Interview With Founder, Board Emeritus and Executive Director of Eyej – Mai Moore By Megha Goel “The youth are the foundation of our future, and it is our responsibility as […]
By Megha Goel
“The youth are the foundation of our future, and it is our responsibility as a society, community, and as human beings to help #EMPOWER them.”Mai Moore
With youth facing challenges now more than ever, whether it’s the epidemic of toxic stress, exposure to violence, police murders, or the accumulated weight of family or personal lives, it’s become more and more important to support them. Working with our youth for 7 years, Mai Moore, Founder and Executive Director of Empowering Youth, Exploring Justice (EYEJ) says about youth that “they are honest, not tainted and don’t play the political card”. Additionally, she points out, “two years into EYEJ, we realized that the work we were doing had nothing to do with the youth. The youth are not the issue. It’s the community and the adults.” While the work they do is evolving, the mission and initial design was to focus on youth and how to empower them. While Mai says that youth will always be the focus, it’s up to the community to help make positive systemic change to help empower our youth.
While the tragic Trayvon Martin verdict and the national outrage in 2013 sparked the formation of Empowering Youth, Exploring Justice, African-Americans’ suffering and killing happen every single day, all day. Mai states the urgency for larger conversations around social justice are needed as part of daily life. “The current protests and civil unrest related to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery aren’t new. The oppression of African Americans has been going on for decades – and centuries. Examples span from district redlining to school segregation, and from mass racism to police retaliation. The system is intentionally setting African Americans up for failure and keeping people oppressed.”
“I moved back to Cleveland 11 years ago this coming August. I had a successful career, and it was time for me to give back.”
Mai quit her lucrative career and established EYEJ in 2013. Remembering the reasons, she explained that her “background was in the corporate realm, and I never ever thought I would have anything to do with youth, social justice or starting a non-profit.” With about 20 years of experience in marketing – specifically in the tech industry – helping companies such as Travelzoo Inc. and United Online directly go public, she says EYEJ was her calling. Tech and start-up business experience, understanding the balance between taking personal risk, speed, business, creating impact and results, have all helped drive the success of EYEJ. When moving back to Cleveland, she saw how segregated Cleveland was, and how business was very silo’d and not results-oriented. Moore says her diverse background and her Libra nature of being ‘blindly just’ are contributing factors to EYEJ’s values and business dynamic. Having grown up in Cleveland Heights (suburb of Cleveland) and traveled the world, working in different cities in America with people of diverse backgrounds gave her a fair taste of the injustices African-Americans go through. However, her upbringing in Cleveland Heights, where people treated each other as humans and not by the color of their skin, not judging their socio-economic background but looking at each other for who they were, what they were into, what were their dreams in life, has carried with her throughout her life and is definitely part of the core values of EYEJ.
The ultimate goal for EYEJ is for our youth to be happy, successful to who they are meant to be, and healthy.
Initially, EYEJ didn’t expect youth to come to them. They reached out to schools directly and implemented their core program, the Discussion Series, in schools during the school day. “We came to them.” Moore calls the work a blessing. The EYEJ Youth Council specifically focuses on creating a positive systematic change for other youth in Cleveland. When Moore talks about the formation of the EYEJ Youth Council, “I connected with various organizations, schools and community organizers and sent them the application, and in return we received 42 applications. For the Discussion Series, new schools came from referrals of Principals.
Remembering a picture of the Youth Council from 2018, Mai speaks of these kids with pride. “The youth look so young. They have won awards, received scholarships, been interviewed, they have learned how to work with different organizations, they have learned about working with people they are not used to being around, they have learned about policy and the politics of Cleveland – I can go on and on. Most importantly, these children have learned about advocating for positive change. We are like a family.” She goes on further to say the Council gives youth hope and a place they can trust.
The young adults in the Youth Council advocate and work to better the lives of other youth. Mai states that sadly, these kids are already acting adults at a young age as they protect the younger ones, carrying so many responsibilities. “It is sad, and not their responsibility, but that’s the way society is.” Mai shares that the Youth Council is looking to achieve a real win. This year, the Youth Council’s focus aims at enabling broadband internet for all youth and families in the City of Cleveland.
They say success comes with sacrifice. It was no different for Moore. “I spent all my savings and I was making zero for a year and a half at one point, then I starting making $1,500 a month.” Mai remembers the difficult days not that long ago. “People think we are making millions. There was a time during the process of growing EYEJ when my daughter and I had no place to live and were evicted. I spent the night sleeping in the car. […] I have been attacked and criticized from many many directions. People have tried to take advantage and called me crazy for doing this work. People from different backgrounds (black and white), including my family, have put me down for empowering black kids, but I just stay focused on the mission.”
Onto a lighter note, Mai states that “she is really proud of the #EMPOWER giving campaign.” The campaign was launched in November 2019 led by Marissa Evans. The campaign took about 75 days to prepare. It is one of our highlights of EYEJ’s history. Now, almost at a close, with $807 left to raise to hit the organization’s goal and $104,311 from 385 donors, Moore states “for the diverse community to come and support the mission of EYEJ is a success. It proves how important the work is. It’s not us, it’s not the youth, but the community together that can make great change”. Additionally, Mai shares that fundraising has been very difficult. It’s not like tech funding. As you can imagine, not only was EYEJ a start-up non-profit, it was focused on black youth and social justice….many would think wild at the time. She adds, “it’s a luxury to see a donation come in automatically without me having to hustle somebody down.”
Every donation, however the size, makes you a donor and owner of EYEJ. Every donation, Mai shares, is a reassurance for support and proves that the mission is valuable, and that the work is powerful and impactful. Mai shows gratitude not only to donors but also to the powerful team of EYEJ (of whom many are donors) who put in hard work each day to help with growth (there have been over 650 people). These donations are so meaningful, as every dollar counts at EYEJ and the impact is so great. It goes beyond helping with a stipend for the Youth Council, or funding a program, or helping shape a better pathway for the youth. These dollars help to inspire and to bring hope that is so needed to herself, to the organization, to the team, to the youth…the impact is long. This summer, the Youth Council is working tirelessly on bridging the digital divide, and focusing on connectivity issues in the City of Cleveland. This is a win that the team deserves.
Every youth issue and youth story is a compelling motivation for EYEJ to continue the work.
EYEJ aims to go national with it’s new online programs (YODJ: Youth Online Discussing Justice and All-Star Reading program). Their future includes the innovation of new products and programs. They aspire that the Youth Council grows to continue to work on different issues. People can become a part of the powerful work that EYEJ is doing by volunteering on the front- or back-end in various programs or throughout the organization (there is currently a team of 63 people internally helping push EYEJ forward), by donating the #EMPOWER campaign, or by spreading the mission and vision of the organization.
You can support them by connecting them to like-minded people, funders, and supporters.
Help EYEJ and the EYEJ Youth Council by donating at eyej.org/empower. This money will go directly to stipends for the EYEJ Youth Council members, in gratitude for their hard work and commitment to addressing the Digital Divide and to support their work. Read more about the Youth Council’s work to address Connectivity in their official statement.