Richard Murphy: A Tribute

February 19, 2013

We are deeply saddened by the passing of Richard Murphy, an innovator in the youth development field and a man we personally loved and respected.

Richard was a natural convener who brought people and organizations together, and used his knowledge and humor to bridge disagreements and keep people focused on the power of what they could accomplish by working collaboratively. His work helped reshape New York City and countless other communities across the country.

Richard's accomplishments are tremendous. Here are just a few highlights: In 1990, he was named NYC commissioner of youth services and immediately broadened the agency's focus from crime prevention to  youth development. His work ultimately sparked the 1996 creation of the Department of Youth & Community Development and he became the city's first Commissioner for Youth Development.

He created the Beacon program—which turns school buildings into comprehensive community centers during after-school hours, offering services to children, youth and adults. (They really work. Check out ChildTrend's scan of the impact of Beacons.)  He was also a driving force behind what would become the Harlem Children's Zone and mentored Geoffrey Canada. In fact, Richard mentored just about everyone who crossed his path.

Affable and almost always wearing his trademark bow-tie, Richard was deceptively tough. He went toe to toe with Mayor Giuliani over what he saw as excessive reliance on juvenile detention at the expense of positive youth development. (See Karen Pittman's tribute below for more on that.)

Below are just a few recollections from some of Richard's dear friends and colleagues. If you have a thought or story to share, we would love to hear it. Please post a Comment below.

In lieu of flowers, Richard requested that those wishing to honor his memory make a donation to Mind-Builders Creative Arts Centers for The Richard Murphy Scholarship Fund. The scholarship will ensure that more children in need are able to participate in quality arts classes, recitals, cultural trips and a nurturing learning environment that supports their lifelong growth.

Karen Pittman on "Murphy’s Cumulative Impact"

On Saturday, I was in New York City as one of over 200 people who gathered to pay tribute to cumulative impact of Richard Murphy, who died on Valentine’s Day, exactly 23 years to the day that the agreement that launched the Beacons Schools was signed by New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

Richard was the quiet fulcrum that leveraged a major change in thinking about the role of local government and public schools in creating hubs for youth development and community engagement.

He was at the center of an intentional policy and practice laboratory happening in real time in New York.  When Michelle Cahill and I launched the Center for Youth Development & Policy Research, we benefited from almost daily back and forth with Richard. Together, we defined, defended and documented the principles and practices of youth development. Then in 1995, Richard took the helm of the Center when I left to head the President’s Crime Prevention Council. If not for his enthusiasm about taking the Center into its next phase, it would have been impossible to leave. The hand-off changed the trajectories of both of our lives and created an unbreakable bond between us.

Richard was commited to youth voice. He believed that it is not only appropriate but critical for young people to map and share information about the assets they use in their communities—and he transformed this belief into nationally replicated tools and trainings.

Yet the list of Richard’s public accomplishments pales in the face of the private strategies, stands and sacrifices it took to create them.

At Saturday's service, Noel Garcia, the 40-year-old husband and father of two whom Richard adopted as an angry 16-year-old, summed it up best when he recounted “the night the lights went out.”  Like many NYC kids, Noel and his friends used their Beacon school as their gathering place, playing basketball into the wee hours most nights. Noel knew his father had something to do with the school, but he admits he took the Center and his father for granted until the day newly-elected Mayor Guiliani literally turned the lights out as a part of an ultimately unsuccessful plan to dismantle the centers and discredit the man.  

With no place to go, “that’s when we started to get into trouble,” Noel said.  But not for long, Beacons was soon back up and running and continues to operate today in 80 schools across New York City.

Richard was a force.  He created a web of supports for the youth of New York City made up of hundreds of strands of relationships that he used for absolute good. Few of us knew its full size and shape.  Some of us got a small glimpse of it on Saturday when we came together to share stories and feel the cumulative impact of a purposeful life well lived.

Karen Pittman is the co-founder & CEO of The Forum for Youth Investment, which manages SparkAction.


From Paul Schmitz, Public Allies:

Richard was a beloved friend, mentor, and champion of ours who was a model of generosity, values and servant leadership. Those of us who knew him well are heartbroken and Public Allies will miss his wisdom, enthusiasm, and loving care.

Richard was a legend in the youth development field. His innovations at Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, the City of New York, The Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, Food Change, and iMapAmerica inspired and changed the field of those who develop our nation's youth to their full potential. Everything he did was ahead of its time, and replicated across the country.

Beyond Richard's impressive innovation and impact, he was one of the most humble, generous, caring leaders I've ever known. He lived a lesson we talk about at Public Allies: he focused his work not just on building programs and organizations, but to developing leaders. He devoted himself to mentoring a staggering number of leaders, mostly young men of color. He saw talent early, and he stuck with it. He sent countless thoughtful books, personal notes, and presents throughout the years.

I remember when he sent me the book, Good to Great and a toy bus to put on my desk to remind me of the lesson "get the right people on the bus before you decide where to go." He sent me a book on Bayard Rustin with a note encouraging me to remember it takes the leadership of many to create change. Richard would meet me for lunch, tell me I worked too hard and needed to open myself to more inspiration, and make me go to a museum or movie. He had already bought the ticket. And he was an amazing story teller with a marvelous laugh. 

Richard served on our national board of directors for 15 years. We couldn't imagine letting him go. His contributions to our strategy, development, and leadership are felt throughout the organization. When our New York City site had problems a few years ago and almost shut down, he moved them into his office and almost single-handedly helped them re-launch and grow. 

We are all enormously grateful for his leadership, wisdom, and love. I know you join me in grieving a great leader, colleague, and friend we will seek to honor by emulating his great example.

Paul Schmitz is the founder & CEO of Public Allies, which advances new leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits and civic participation.


From the New Orleans Partnership for Youth Development:

We at PYD were heartbroken to learn of the recent death of Richard Murphy. Richard was a leader, a role model, a mentor and a friend to all of us working in youth development. One of the original designers of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Richard worked in both the public and private sectors in New York City.

In New York, Richard created perhaps the most robust model for public-private partnership in the youth-serving sector ever seen in the U.S.

A tireless innovator, Richard also founded iMap America, the program that helped us at PYD develop our NOLA Youth Map. Richard’s work had national reach, as those of us who had the honor of working with him have carried what he taught us to Louisiana, to Wisconsin, to California, to Minnesota, and beyond.

Richard’s generosity, expertise and incredible passion for social justice were inimitable. He is, and will continue to be, deeply missed.


His own words: Richard on the Trayvon Martin killing, Walking While Young in America (blog post).


For more on Richard's life and work, see The New York Times obituary, Richard L. Murphy, Who Aided Disadvantaged Youths, Dies at 68.

Read about his funeral here.

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