Early last year, Rob Gray and Derek Rush launched the Conscious Capitalist Group to serve opportunity youth, or those who aren’t on track to attend a four-year college or university. 

Formerly housed at the Boys & Girls Club on Cherry Avenue and the Blue Ridge Youth Detention Center in Albemarle County, the group offered children in grades seven through 12th face-to-face learning about financial literacy, leadership and mentorship — many are skills that the leaders of the program said marginalized and under-resourced communities may not have.

The goal had been to solve the wealth gap in the Black community, the leaders of Conscious Capitalist said. 

Rush said it’s been tough being a startup nonprofit — specifically it’s run by two Black men. That has caused them  to face some struggles.

“It can be tough being in that nonprofit space. [There are] a lot of politics,” he said.

“For a lack of better words …. being in a position to make people feel comfortable about who you are in order for them to trust that, ‘Oh, if I give my money to this Black organization, the money is going where it’s supposed to versus some organizations that may not have to deal with that.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic hitting Virginia in March led to other challenges, causing the program to close its Boys & Girls Club site and make the detention center site virtual.

Since then, Gray and Rush said they’ve pivoted their organization toward a new model to meet the needs of the children, including assisting children in Charlottesville City Schools with virtual learning through its brand-new office on the Downtown Mall. 

Louisa Candelario, whose three children take part in the virtual learning, said more programs like this are needed throughout Charlottesville. It has allowed her to juggle work and virtual schooling during the pandemic, she said.

“I like that they have the male influence, and that they are able to be mentored by males,” Candelario said. “I would say it’s not very common, so I like that part about it because it will help them have role models.”

Candelario, who is of Dominican descent, said the program is important for youth of color ― specifically because there are not a lot of influences that they can see and model themselves after. 

“It gives you an affordable way of keeping the kids on track,” she said. 

“I know that around town I’ve heard of different pods that are very expensive. It sort of levels the playing field when you have people who have the means to have these very expensive virtual learning spaces. You have a program like that where it’s affordable.”

Gray said they have a  goal to expand. There are two people running the program, but he’d like to double his staff.

But the organization is unique in that it’s a brand-new, Black-led nonprofit, which doesn’t have the same resources as other established organizations, Gray said. 

There have been great demands for the program because it’s using people with lived experience to work with the youth, adding that this is not a traditional form of mentoring, he added.

“We’re a grassroots organization, so basically what I’m asking that people really critically think about the way they fund organizations like ours because we are new,” he said.

“Please consider us in terms of philanthropy. We want to have an impact. We are working on the front lines. We are essential workers.”

Derek Rush, vice president and co-founder, (left) and Robert Gray, president and co-founder, launched Conscious Capitalist Group, serving opportunity youth, or those who aren’t on track to attend a four-year university. Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Chrystal Jackson, whose son also takes part in the program, said her child has asked to go on the days that he’s not even required to go to the program. 

“I guess he just likes being around people because I guess the situation and them not being in school,” Jackson said. 

Jackson said she likes that the mentors are men and young men need positive role models in their lives, adding that programs like this help children stay off the streets.

“The school’s not open for them to have something to do. They can go down there instead of running the streets and not doing their schoolwork because [the program] makes sure they do their school first,” Jackson also said.

Right now, the youths in the streets have a higher chance of dying in the streets due to gun violence than they do from dying from COVID-19, Rush said, adding that this is enough to recognize that this work is essential.

Conscious Capitalist is helping break the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline, its leaders have said. In Charlottesville, there have been several homicides and nonfatal shootings recently, and many of the children that the program serves live in these neighborhoods where the shootings have occurred. 

“Our communities are suffering. For instance, we had a meeting [recently]  due to a shooting that happened on First Street. During the meeting, we were talking about how we gotta do something fast because we don’t have time to meet 20 times before we come up with a solution. Within a week before we could meet again, another shooting happened,” Rush said.  

“That’s just in Charlottesville. We’re not even talking about Richmond. No matter where you’re from, our communities are in the same conditions everywhere you go for the most part. It’s not a Charlottesville thing or a Richmond thing. It’s really a Black community thing across the country. A lot of times we get caught up in who’s from where. We gotta get that mindset out of our head and start to realize the bigger picture.” 

Conscious Capitalist’s new curriculum also gives mentees knowledge on decision-making, independent life skills, psychotherapy and more.

Candelario said her 14-year-old, son Amir Sumpter, didn’t show emotions during the pandemic of how he was feeling, she said. 

But then since he started the program, she’s seen him behaving differently. 

“You can tell that he was anxious because he would say comments like, ‘Oh, it’s the end of the world. I don’t have to study,’ or ‘I don’t have to apply myself anymore. Everything is done,’” she said.

“And now that he’s in the program, I’m getting a lot of good feedback from his teachers stating that he’s very into his classes while he’s there. It’s made him have some hope. And it’s made him be aware that there are people on his side.” 

Prior to enrolling her son at Conscious Capitalist, Jackson said she had a hard time keeping her son engaged with schoolwork. 

“Since he’s been going down there, he reminds himself to do his homework. I guess because they push it there on them to make sure they do their education first,” Jackson said. 

“I feel like it helps a lot with being able to know that my kids are safe —that they’re somewhere where people care about children, and that they’re definitely gonna get their work done while I’m trying to get my work done,” Candelario said.  

Although  Conscious Capitalist has celebrated some wins along the way, and Rush said he’s happier now than from where the organization started, there is a lot more to do. 

“We came a long way, but I’m just hungry. I ain’t satisfied. It’s cool to kind of sit back and think on, but to me, it’s not really anything to celebrate. We haven’t really accomplished the bigger picture at this point,” he said.

Conscious Capitalist is helping break the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline, its leaders have said. In Charlottesville, there have been several homicides and nonfatal shootings recently, and many of the children that the program serves live in these neighborhoods where the shootings have occurred. Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.