do you bring that talent forward so that we can all benefit from what these people have to offer us? That’s what keeps me connected.
GK: What do you think when you look into the future? What do you think the future of JFY looks like?
OG: I think it looks great. Just the fact that we’ve survived for 45 years is an unbelievable accomplishment. A lot of nonprofit organizations like ours just disappeared. So given that we’ve survived and thrived, I’m confident that those who come after us will continue because the need is great and therefore the opportunity is great. We have the tools and the expertise that can move us forward.
This ordeal with Covid has brought people forward. We’ve had a lot of challenges, personal, professional, organizational and so on. But it’s provided an impetus and an opportunity to learn and to get familiar with the new technology and to see what advantages there are in it for you. There are certainly problems with it; but there are many things that are good and can be helpful and can be used by teachers, by students, by parents and others. People are no longer afraid of this technology. It’s here to stay and they’re learning how to use it. So I think that is one less hurdle we’ll have to overcome as we try to deliver our service.
I think the future is bright. The word is out there to the schools, they understand. And we’re getting responses from places we’ve never heard from before. So I think the future for us is all positive.
GK: I’m glad to hear that. I have to say I agree with you. You have the longest historical perspective, even longer than mine. Thank you, Otis. I’m looking forward to a long future together here at JFY.
Other posts with the JFYNetWorks Board of Directors can be found here.
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