San Diego Reality Changers: Giving Gang Members a New Life

Interview with founder Christopher Yanov.

Reality Changers

San Diego’s Reality Changers is changing the lives of inner city youth, making it one of the most important programs in the city, yet many people may not have heard of it. The nonprofit was started in 2001 by UCSD alumni Christopher Yanov, 37, and has one goal: to get gang members off the street and into college. The founder and president of the nonprofit attended UC San Diego from 1996–99 where he received two Bachelor’s degrees in Spanish Literature and Political Science. He then went on to USD from 2002–2004, where he received two Master’s degrees in International Relations and Peace and Justice Studies.

Yanov first began working with gang members when he volunteered at a local church while attending UCSD. He wanted to gain real–life experience with his Spanish outside the classroom, so he volunteered at a Hispanic Presbyterian church; this is where Yanov had his first experience with programs aimed at helping local gang members. Not realizing what an impact he would have on these lives, Yanov set to work. 

“By the time I was a sophomore in college, I was running a program to keep gang members off the street,” said Yanov. He started Reality Changers as a tutoring program in 2001 with only $300 to fuel the organization. As of 2014, Reality Changers has awarded over $5,000,000 in scholarship funds to youth in the program.

Yanov describes his method of helping students as the opposite of the tightrope theory. Rather than counseling students on what not to do, like join gangs, Reality Changers encourages them to do something more with their life.

“It’s the equivalent of saying don’t look down while walking on a tightrope,” said Yanov of the tightrope theory. “They can hold onto us as the balancing pole, but the students themselves get to the other side.”

Reality Changers currently has 500 students and approximately 1,000 graduates from the program. Yanov estimates that around 97% of the graduates have gone on to college. The nonprofit believes that 8th graders are the students who have the most potential for the program, so their predominant targets are students from two middle schools in the San Diego area, Clark and Wilson.

Yanov credits Malcolm W. Klein's book The American Street Gang with the inspiration for the methods Reality Changers uses with their students. “It was the book that changed my perspective and what the message should really be,” said Yanov. According to Yanov, that message should be about positive reinforcement rather than negative admonitions.

“We think gang prevention doesn’t work. It inadvertently promotes it. Instead of promoting it, we show them how to get across the tightrope,” said Yanov.

Reality Changers offers two programs that help students prepare for college: College Town and College Apps Academy.

College Apps Academy is a program that is aimed at helping the students, which are anywhere from 8th grade to 12th, fill out their college applications and choose which college is right for them. The students work three hours or more a week on their college applications. “We want to make sure the students find the right fit for them,” Yanov said. It is not about the students getting into Ivy League schools, but about getting them into schools where they will be the most successful.

According to Yanov, the nonprofit receives virtually no funding from government sources. They receive most of their funding from individual foundations and private donors. The program has, however, received around $100 million in financial aid and has given away close to $7 million to students attending their programs.

Yanov credits some of his success to his alma maters and mentioned that he “was honored to be the only one who was recognized in the alumni program at both USD and UCSD.”

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