Tracing a boy's rise from program participant to board chair

Thirty years ago, at the tender age of ten, Jamel Oeser-Sweat was literally a “fugitive from justice.” His mother was looking to elude Special Services for Children’s attempt to once again remove her children from her care. A lot has changed since.

Old photo from SCAN New York

Old photo from SCAN New York SCAN New York

Thirty years ago, at the tender age of ten, Jamel Oeser-Sweat was literally a “fugitive from justice.” His mother was looking to elude Special Services for Children’s attempt to once again remove her children from her care. Oeser-Sweat had endured homelessness, foster care, group home placement and, residence in New York’s most notorious homeless family shelter at the time – Prince George Hotel. In 1986 SSC referred Oeser-Sweat’s family to SCAN New York for preventive services. He, his two brothers and his mother began participating in after school activities and family and individual counseling. They received various family support resources.

At the age of fourteen, Oeser-Sweat  was elected president of SCAN’s very first Youth Advisory Council. Oeser-Sweat’s gregariousness and precocious leadership capabilities helped the council bond and prosper. Of the original ten members, nine earned their bachelor’s degree despite profoundly challenging life circumstances.

As a teenager, Oeser-Sweat was selected by Mount Sinai Hospital for a prestigious internship in their Biomedical Research Lab. In his senior year of high school, he was selected for a Westinghouse Science Award – the first minority youth to receive this distinction in many decades. I remember scanning The New York Times one Sunday morning to find Oeser-Sweat’s  picture and story literally on page one. I also fondly recollect his visit to my office one spring afternoon. I left my desk for a moment, returning to find Oeser-Sweat sitting proudly in my chair, proclaiming – with his feet perched atop my desk – “One day this is where I will sit!”

Oeser-Sweat attended New York University on a full academic scholarship and then attended St. John’s Law School on scholarship. He was a co-author of “DNA: Forensic and Legal Applications,” one of the very first legal publications exploring the use of DNA in legal practice. He established his private law practice in 2003 and specialized in criminal defense – regularly serving as legal counsel to former friends and neighbors – often as pro-bono counsel. In 2014, Oeser-Sweat received the prestigious distinction of being named a 2014 Rising Star by The New York Law Journal.

As Oeser-Sweat’s career evolved, he joined the SCAN board of directors. He instantly became a valued director, able to help his fellow directors comprehend the critical import of SCAN’s commitment to providing services to East Harlem, Harlem and the South Bronx’s highest risk youth and families. His favorite SCAN program was “Reach for The Stars,” SCAN’s unique upward bound program designed to service academically high risk students. He regularly mentored ‘Reach for The Stars’ young folk.

On the evening of March 12, 2018, Jamel Oeser-Sweat was elected president of SCAN’s board of directors. His election was shared with SCAN’s predominantly African-American and Latino staff to a literal avalanche of applause and enthusiasm. “My election is a statement from your board of directors that we have full faith and confidence in your struggle to support our young people … families and community,” Oeser-Sweat said.

Often, nonprofit executives speak about empowering youth, parents, and families. Similarly, progressive folk acknowledge diversity as a cherished value. Yet, the reality of the paucity of people of color in leadership roles within New York’s nonprofit community belies such professed values. Jamel Oeser-Sweat’s ascendancy to SCAN board president, stands as a positive challenge to other nonprofits: A challenge to nurture more future agency leaders from among the communities and youth we serve. To do less would be to shrink from the values of diversity and empowerment that we hear so loudly proclaimed.

As Jamel Oeser-Sweat finished his address to SCAN staff on March 12, I  wiped away a tear or two as my mind’s eye flashed back thirty years to when he sat proudly in my chair proclaiming, “One day I will be sitting in this chair.” True to his word, Oeser-Sweat now occupies a chair of powerful distinction – and a chair well earned.