When we RISE

Posted: September 15th, 2017 | Features, Profiles, Top Story | 1 Comment

By Joyell Nevins

Local activist helps affect large-scale change despite challenging times

Relationships. Impact. Sustainability. Excellence.

These are core pillars of the RISE San Diego nonprofit, founded three years ago by professionals, politicians and community activists Tony Young and Dwayne Crenshaw.

Dwayne Crenshaw, CEO and cofounder of RISE, speaks at June’s Equality March. Also shown are (l to r) Councilmember Georgette Gomez, Sen. Toni G. Atkins and Assemblymember Todd Gloria. (Courtesy San Diego Pride)

“We’re an odd couple of sorts,” Crenshaw said, laughing. “He’s an outside table at Starbucks and I’m an inside table.”

Crenshaw, who is RISE’s CEO, served as executive director for San Diego Pride from 2011 to 2013. He also ran for San Diego’s District 4 City Council seat in 2013. His distinguished resume of public service and government also includes directorships at the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils and the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation.

Young has served as CEO at the Imperial Beach/San Diego chapter of American Red Cross, president of the San Diego City Council, and held a myriad of educational and governmental roles.


The reality of ‘neighborhoods first’

The year RISE was founded, 2014, was marked by the campaigns for the special mayoral election between Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez, and the shooting and protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

One of the underlying tensions in the city of Ferguson was the disconnect between the color of its leadership and the color of its population: The percentages didn’t match at all.

In San Diego, those percentages didn’t match either; while people of color make up about 54 percent of the population, they only account for 23 percent of the city’s leadership, according to Crenshaw.

In the 2014 mayoral election campaign, “neighborhoods first” was a recurring theme: building leadership and change from the ground up in communities.

In their unofficial Starbucks “office” — the real RISE office now sits on Euclid Avenue in Lincoln Park — Crenshaw and Young sat discussing the percentage problem. Since both men grew up in southeastern urban San Diego,

they wondered whether “neighborhoods first” could be more than just a platitude.

“We were both concerned with, ‘How real was that?’” Crenshaw explained. “We started talking about how to go from lip service to reality.”

Thus, RISE was born.

The organization is dedicated to building leaders of color and leaders of urban neighborhoods to affect change in their own neighborhoods first — and RISE does it from the inside out.

“Leadership is challenging,” Crenshaw said. “We love to build a leader up in America, but we love to tear them down even more.”

So RISE focuses more on who someone is as a leader — their character and their motives — rather than their tactics or skills.

“Our desired outcome is not achieving a certain position or title, but affecting community change,” Crenshaw said.


Active programs

One of the ways RISE accomplishes this is through their flagship program, the RISE Urban Leadership Fellows Program, in collaboration with the University of San Diego’s Leadership Institute in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences. The program is also modeled after the Executive Education program at Harvard Business School.

The Fellows meet for three full days each quarter and work with a business leadership coach throughout the year. They also have to complete their own CAP, or community action project.

The many faces of RISE: Tony Young (far left, second row) and Crenshaw (rear right, in red striped shirt) with collaborators (Facebook)

Some of the completed projects have included On the RISE, a youth version of the RISE fellows program, and a senior citizens center for the Filipino seniors in Paradise Hills. For decades, this group of senior citizens had been promised funding for a new center by the City Council, but it was never actually put on the budget. The RISE fellows organized a bus trip, took them all down to City Hall, and secured $500,000 in funding for a senior center for their neighborhood.

“For more than 20 years, they were promised funding, and now it’s in the pipeline,” Crenshaw noted proudly.

That idea of community spirit drives each of the Fellows. The program is open to any resident of San Diego County over 18 years old, but they must have completed high school and show at least a five-year history of community involvement and/or activism. Aside from that, the Fellows have run the gamut of races, creeds, and sexual orientation.

“Our classes have mirrored the population of San Diego County,” Crenshaw said, adding that RISE is intentional about its diversity. “We believe there’s talent everywhere.”

Partnerships with other groups help with that purpose as well. San Diego Pride offered a scholarship to an LGBT-specific fellow this year. RISE San Diego also recently hosted a table at the Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast, hosted by The San Diego LGBT Community Center in May.

RISE’s Urban Breakfast Club — a recurring civic engagement breakfast series — regularly brings in representatives from other organizations to offer expertise on topics from immigration and refugees to raising boys of color.

Through both the Fellows program and the Urban Breakfast Club, RISE wants to promote civil discourse.

And both Young and Crenshaw know experientially how to move past (or through) conflict: They ran against each other for the District 4 City Council seat in 2004, and now here they are, business partners acting on a common belief.

“Our civic discourse in this country is so toxic,” Crenshaw said. “We want to get beyond the politics and rhetoric and promote productive, systemic change.”

The last program offered by RISE is nonprofit partnership. Going into its second year of doing so, RISE offers monthly trainings and technical assistance for nonprofits and small businesses in areas such as organizational management and marketing strategies.

RISE also picks 10 organizations every year to work one-on-one with, and this year 20 different groups have already applied. The Fellows program is in even higher demand — there were 103 applications last year for 23 open spots.

While both programs are free to the trainees, it is a significant cost to RISE to conduct the training (the Fellows program alone is $3,500 per person). As such, the organization is seeking businesses that would like to sponsor a fellow, and they are always accepting private donations as well, be it $5 or $5,000.


Join in the change

Crenshaw and Young welcome the community to celebrate their three successful years at the upcoming RISE San Diego Anniversary & Inclusive Leadership in Action Awards luncheon.

The luncheon will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 9 in the Celebration Hall at the Joe and Vi Jacobs Center, located at 404 Euclid Ave., in Lincoln Park.

For more information about the luncheon, programs, or to donate, visit or call 619-531-RISE (7473). You can also follow their community and leadership building at

—Joyell Nevins is a local freelance writer. Reach her at or find her blog Small World, Big God at

One Comments

  1. Benny says:

    So glad to see coverage of RISE in Gay San Diego! It’s such an important organization, and I’ve learned so many attending many of their breakfast discussions over the last couple years. Looking forward to the luncheon on Oct. 9!

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