NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
President and CEO, Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY)
Elevating Youth Voices in America’s Juvenile Justice System
“Who I am as a public servant and leader is a direct result of my lived experience,” says Ali Knight. Though his childhood was impacted by crime, drugs, and a stay in foster care, Knight credits early mentors and extracurricular activities for steering him away from the pitfalls that befell many of his peers. “I think about those folks who didn’t escape the pipeline to prison and the difference a mentor can make,” he says. “But I also think about what it takes to transform trauma into resiliency.” As the president and CEO of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY), Knight is empowering young people in the San Francisco Bay Area to use their own strength as a tool for agency—and activism.
Since 2000, FLY has focused on preventing juvenile crime and incarceration for over 30,000 youth through leadership training, legal education, and mentoring. In the United States, where the imprisonment rate of children is the highest in the world, Knight views FLY’s efforts as especially crucial. “What makes FLY unique is our youth service, systems change, and community capacity-building work,” he says. That approach has led to initiatives such as the Youth Advisory Council (YAC), now a national model for youth involvement in justice reform. Within three years, YAC helped design new facilities to house detainees over the age of 18—a first in the Santa Clara County Probation Department’s history—and initiated an orientation program for incarcerated youth and their caregivers.
Knight has also positioned FLY as a powerful voice for driving systemic change at the state and local level. The nonprofit organized support and youth testimony that contributed to the removal of campus police in the Oakland Unified School District. Under Knight’s leadership, FLY has more than doubled its programs and its youth have consistently reported positive outcomes between 80 and 100 percent. And FLY’s momentum hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2021, they were named a “California Nonprofit of the Year” and have received awards from the City of San Jose, County of Santa Clara, Stanford University, and CBS 5 News.
However, Knight stresses that FLY’s work is as much about racial equity as it is about social justice. Acknowledging the roles race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and immigration status play in youth’s treatment in the system, he says, will be central to FLY’s vision of serving 30,000 young people over the next decade. For Knight, it’s a bolder, braver strategy that’s part of FLY’s evolution from a “service for some” to a “justice for all” organization. “If you’re in a position of privilege, use it to create equity and opportunity for others,” says Knight. “That's how you give back to your community; that’s how you create justice.”