With Eight Million Stories, Marvin Pierre ’06 guides previously incarcerated youth
By Mary Howard
Photos by Killy Photography
His aim is clear. “I am passionate about closing the achievement and opportunity gap for boys of color in this country,” says Marvin Pierre ’06.
Growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in South Jamaica, Queens, New York, he saw prison and violent death claim the lives of his closest friends. “In my neighborhood, graduating from high school was considered more of a dream than a reality,” he says.
Now Pierre serves as program director of Eight Million Stories (8MS), an alternative education program in Houston that supports previously incarcerated youth. “We take disconnected 16-to-18-year-olds and provide them with a holistic educational experience,” says Pierre. During a four-month program, students attend classes to earn their GED; receive training in food handling, customer service, and forklift operation; and learn life skills, such as job readiness and personal financial management. “It’s important that our students experience life outside their communities so they can dream past their everyday reality,” he says.
8MS was launched in January 2017 with a cohort of 35 boys. While the program is coed—three girls are in the current cohort—approximately 90 percent of incarcerated youth are young men, says Pierre.
Though only in its second year, the nonprofit is gaining a reputation for changing lives. “We are taking students who are turned away from their schools and creating success stories,” says Pierre. 8MS students are employed at small construction companies and businesses including the Houston Toyota Center and the Houston Food Bank.
“Our community sees this program as something that can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Vanessa Ramirez, chief operating officer of SER-Jobs for Service, the nonprofit that serves as 8MS’s fiscal sponsor.
Boys of color are more likely to spend time in the juvenile justice system for factors outside their control, Pierre explains. He cites schools with overly harsh disciplinary policies and communities with no after-school programs as reasons why some young people get lost in the prison system. “Most of our boys were incarcerated for minor offenses, like trespassing or joyriding.”
The organization’s website tells the story of one of its success stories, André (not his real name), who was 14 when he entered the juvenile justice system. “I was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. Jailed twice, André says the experience “messed up” his life. “[Prison’s] not going to scare you into getting better. It’s going to make you a worse person than you really are.”
He says 8MS taught him about balance and work ethic. “I think it’s an excellent program for juveniles getting out of jail. Instead of sending us back onto the streets and back to jail, we get to learn.” André is working on his GED and is interested in pursuing a career in psychotherapy.
The organization takes its name from a rap song of the same name. While much of the song’s lyrics may not be considered fit for print, it’s the last line of “8 Million Stories” that is particularly poignant. “Havin’ problems, help me out now,” it says.
Pierre says that society has written the stories for young people in the juvenile justice system. “We want our students to learn from past mistakes and rewrite their own stories,” he says.
Pierre says he was lucky to be able to write his own story from the start. Born to Haitian immigrants, he realized at a young age that education held the key to a better future. Though he worked hard in school and his parents did their best to shield him from the gun violence and drugs that pervaded their community, he felt the odds were stacked against him as a young, black male. Losing two friends to homicide made high school graduation seem even less likely, he says.
But with his parents’ encouragement, he persevered and was given the opportunity to attend Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts. There he escaped the noise and distractions of New York City and delved into his studies. “I was able to develop myself as a young man,” he says.
Pierre came to Trinity as a student-athlete, playing football during his first year. He majored in economics and was a Long Walk Societies Scholar and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. “He was someone who had great passion for his studies and backed that passion up with lots of hard work, humor, and creativity,” recalls Carol Clark, associate professor of economics and Pierre’s adviser.
Pierre was set on a Wall Street career from the beginning, says Carol Correa de Best, associate director of multicultural affairs. “I knew he could do it, but I knew he wouldn’t be happy. Marvin has a need to help society move forward.” De Best met Pierre through the Promoting Respect for Inclusive Diversity in Education (P.R.I.D.E.) program at Trinity, which gives social and academic support to first-year students from diverse cultural backgrounds. As an upper-year student, Pierre mentored first-years in the program. “Everybody loved Marvin. He was a big brother to a lot of students,” recalls de Best.
Shortly after graduation, Pierre achieved his goal when he landed a position as an analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York City. But a visit to a fifth-grade, public-school classroom in Brooklyn changed his trajectory. A teacher friend asked him to talk to the African American boys in her class who were failing. When Pierre learned that most of them were reading at a second-grade level, he was concerned. “There was no way they would achieve long-term success unless something changed.”
In 2009, Pierre left Wall Street and began a career as a dean in Brooklyn charter schools. In 2013, he accepted a position as assistant principal at KIPP: Polaris Academy in Houston, a public charter school for boys in grades five through eight.
At Polaris, he met Vanessa Ramirez, who had conceived the idea for 8 Million Stories but needed help bringing the nonprofit to life. “I knew [8MS] was in line with Marvin’s passion, so I reached out,” she says. Pierre had just applied for a yearlong Bridge Fellowship with TNTP (formerly the New Teacher Project), which gives leaders a platform to develop new ideas to boost educational achievement for young men of color. “I told her if I got the fellowship, we’d be better positioned to launch 8MS.”
In January 2016, Pierre was named a TNTP Bridge Fellow and spent the next 12 months building the program. “He gave it some skin,” says Ramirez. “The program wouldn’t be where it is without him.”
Though 8MS has exceeded expectations, the start-up was very challenging, says Pierre. “We had to effectively manage relationships with stakeholders and ensure a high level of commitment from our students—all with very little staffing and funding.”
8MS runs, rent free, out of a small facility in Houston, where Pierre spends long hours developing the program, building partnerships with employers and agencies, and securing funding. “I am constantly fundraising,” he says. But his favorite part of the job is “having the opportunity to influence young lives.”
Looking forward, Pierre hopes to expand his team, and, though he would like to see 8MS satellite programs in other cities, he never wants the program to get so big “that we lose our focus on the kids.” With Pierre at the helm, that seems unlikely. Even in his limited off time, he volunteers in schools and mentors young people. “I believe that sharing my story will bring hope to those being brought up in similar situations.”
For more about Eight Million Stories, including how to help, please visit the organization’s website, www.eightmillionstories.org