Losing a Youth Development Icon

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I know that some municipal officials devote their entire lives to public service.  In Boston, Tom Menino has served as mayor for nearly 20 years, and spent almost a decade before that as a member of the City Council.  Richard Daley dominated Chicago’s City Hall and political life for a generation, as his father had done in an earlier era.  And Joseph Riley in Charleston, S.C., has surely earned the moniker of “mayor for life,” first elected in 1975 and now entering his 38th year in office.

Most people who work within city government, however, follow a somewhat different path.  Many develop skills and expertise in community-based groups or other nonprofit organizations, often grappling with the most practical and challenging problems at the neighborhood level.  Their knowledge and commitment lead them to city hall, taking on roles that enable them to pursue citywide reforms.  Through their innovations, they make a lasting difference in their cities and then often move on, in many cases becoming champions for important causes at the state or national level.

Such was the path followed by Richard Murphy, former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Youth Services in the early 1990s, who became one of the nation’s leading experts and guiding lights on youth development.  As the head of several national nonprofits, Richard was a source of inspiration and wisdom for me and the National League of Cities, serving on NLC’s Council on Youth, Education, and Families since 2000.  Now we will have to find our way forward without him – Richard was taken from us by a fast-moving cancer on February 14, leaving behind a wonderful legacy of accomplishment and a vast network of admirers who are mourning his loss.

Richard’s journey in the field of youth development began in the neighborhoods of New York City.  At the top of his resume, Richard referenced a chance encounter with a nine-year-old boy at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the South Bronx and said that the boy’s answer to a simple question – Why aren’t you in school? – launched him on his lifelong quest to expand opportunities for disadvantaged children and youth.

He spent the next two decades as the founder and director of a community-based organization, the Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, with the mission of securing educational access and success for elementary school truants.  Through Rheedlen, Richard established new funding streams for preventive and school-based social services, while also leading the redesign – long before such efforts were in vogue – of a low-performing junior high school into four small high schools (the first new high schools in Harlem in 40 years).  The seeds he planted at Rheedlen continued to bear fruit long after his departure as the organization evolved and grew into what we know today as the Harlem Children’s Zone.

But Richard didn’t stop there.  In 1990, he responded to the call of public service by agreeing to serve as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ commissioner of youth services.  At the height of concerns about crime and violence in the city, Richard knew that part of the solution had to be about opportunities for the constructive engagement of young people during out-of-school time.  His visionary leadership led to the creation, as part of the Mayor’s Safe City, Safe Streets initiative, of the first Beacon Schools that opened school doors beyond the traditional 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. school day.   The Beacon School model has since been replicated in major cities across America, including Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

When the Dinkins Administration came to a close, Richard moved to Washington, D.C., and quickly made a major impact on the national scene as director of the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research at what was then the Academy for Educational Development.  He championed the concept of community youth mapping and the replication of community schools, maintaining a relentless focus on building the capacity of local leaders to improve youth outcomes.

In the last years of his life, Richard returned to New York where he promoted access to nutritious food and adequate income, including the development of the nation’s largest Earned Income Tax Credit outreach and tax preparation effort.  Most recently, he devoted most of his time and energies to an ambitious effort focused on “iMapping America,” seeking to harness emerging technologies and what he termed the “collective intelligence of young people” to guarantee all children and youth access to safe and accurate information to make better decisions.

Much will be done and written in the coming months to honor Richard Murphy’s life and contributions to the field of youth development.  He accomplished a great deal, and he also had a wonderful spirit and a huge heart that was apparent to and treasured by so many who had the honor and the joy of working with him.  Richard never lost his sense of optimism, and his belief that we can always make the world a better place for our children and youth.  It’s a spirit and commitment that can serve as an enduring guide for all of us who work on behalf of cities.

To learn more about Richard Murphy’s life and accomplishments, see the New York Times obituary published on February 17, 2013.