Student Draws From the Past to Promote Change for the Future
At 17, Ely Flores was a kid with a bad reputation. Kicked out of high school and about to become a father, he was facing three years of incarceration: first in juvenile hall, then in prison.
Now, 10 years later, he travels the nation and crosses international borders to spread his message of social change and empowerment to young adults facing the same oppression he learned to identify and overcome.
He has spoken passionately before thousands of people at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. He’s received multiple accolades including a Congressional Award of Recognition. Just recently, he was packing for a trip to Juarez, Mexico, where he was scheduled to speak at an international leadership conference for young adults on the violence that plagues border communities, and what young people can do to impact society in positive ways.
“I shouldn’t be in this position,” he said, taking time from his busy schedule to talk about how he got to where he is today.
“I shouldn’t be here.”
But somewhere down the line – from his dad skipping out on the family at 7 and witnessing street shootings in his neighborhood growing up – Ely learned how to turn the oppression of his surroundings and experiences into inspiration to promote social change for good.
Now working toward his master’s degree in Social Impact from Claremont Lincoln University, Ely is more prone to look forward than back.
He wants to be a lifelong agent of social change.
He is founder and executive director of his own nonprofit, Leadership through Empowerment, Action, and Dialogue Inc. (LEAD), which has trained more than 200 youth in California and established a school that empowers underserved young adults from 18 to 24 to complete their high school education, prepare for college and/or career and become leaders in their communities.
He also works as outreach coordinator and manager for GRID Alternatives of Los Angeles, assisting low-income communities through the Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes Program.
Prior to that, he was leadership development coordinator for La Causa YouthBuild, where he developed and managed youth leadership chapters in high schools across Los Angeles. Through YouthBuild, he is now working internationally to create and maintain programs in El Salvador, where he travels multiple times a year to build partnerships between young adults from both nations.
“I was super angry growing up,” Ely said, noting that many of the youth he works with today share the same feelings – a type of post-traumatic stress disorder that leaves people hopeless and unempowered.
As a child, he was angry with his family for leaving him, upset that his mom had to work long hours to support the family on her own, and drawn to the negative external forces of his community. Violence, drugs and crime were common place.
Yet in spite of the challenges he faced in his youth, he also demonstrated a lot of potential for good.
“I’m strong-minded. At school, I liked to talk a lot, and even at an early age I was always in some sort of leadership role” he said.
La Causa YouthBuild helped him to harness those talents and to use them in positive ways.
“It helped me to become more socially conscious. I began to do more political work and my growing awareness of social justice helped me to do something positive.”
He credits YouthBuild with much of his personal transformation, which he said follows the organization’s methodology to building young leaders for change.
First comes social consciousness. “You have to become socially aware and socially conscious,” Ely said. “Identify oppression.” Ely calls this step the Pandora’s Box. Once you open it, you have to study it, recognize it and decide whether you will be influenced by it or let it influence others.
Second comes leadership development, not only for individuals and their families, but for their communities, too. “You have to give people a sense of responsibility that they have to do something. It’s our duty to challenge injustices.”
Next comes social change: It doesn’t come all at once, but step-by-step, Ely explained.
“We don’t make social change very complex,” he said. “It’s something you do every day.”
Now a family man, Ely said much of his work is now focused on setting positive examples for his two children. “Now that I’m in the master’s degree program, my son says he’s going to get a master’s degree, too.”
Ely chose Claremont Lincoln University after looking into several master’s degree programs.
He liked the flexibility of the program so he could keep his full-time job, run his nonprofit and continue to do the international work he loves.
But beyond that, was a sense that Claremont Lincoln really cared about him as a person, he said.
“All the other schools talked about how great their programs were,” Ely said. “Claremont Lincoln talked about me. They believed in me. They said, ‘Come to our school because we believe you have the potential to do great things.’”
That affirmation means a lot, Ely said. “It helps me to believe it, too.”