Ishmael Pruitt ’15 (Criminal Justice) was in high school when one of his acquaintances went to prison for attempted murder, something he still thinks about today.
“I always wondered, what could I have done to help him, (to) give him some advice or something,” he says. “We would be playing basketball at the park years before, and the next thing you know he slowly transitioned. I saw the transition, but as a teenager I didn’t think nothing of it.”
Now a Sacramento State graduate, Pruitt is determined not to let other young people fall through the cracks. He is the co-founder of Project Optimism, a new nonprofit dedicated to enacting social change by equipping community members with a positive mindset and a belief that they can contribute to society. The organization’s programs include connecting at-risk youth with college students who can serve as mentors and sponsoring events to raise money or awareness for a variety of charities or causes.
The road from concerned teen to nonprofit founder, however, was anything but direct. Pruitt joined the Vacaville Police Department’s cadet program in high school, but didn’t enjoy it. He turned his eye toward being a probation officer, which led him to Sac State’s Criminal Justice program. That exposed him to research about how education was crucial to keeping young black men out of the criminal justice system. He tried his hand at teaching, but learned that wasn’t for him either. Then he thought about how he spent his time at Sac State.
“I reflected on all of my college experience, and it involved student development in higher education,” Pruitt says, listing off jobs he held including residential advisor, tutor and peer advisor. “They all had to do with developing college students. Sac State definitely exposed me to that, and now I’m in the process of transitioning to get a master’s degree in higher education.”
For years, Pruitt had been mulling over many of the ideas that eventually became Project Optimism, but the organization didn’t get off the ground until last year when he connected with a partner, Armoni Easley, who shared his passion and dedication – as well as an attorney who agreed to help them set up the nonprofit pro bono. Project Optimism was officially incorporated as a nonprofit in January.
The organization currently has two main initiatives. The Sankofa Project – named after a Twi word that means “go back and get it” – encourages college students to serve as mentors for at-risk youths. Pruitt uses social media to facilitate connections, and there are currently about 29 mentor-mentee pairs. The other project, PI Events for a Cause (PI stands for Positive Images), raises money for various charitable efforts such as cancer research or homelessness awareness.
He and his partner also hope to launch a program that helps provide resources for the homeless, as well as expand the Sankofa Project to include connecting college faculty who are interested in mentoring college-age students. Pruitt plans to attend graduate school in Southern California, giving the organization bases of operation in two parts of the state.
Pruitt credits his parents – both of whom earned college degrees late in life – with helping him become the person he is. His mother, he says, has maintained a positive outlook on life despite hardships, while his father emphasized discipline and dedication. And he also thinks about those individuals farther back in history who blazed the trail for him and inspire him to continue paying it forward for the next generation.
“Someone down the road paved the way for me to go to Sac State and get the experience I had,” he said, “Whether it was the first black student at Sacramento State, the first African American faculty member, someone did it, so it’s our responsibility to continue to build on the legacy and help someone else get to where they want to be.”
To learn more about Project Optimism or get involved, visit facebook.com/ProjectOpimtism.