Simran Sidhu doesn’t know exactly where her passion for helping young people comes from, but it was there before she had two children of her own. It was there before she got married, before she worked in a kindergarten, before she moved to Philadelphia from Bombay for school.
It existed before the 21 years she spent working with high school dropouts at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School, the alternative, career-focused school for young adults she said she “grew with.” The source of her passion might be a mystery, but for Sidhu, it’s something that just “feels right.”
“I want people to know about how many incredible young people are in this city. We don’t look enough to find that,” said Sidhu, adding that she’s had the good fortune of signing over 3,000 high school diplomas. “I’ve seen young people do amazing, amazing things.”
Now, the 46-year-old youth advocate will continue to help young people do amazing things outside of YouthBuild: Sidhu was just tapped to lead a new youth development org founded by Joanna Berwind Creamer, daughter of the late Philly businessman Charles Berwind, as executive director.
As of now, the organization is unnamed, but its mission will align with Creamer and Sidhu’s shared interest in strength-based youth programs and juvenile justice. It also sounds like the organization will provide funding to programs that do that work, though Sidhu said it will not be a foundation.
"Our mission is ... changing the narrative about young people so that it's much more about their potential."
“It’s very early. We’re strategizing and trying to figure it out. We want to be this different type of organization,” said Sidhu. “Our mission isn’t just funding organizations, but changing the narrative about young people so that it’s much more about their potential than the usual negative [stigmas].”
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Sidhu is a bit of a policy nerd (she said she imagines her old coworkers at YouthBuild won’t miss weekly emails with suggested readings). Two decades of working in the field have shaped her into an adamant advocate for increased investment in older young adults up to age 24 — specifically those who come from impoverished backgrounds, and especially those aging out of the foster system.
“We have this really mixed, weird expectation that they’re old enough to know better, yet we’re not really giving them all the right tools. It’s a bit of an abyss,” she said. “There are not enough safety nets for foster kids aging out. The juvenile justice system is crap.”
Sidhu said she used to try to spend at least a day every year in a courtroom just to see what was happening with youth who come into conflict with the criminal justice system.
“It’s really appalling. You see young person of color after young person of color and wonder what is happening,” she said. “What’s the premise for locking away a kid who doesn’t have $900 [for bail]? What are you really trying to do with that? The will to invest in other things has to happen.”
There are too many gaps in the system that trap young impoverished adults, said Sidhu. Her new organization will look to fill some of those gaps and act as a “champion” for young adults who still need guidance. How the organization will do that — whether through programming, funding or a mix of both — is yet to be determined. But Sidhu, who describes herself as “an eternal and strident optimist,” has her sights set on welding the holes in antiquated government systems.
“I’m hoping we will build something that is new and exciting and valuable,” she said. “That we’ll make a difference to young people by building an ecosystem around them where every place and system is concerned with their well-being and their potential versus what harm they’re trying to undo.”