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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Non-Profit Founder Encouraging Disadvantaged Kids to Embrace Their Past

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Given his circumstances, Jesse Sneed wasn’t supposed to graduate from college. Born in Waco, Texas, he says, “I was raised in a low-income, disenfranchised, single-parent household, which presented me with many barriers.” His neighborhood was full of drugs and violence. Some of his childhood friends are still in prison.

When he was in middle school, Sneed’s mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. With his older brother, Sneed looked after her until the siblings could no longer give her the care she needed. When Sneed was in ninth grade, his only parent went to a nursing home.

During his sophomore year at Prairie View A&M University, she died. “I wanted to give up,” he says. “The grief was hard to bear. But I stayed true to the promise I made to her to graduate college in four years.” He did that, with honors. Then he went on to get a Master’s degree, in education and counseling psychology, from Howard University.

It wasn’t just his mother he’d made a promise to. When he joined Waco’s Toliver Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, a fellow churchgoer named James McCoy decided to be Sneed’s mentor. He turned out to be, Sneed says, “the greatest man I have ever encountered.”

"As a child, I didn't really dream. Where I’m from, there really weren’t any positive surroundings. No one in my neighborhood was graduating from high school, let alone attending college."

Before Sneed went to college, McCoy made Sneed sign a two-goal contract: The first was to give his life to Christ. The second was to graduate from college. “I was able to achieve them both,” Sneed says.

Just before Sneed left for Prairie View A&M, McCoy gave him a pep talk and handed him $100. “That was so significant,” remembers Sneed, “because all I had at that time was the $100 bill, my contract, and a dream.”

While at Howard, he worked at Washington, D.C.’s Maya Angelou Public Charter School, a chunk of whose students are or were incarcerated. “I felt that I needed to assist and work with students facing similar issues that I faced,” he says. He got involved in projects to straighten out kids on troubled paths, protect their mental health, and make sure they were learning what they needed to know. “That alone,” he says, “validated why I decided to go into education.”

In 2012, Sneed started the JESSE Foundation, which stands for “Just Empowering Student Success through Education.” It’s a non-profit that helps underserved young people go to college. So far, by providing free food, haircuts, backpacks, and other school supplies, Sneed has served almost 1,500 people under the age of 25.

Through his foundation, Sneed mentors and tutors teenagers with difficult backgrounds. He educates them and their parents about how to graduate high school, apply to college, matriculate, and get financial aid. He also encourages them to do community service, including feeding the homeless and aiding the elderly.

Sneed’s “life skills curriculum” for inner-city high schoolers is “designed to challenge their perceptions about their identity, potential, purpose, and role in life.” By the end of the semester-long course, they can identify barriers and start developing skills to better their lives, Sneed says.

So far, as many as 30 of the at-risk kids he’s worked with have gone to college or another post-secondary institution.

In his free time, Sneed is a motivational speaker, giving speeches at schools and other places where young people might hear him. He talks about his life and tells his listeners that they can reach their full potential no matter what.

When asked what, as a child, he wanted to be when he grew up, Sneed says: “As a child, I didn't really dream. Where I’m from, there really weren’t any positive surroundings. No one in my neighborhood was graduating from high school, let alone attending college.”

Does he have advice for those who see him as a role model? “Always create something that you wish existed when you were facing a hardship,” he says. “Be that one to use your instincts to create it.”

“Also,” he adds, “don't be ashamed to tell your life story. Someone who is looking up to you may need to know that you can face tragedy, hardship, and barriers and still come out on top to change the world to make it a greater place.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).