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From Ali: On Fire for Justice at FLY

On July 1, 2020, Ali Knight was appointed the new President and CEO of FLY after our Founder and CEO of 20 years, Christa Gannon, moved into a formal Founder role. In the following remarks, which he delivered at the Virtual CEO Transition Ceremony on June 30, Ali explained the focus of this new era at FLY: using our energy and resources, and lifting up the voices of our youth, to disrupt the pipeline to prison and help further bend the arc of the universe toward justice.

I take this next step in my life’s work with deep gratitude and humility, and a deep sense of the responsibility that lies before me. And I think about this time—this moment—in our country’s history alongside this moment in FLY’s history.

As my good friend Christa would say: there are no accidents. And the universe’s arc does bend toward justice—but that, too, is not by accident.

I want to start by talking a little bit about this thing called “FLY Magic.”

I confess, it took me two full years into my leadership at FLY to feel in alignment with the organization’s culture. That’s how very strong the culture is. It holds you accountable. It makes you want to prove yourself—to colleagues and to partners, but most of all to the young people. Then I think I spent the next few years making up for lost time. Now, not only do I understand what FLY Magic is, but I believe I can harness it.

There are three cornerstones to FLY Magic, and the first is our young people.

At FLY, we operate with the understanding that to be in service of our youth is different than merely serving our youth. We put youth at the center of everything we do. Sure, we have expectations and measurable outcomes for the work we do. But we understand that every young person has unique potential waiting to be tapped into and realized. And for every deficit in a child’s life, there is an asset that can offset seemingly impossible challenges.

Our young people are actually amazing, resilient superheroes waiting to take off their masks and be cape-d with love. And through intentional, culturally competent relationships, we help each of them realize their greatness as they would measure it.

The second cornerstone is community.

We firmly believe that “it takes a village…” While poverty, racism, and immigration discrimination put our kids at great risk, there are also caring, compassionate people committed to helping them make positive transformations. And there are institutions that want to be part of the solution, too.

FLY creates that village of positive, caring role models and organizations that create access to resources and opportunities. This village helps our young people find their place as leaders of change—in their lives, in their communities, and in the system.

Third, we understand that the systems deeply influence young people’s successes and their failures.

We are talking about the justice system, the education system, and other social systems that touch the lives of our young people. We partner deeply and meaningfully with systems to make them responsive to young people’s needs; and make them more effective, equitable, and just in how they do that.

FLY’s systems change work has always included young people—and youth voice in justice reform is needed now more than ever! So, we create opportunities for their voices to not only be heard, but to guide us in this work.

Youth Service, Community Building, Systems Change: these are the three pillars of our work.

To do any one of them well is an incredible feat in service of our mission. To do all three well, and in a way that is mutually reinforcing…well…that’s FLY Magic.

This moment in time is uniquely important.

I also understand that FLY’s Magic exists as part of a much larger force that’s helping the universe bend its arc. Right now, we are seeing that force at work. We are at the dawn of a new day of Justice.

  • We are seeing a push to end mass incarceration—it is no longer just a moral argument, but the spread of COVID-19 has also made it a public health argument.
  • We are seeing here in California that groundswell result in the call for youth detention facility closures.
  • We are seeing juvenile justice reframed! From a conversation about public safety to one about positive youth development.
  • We are now talking about repairing the harm of past trauma that our kids experienced and that often led them in the system in the first place!
  • And we are seeing a fire for justice burn brilliantly in our communities—one that is calling to task the instruments of injustice used for centuries by policing: oppression, fear, division, and murder. The people are demanding change in this moment!
To paraphrase Dr. Cornel West, it is a great time to be on Fire for Justice!

So, as a social justice organization—as a racial justice organization!—FLY will humbly and authentically lean into the power of this greater force. And we will move forward with profound respect for, and in solidarity with, the other actors of the movement.

Please understand that this is not by accident. FLY is evolving because justice calls for it; the universe calls for it.

  • We have been preparing for this moment since FLY’s founding in 2000, more deliberately in recent years.
  • We were changing we when acknowledged that teaching kids about the law, preparing them to be leaders, and providing them with mentors was only part of the solution. That making the system more effective and responsive, and collaborating more intentionally with the community, would also need to be part of the plan.
  • We came to believe that in order to truly extend a lifeline to our youth, we needed to look further upstream in the pipeline than the courts and probation. We need to change school climate and school disciplinary policies and practices where the pipeline starts; and we must now move towards more police accountability to the communities they serve.
We know now that we have a responsibility to do more. We have a deep conviction and a deep sense of urgency to do so.

This all may sound new to some of our partners and supporters. Let my elevation into this role as President and CEO serve as an introduction to the New FLY. And I invite y’all to join us in this moment as we take our place in this greater movement.

For the folks on the ground and in our programs—staff and volunteers in the schools, in juvenile halls and ranches and camps, and meeting with youth leaders and mentees in a Mod Pizza or a Chipotle: Thank you for helping me see this moment as the new pursuit of justice, and for this opportunity to serve as your leader and partner in the work.

For the FLY community who will support us to lead—sometimes in front and sometimes alongside others—so we can help bend the arc of the universe toward justice: thank you!

Let’s get to work!!

I want to acknowledge with deep gratitude the many people who have loved, supported, coached, and marched alongside me over the years leading up to this point.

First of all, to Christa Gannon: Thank you for your support, coaching, mentoring, and partnership over the years! Thank you for all you’ve done over this past year to set me up for success! Your humility in this moment, and all moments leading up, has inspired and motivated me to be great in your honor! I am so looking forward to continuing our work together in our new roles!

To the FLY Board, past and present members: Thank you for your belief in me! For your stewardship of the FLY mission and your commitment to our success as we take this next step!

To my amazing community of justice crusaders: For those of you beside me now, and for those of you in the trenches and in the fight alongside me in the future, thank you for all you’ve done to inspire me to continue to do this work!

To my biological family on the East Coast and my chosen family on both coasts and in the South: Thank you for extending grace and for holding me accountable to my principles as I have tried to grow into an honorable man and public servant that you can be proud of.

Lastly, to my table for 4, my wife, Van, my daughter, Iris, and my son, Robin Maxwell: Thank you for allowing me the space to pursue my passion to make the world a better place. Thank you for keeping me grounded during the times when I felt anchorless; for prioritizing my health when I feel the sickest and most weak; for loving me unconditionally in ways I didn’t think were possible.