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Charlie Cavell


Pay It Forward Initiative

655 Hancock
Apt. 104
Detroit, Michigan 48201
At an age when most young people focus on their social lives, Charlie Cavell saw a problem: youth unemployment in Detroit. While still a student at Wayne State, he founded the Pay It Forward Initiative. The program helps connect underserved young people with employment opportunities.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Pay It Forward Initiative Executive Director Charlie Cavell: To be a good leader is to say, “There are my people… I am their leader. There go my people … I should follow them.” It’s emanating that you are not the one that hands down the decisions – people get rallied because you care about them. Leadership is caring about your people, being understanding, and knowing they don’t know everything; people can handle things on their own and sometimes the leader knows less than the people doing the work. It’s making sure to be there with people and being open enough to being checked by your people who you lead, by being open, honest and concerned.
The biggest thing to do is to challenge ourselves and collaborate, to think above the past constraints and help lift ourselves out of those constraints.

What is your dream for kids?
I want them to be able to know their potential and have the opportunity to fulfill their potential on an equal platform. For example, to have Head Start or Great Start on par with private childcare, their school on par with other schools. When they go to high school they are able to meet with counselors. At my high school, people would ask senior year, “Where are you going to school next year?” That is the expectation, that we would be going to college; we need to raise our community’s expectations. The thing that gets me is that people don’t know their potential and often are not able to reach it. That doesn’t mean we have to raise taxes, but we have to challenge ourselves by bridging a big culture gap.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
One big thing, which fortunately we don’t face at Pay It Forward, is that people need to truly challenge themselves. The biggest thing to do is to challenge ourselves and collaborate, to think above the past constraints and help lift ourselves out of those constraints. There won’t be one idea to solve all the problems out there. If you challenge yourself to say “I want this to happen” or “I want this to change,” make it collaborative. It shouldn’t be about advancement or getting anyone on board. Think about what is your true purpose, and be mindful of why you started doing this and why you are really doing it. It’s so easy to get caught up in rituals and spreadsheets, and challenging yourself helps break you out of world you’re in. You can gain perspective from others, and be able to think from a different angle. When you truly start to trust your people, you can break out of the walls you become so dependent on.
How do you know you’re making progress?
In our weekly meeting, that’s translated into stats about how many people we’re placing and how we’re fulfilling our mission by talking to the press, funders, etc. We’ve been working with a business owner for several months who just told us how much he liked our program, because we mean it. It’s good to get that little mission boost. This is a reminder of what we do and why we do it -- getting validation and reminders from people from outside recognizing and appreciating us.
What are you most proud of?
Rousseau had this thing called the watchmaker theory, that instead of evolution or the Big Bang, what happened is that God set the watch or the clock to be on time. That might have taken some time to have the cogs neat so it could go once you set it.
When you truly start to trust your people, you can break out of the walls you become so dependent on.
Thanks to a lot of help from staff and other people who have been mentors and supporters -- people who have advised and helped in all these ways by giving advice -- I’ve been able to do that. Thanks to them, I’m able to set that watch and let it tick by itself so I can be executive director of an organization where I don’t know what is going on day to day. It’s a beautiful thing – we have that watch ticking, and that is what I am most proud of, it keeps ticking along.
In speaking with younger people who are interested in careers in the social sector, what advice would you give?
People say they want to do certain things and I tell them: “Do it, just do it, don’t talk about it. If you’re looking to file a 501c3 just do it, give it a try. If you truly want to do it, don’t talk about it, take action -- that whole self-actualization thing -- if it is important enough to you.” And make sure you have structure. So, one, do it, and two, make sure you maintain or create a structure to your life so that you don’t get enveloped and it takes you over.
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Program Profile


  • Pay It Forward Initiative
    The Pay It Forward Initiative strives to provide transformational opportunity to structurally unemployed young adults in Detroit through providing employment, education, and empowerment! 


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