Interview: Adam Bucko on how homeless youth can turn their creativity into careers
Adam Bucko helps homeless youth channel their passion into creative careers. His organization, the Reciprocity Foundation, connects youths living on the streets in New York City with college scholarships and jobs in field such as media, fashion, music and social entrepreneurship. Within a year of working with Reciprocity, almost all youth leave the shelter system and close to 80% land internships or gain work experience. Here, Bucko talks about Reciprocity’s Polish and Himalayan origins and how, after living on three continents, he discovered his life’s calling.
Dowser: What, if any, of your early life experiences led you to where you are today?
Bucko: I grew up in Poland, which at that time was under communist regime. I remember when I was about 5 years old, walking around the streets of my city and collecting Solidarity posters, something that my parents could have gone to jail for at the time because such posters were illegal. [Solidarity was the Polish trade union federation that led the fight against communism.]
At 5 years old you were already an activist?
Well, my more ‘formal’ activism began at the age of 14 when I became part of the Anarchist Punk Movement, which was based on principles of compassion, democracy and mutual empowerment.
And when did you come to the U.S.?
At age 17. It was very clear to me by then that my life’s work would be helping to create positive change.
And now you’re doing just that with Reciprocity. What sort of change are you seeking to realize with your work?
Traditionally, the social change sector has tended to focus solely on systemic change. While that type of change is extremely important, to be truly effective and sustainable, it must be accompanied by personal change.
Reciprocity helps homeless youth enroll in college, build professional networks and get work in their field of interest. But how do you promote personal change?
We give our students spiritual, psychological, educational and career-related tools that enable them to transform their lives.
Has Reciprocity walked its talk and helped youth achieve these distinct types of change?
We have seen homeless youth placed in jobs and internships at Fortune 500 companies. Others have gained admissions to prestigious public and private colleges. Recently, one of our transgender homeless youth placed as a contestant on a major reality show. Her participation helped start a national media campaign focused on re-defining beauty in America.
You mentioned that Reciprocity gives youth spiritual and psychological tools. Where did you acquire yours?
I went to India to enter a monastery in the Himalayas. I thought that I would have a great time there meditating, but everything changed when I met Indian street kids.
I remember this one experience when a child came up to me and put her hand in my hand while asking me for food. It’s very easy to ignore words, but the moment you have that connection of touching, you can’t just say, ‘Go away.’
The philosopher Martin Buber says that every person we meet in our lives is a call that we must respond to. That’s what that experience with the homeless child was for me. After two weeks at the monastery, I realized that sitting there in the Himalayas was a bit irrelevant after I’d met those street kids.
So there you were, in the Himalayas, armed with your newfound irrelevance. What was your next move?
I went back to New Delhi and got in touch with an old friend who was running a monastery in the slums there. He’s an artist from Amsterdam and former heroin addict who, after dealing with his own addiction, became a monk, went to India, and ministered to heroin addicts in Delhi. Eventually his work evolved into a wonderful village of recovering people centered on the monastery he started. I moved into that community and started working with him, working with street kids and people dying of AIDS in the streets.
That’s a far cry from the calm and isolation of a monastery.
In order to get close to some of the underground communities, we had to sleep on the street. It was very tough, and it changed my life. Having seen all of that poverty and suffering, I felt a sense of obligation to attempt to do something to alleviate it.
When I got back to the States, I started working with street kids in Florida and got exposed to the problem of youth homelessness in this country.
How old were you at that point?
When did you realize that you needed to start a new kind of organization for homeless youth?
In Orlando, I was working for one of the largest homeless youth organizations in the country. I remember one night I was outside this very sketchy hotel where all these sex-worker kids would stay.
This one girl came up to me and said, ‘Help me.’ She was prostituting at night, two of her small kids were sleeping at the hotel, and during the day she was looking for a job. She said, ‘Help me get out, I need a job… I need something.’ I realized that I couldn’t help her, because the system I was representing was not set up to address her problems.
Why couldn’t you help her?
The problem with the traditional model of dealing with youth homelessness is that most homeless youth don’t have the skills or education to be able to get jobs that pay a livable wage. So, they complete shelter programs, which force them to take a job, move out, get a room or an apartment, and they quickly realize that their job does not pay enough to maintain the cost of living. Within a few months these kids end up back on the street, even more disillusioned and hurt.
This is why we started Reciprocity. We wanted to work with kids who live in shelters and give them the opportunities, training and education to transition out of low-wage/low-skill jobs and permanently exit the shelter cycle.
Creating a new organization is never easy. What was your greatest challenge in the early stages?
It was very difficult to get funding for this work. We didn’t want to replicate other organizations already working in this sector, but I think a lot of funders were simply accustomed to funding frameworks that were already tested. At first no one was really interested in us.
What was Reciprocity’s most unexpected success?
Starting a business, Appreciate, which is the nation’s first design firm led by formerly-homeless youth. We sell well-designed, socially-responsible and green gifts to corporations to help fund our programs. Within the first five weeks of the business we made almost $30,000.
Currently Reciprocity’s work is focused in New York, but your website mentions plans to build a national network of programs. Will this require any changes to the ways you deliver services?
Yes. For example, in the past, all of our classes were co-taught by leaders in the industry. So a few times a week, we had executives from different companies coming here and teaching. That was very difficult to organize, and only a certain number of kids could participate.
As a solution, we conducted interviews with all of those executives, and created short films that we use in our classes and that can be taught almost anywhere. We still organize panels with executives, but the multimedia curriculum opened the program to hundreds more students.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Probably, I’d be somewhere in the monastery in India. I don’t think I could do anything else in life. Just that and this. Or maybe I’d be playing guitar in the subway. (Laughs)
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Julie Furbush for Dowser