He’s Got Grit: Kevin Ervin ’04, 2021 Community Service Award Recipient

One of Kevin Ervin’s earliest childhood memories was as a four-year-old walking through the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn with his mother and brother. Sensing danger, his mother suddenly pushed them both down and laid on top of them, sheltering them from gunshots. Later in life, he found out that there had been a shoot-out, and his mother had risked her life to protect him and his brother. 

“For me that was the first example of service and dedication, and that sat with me throughout my entire life,” Ervin said in a virtual All-School ceremony on May 17, when he was honored as the 2021 Community Service Award recipient. (Watch a replay of the event below.)

Head of School Craig Bradley introduced Ervin, calling him a “true social entrepreneur.” 

“He is someone who sees a need for education in the world, and he has done something about it. He has dedicated his life to creating opportunities for young people in communities that are under-resourced and underserved,” said Bradley.

Ervin is the executive director of Change for Kids, a youth development nonprofit in New York City, where he has bolstered the vision and mission of the nonprofit, expanded the organization’s reach to more students in the New York City public school system, and refocused the organization on student agency. 

When the odds are stacked against you, Ervin believes you have three choices: you can succumb, beat the odds by luck, or change the odds in your favor. He has always opted to change the odds. Last fall, when schools closed in the city in response to the pandemic, Ervin created a full digital platform for students in only six days, and he raised nearly $2 million to open a South Bronx remote learning center for students to attend on days when they were not in school.

His love for people and community service developed during the summers he spent at camp in New Jersey, where he was introduced to cultures from around the world. After attending public school, he was accepted at Hotchkiss, where he combined his musical talents and leadership skills to bring a fresh, new approach to the School’s digital media program. He was commissioned to write a digital musical score for the Hotchkiss annual dance recital, wrote and produced two Taft Day films, and remixed “Fair Hotchkiss” with then-headmaster, Skip Mattoon, as a part of an anthology of Hotchkiss music recordings he produced.

After graduating from Hotchkiss, he earned a B.A. in Leadership from Northeastern University and an executive master’s in public administration from New York University. Along the way, he discovered he had a passion and talent for working with youth. When the South Bronx enrichment program he got involved with was cancelled due to budget cuts, Ervin had the first opportunity of his career to start changing the odds. Raising $135,000 in one month, he started  Gaining Life’s Other Ways (GLOW). He eventually expanded the program to serve students from 16 schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey. For his effort, Ervin was awarded leadership fellowships by the Center for Creative Leadership and Rutgers Institute of Ethical Leadership.

He went on to help Renaissance Youth Center grow its after-school and teen programming. After raising more than $2 million in funding in his first six months, he helped Renaissance Youth Center expand its work in the South Bronx by 3000%! By that time, he realized his true calling was working with youth and teaching teens leadership skills.

He took a hiatus from non-profits to sharpen his administrative acumen in the New York City Department of Education, where he was tasked with strengthening operations at Satellite Academy High School, the #1 Transfer High School in NYC. There he helped over-age, under-credited students achieve academic success and graduate from high school. As someone who looked like they did, and came from a place like they did, he was able to easily relate and educate them in a caring, attainable way.

Paul Mutter ’87, co-president of the Alumni Association and chair of the nominating committee for awards, presented Ervin with the award, which is given annually to alumni who demonstrate through their volunteer and or vocational endeavors an exemplary sense of caring, initiative, and ingenuity.

“The work of this year’s winner is impressive and should serve as an inspiration for all here today, and should be a reminder to set our sights high,” said Mutter. 

Following the presentation, in a virtual “fireside chat,” Ajene Green ’02 spoke with Ervin about his life and the inspiration that propelled him toward community service. 

When he got to Hotchkiss, Ervin said everything that he could have prayed for in a community was there, and he carried that sense of support and care forward. 

In a brief Q and A following the discussion, Ervin fielded questions from students, including how to pursue a career in service. If you decide to pursue a life of service, Ervin responded, you have to love the foundation of it, and you have to be dedicated to pushing against the grain. Which is something Ervin has done his entire life. 

When asked about his role as a person of color in his career, he said that Blacks have endured so many hardships that "grit has become part of our DNA."

“As a Black man, my advantage is that I have grit and a level of tenacity that allows me to push through things that would have crushed other people.”


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