Distinguished GBS alumnus talks about career in Chicago social work

GLENVIEW — On June 1, upon winning the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Glenbrook South High School, Michelle Adler Morrison told 600 graduating students “Get your hands dirty, engage and take risks.”

She also said, “Seek experiences that bring meaning and purpose to your life.”

A 1984 GBS graduate, she went on to become CEO of Youth Guidance, a successful Chicago youth sports and counseling program for young, at-risk males of color in its Becoming A Man (B.A.M.) program.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has publicly supported B.A.M., as well as President Barack Obama for inspiring his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.

In 2013, the president visited B.A.M. at Chicago’s Hyde Park Academy High School to meet the young men.

He later invited them in February to the White House in Washington, D.C.

“They get help with schoolwork, but they also learn life skills like how to be a responsible citizen, how to deal with life’s challenges, how to manage frustrations in a constructive way and how to set goals for themselves,” Obama told a White House audience.

“And it works,” he said, adding a University of Chicago study found that among young men in the program, arrests for violent crimes had dropped 44 percent and high school graduation rates increased by 10 percent to 23 percent.

Morrison said the program’s evidence-based success was largely due to understanding the link between social-emotional learning and academic outcomes in education.

“And I think we’ve done that — understanding the ties,” she said.

“You can intervene into a youth population in cost-effective ways and see huge payoffs.

“Whereas many people felt it was too late for these young men to change and their communities were too violent.”

After joining Youth Guidance in 1990, Morrison helped develop the Chicago Comer School Development Program and Community School Initiatives.

She also served as the Yale Child Center School Development Program national faculty and regional trainer, providing school change consultation throughout the region.

Under her direction, Youth Guidance has received the Bank of America Neighborhood Builders Award.

Maria Kim, CEO of Cara, a Chicago program that helps people get out of homelessness and poverty, has known Morrison for 12 years.

“She has come up through the ranks and so brings humility to her work in social services. She also is very accessible to young people, which is one reason why B.A.M. is successful,” Kim said.

“Michelle is a constant learner who doesn’t think she already knows the question.”

At Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, as a student Morrison was a tutor for Onward House in Near North Chicago, where every Saturday for four years she and classmates boarded a bus to help inner-city youths with school work.

“It was amazing and eye-opening. Some kids had a hard time learning to read because they had been exposed to lead paint in substandard housing, causing cognitive delays,” she recalled.

At GBS, Morrison also worked as a peer group mentor that taught her how to lead discussions in a structured way.

“In the 1980s, there was a time when high school students were struggling with parents getting divorced,” she said.

“So older GBS students were mentoring the younger ones. I loved developing those skills, and it was really cool the high school valued that,” she said, noting both her parents were social workers.

When the B.A.M. program started in 2011, Morrison said 500 students participated; however, the current total is around 2,000.

“The demand is definitely outstripping resources,” she said.

Morrison received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana, and her master’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a licensed clinical social worker and also a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Strategic Partnerships in the nonprofit management program.

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