The Why of YPA
by Dan Holland, founder, Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh
The recent killing of Osama bin Laden brought back many painful memories of 9/11, but it also brought back many memories of why I started the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh (YPA) in the first place. On the day after 9/11, on September 12, 2001, I was out for a run and noticed that, despite the horrific events of the day before, people seemed unchanged, unfazed. I heard a driver honking his horn because the traffic he was stuck in wouldn’t move quicker. Then, I saw an old man drop a wadded up napkin down on the ground, as if that’s where litter was supposed to go.
It seemed to me that 9/11 was a wakeup call to make this world a better place. Yet, what I saw troubled me: dozens of communities all around me that looked like bombed out ghost towns—completely abandoned and neglected. The streets had holes, bridges were crumbling, litter and graffiti was everywhere, and old buildings were being torn down simply because they were vacant. Is this the America that we are supposed to be so proud of? Is this the legacy we want to leave the next generation?
More importantly, I asked, how, then, can we make this a better place—truly the best country in the world?
I started YPA in the spring of 2002, in part due to my reaction to 9/11. What better way to honor the lives lost than to do something productive. What better way to defeat the terrorists than to reinvest in one’s own community and show how great this country really is.
Since that time, YPA has grown into an respected organization with a regional presence. We have impacted more than 4,700 people through our programs and services; we have had more than 140 media articles; we have produced more than 22 unique publications; hosted more than 30 interns and volunteers; and spearheaded the creation of three new City of Pittsburgh historic landmarks. More than $80 million has been invested in sites listed on our Top Ten List, creating more than 1,200 jobs.
We have also garnered national attention. YPA inspired the creation of other young preservationist groups in places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Seattle, Washington; and Buffalo, New York.
But those are just numbers. YPA has impacted the lives of young people in a positive and meaningful way. An article appeared in the local paper about Noel Jenkins—who served as an intern with us in 2007 as a high school senior, and who now is a senior at California University of Pennsylvania—helping to document history for the California Area Historical Society.
Colleen Schmidt, who now works at a Washington, DC, law firm, started as an intern with YPA while a student at Cal U. Drew Levinson won YPA’s Preservation Video Contest as a young film student; he is now pursuing a film degree at Tulane University in New Orleans.
YPA developed the Youth Main Street Advisors Program in 2006 as a a service learning project that connects students with communities through the creation of a student-produced project about the community’s history, present, and future. One student, who was part of a video production, remarked in 2007: “It’s an interesting thing to do, because as new things develop, and time changes, it’s important to keep a sense of identity, where things came from, who you are, where your roots are. It’s exciting to find out everybody’s viewpoint.”
When we worked with students at Propel Andrew Street High School to write a book about their community, one of them remarked, “as new things develop, and time changes, it’s important to keep a sense of identity, where things came from, who you are, where your roots are. It’s exciting to find out everybody’s viewpoint.”
In 2008, YPA awarded the Promise Award to Norwin High School senior Tansy Michaud, who later went on to film school in Florida. Upon accepting the award, Tansy challenged the audience:
I guess, what I’m trying to say is that there are plenty of youth who would love to be engaged in the future of their communities. They just need someone or some people to help them along. So, to all the adults here tonight who wish the youth in their communities would get involved—I’m throwing the ball back at you. Get them involved. Teach them, ask to hear their opinions, listen, and support them. Your communities will reap the rewards in the end.
These numbers and stories tell only part of the picture. They explain what YPA has done, but not necessarily why. Recently I saw a YouTube video by Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker who said, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And that made me think about the “why” of YPA.
So, then, why did I start YPA?
Because I believe that an investment in young people is an investment in our future. We can invest in restoring an old building, but if we don’t invest in the future tenants and users of that building, all we have is an empty shell. That is why I believe that an investment in young people is an investment in human capital.
By taking the time to work with young people, to see the world from their point of view, to walk the streets that they walk, to sit down with them and look them in the eye and ask them, “what do you think?” Or, taking them with you to see and explore the world around them, even if it’s just down the street from their home or school. That’s the kind of investment I’m taking about.
Properly educated and cultivated, young people will be inspired to make a difference in the world, starting with their own communities. This, in turn, will affect investments in infrastructure, in historic buildings, and other community assets. They will vote for candidates who work to improve their communities; they will support businesses that have made commitments to the neighborhood; and they will live and pay taxes in the community where they have invested their time and energy.
YPA believes in challenging the status quo—that young people aren’t just sitting at home playing video games or hanging out on street corners. They are writing books. They are exploring and reshaping communities. They are nominating historic buildings, advocating for the wise use of scarce resources, and leading reinvestment in our core communities.
Young people are challenging us to think differently about young people.
Now, this whole time, you are probably wondering, what do young people have to do with historic preservation? Shouldn’t we be focused on saving old buildings? Well, in one word: everything.
Young people have everything to do with saving old buildings for three reasons.
First, as I mentioned above, if we don’t invest in our human capital by educating young people about the value of saving old buildings, then we will fail to cultivate a new generation of small business owners, home owners, investors, and donors that support the reuse of old buildings.
Nearly 80 percent of all small business owners are under the age of 40. The vast majority of first-time homeowners are between the ages of 25 and 44. And many lifelong decisions about how and where to spend money are made when people are in their teens, who are poised to have more spending power than any other generation.
Second, YPA is not only enhancing the educational experience of young people, we are shaping and transforming critical economic, financial, and political habits of young people that directly impact our communities. The question is, where will these young people establish a small business, buy a new home, or spend their money—in a Main Street district or historic neighborhood, or in sprawling cookie-cutter communities that drain resources from established core communities?
If we do nothing, the best we can hope for is that young people will somehow, magically discover the value of saving old buildings, but the impact will probably be small and inconsequential. At worst, by doing nothing we send the message that we have given up on young people—and we see the result of that today with crime stats, incarceration rates, school dropouts, drugs, and other problems. If, on the other hand, we make an attempt to engage young people and involve them in the preservation of historic buildings and communities, we stand the chance of profoundly impacting their lives so they make wise decisions about their future.
How will young people perceive an old community—as a broken down wasteland or a land of opportunity? YPA believes that historic preservation is an opportunity to transform neighborhoods—particularly low-income, minority inner-city communities—into walkable, safe, and attractive places to live, work, and play.
Finally, there’s no better way for the older generation to secure their legacy—and everything they have fought hard to achieve—than by educating and involving young people in the current work of historic preservation. I believe that historic preservation is the ultimate multi-disciplinary and inter-generational field because it involves so many different skill sets—from banking and construction to fundraising and organizing—and so many different types of people—old, young, black, white, foreign, and domestic.
So, to answer the “why”: young people are our future. We can choose to ignore them and watch our communities crumble, or we can educate, train, and involve them in preserving the past to forge a stronger future. This is what we mean by our slogan “Give Life to History.”