Tonee Lawson ’07 runs an organization focused on helping youth achieve their goals.
By Kelley Freund
Throughout her life, Tonee Lawson has been a lot of things. Scientist. Government program director. Volunteer. Model. In her latest role as the founder and executive director of The Be. Org, she’s empowering youth to realize they too can be whatever they want. Through programs that develop character, leadership and talent, Lawson ’07 and The Be. Organization are providing opportunities for students to shape their own future, no matter their circumstances.
It was Lawson’s grandmother Phyllis Edelin who first introduced her to the concept of giving back to the local community. Edelin attended so many church community service events that, as a kid, Lawson thought these were her grandmother’s job, not volunteer work. But if it was her grandmother who first modeled a community service ideal, it was her grandfather Joseph Edelin who inspired her love of science with his job at the National Institutes of Health.
When Lawson headed off to TU, her plan was to become a doctor. As she took more classes, however, other areas of science turned out to be a better fit. She found herself in the university’s molecular biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics (MB3) program. Following graduation, Lawson went to work for a pharmaceutical company, but it wasn’t exactly the dream career she imagined.
“I enjoyed the subject matter, but I hated being in the lab all day by myself,” she says. “It was very isolating, and I realized I needed more human engagement.”
Lawson decided to work for the government, on the regulation side of the science field. But the country was in a recession, and the government placed a hiring freeze on the gigs she was interested in. Even after she earned a master’s degree in biotechnology from the University of Maryland, University College, those jobs were still closed.
So she took a position with Baltimore County, first working as a case manager for the Department of Aging and then as a project director. But it was Lawson’s post-grad commitment to her TU sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and the organization’s service work that led her to her true calling. As the head of the sorority’s Emerging Young Leaders Initiative at the SEED School of Maryland, Lawson’s talent for working with youth and developing engaging programming didn’t go unnoticed. Her sorority sisters told her she needed to do something on a larger scale.
“When someone says they see something in me, I take it seriously,” Lawson says.
She began reading books on nonprofits and nonprofit management. Through previous jobs, she had gained grant writing and grant management experience, and she had a large network of friends and colleagues to whom she announced her plan to launch her own organization. She used those resources to gather what she needed—from funding to volunteers—for the launch of The Be. Organization in 2014.
The group’s mission is to empower Baltimore–Washington, D.C., area youth through character and skills development workshops, a STEM curriculum and college and career support. The organization’s programming seeks to offset any inequalities participants face by providing them with resources and opportunities they might otherwise not have access to. A framework of social–emotional learning (SEL) is utilized in all of The Be. Organization’s programming. Social–emotional skills include managing emotions, feeling and showing empathy toward others, establishing positive relationships and making responsible decisions. Lawson says these enable people to be the best versions of themselves for a greater chance at healthy and happy experiences.
The Be. Organization’s character education program, with its heavy focus on SEL, is its most-requested program among elementary school administrators. Christan Morley, associate executive director of the Y in Central Maryland, supports four Baltimore-area schools and their out-of-school-time programming, which includes The Be. Organization’s SEL curriculum. Morley has watched students create comics on how to handle situations in the classroom and at home, write letters to themselves and the people they care about and learn about de-escalation and processing emotions.
“A curriculum like this is extremely important, especially now, when these students have spent two years without much interaction with other people,” Morley says. “We were able to see scholars put these skills into practice when they were getting upset or speaking out when there was a situation they were uncomfortable with. They become advocates.”
For Lawson, incorporating a STEM component into the organization’s programming was another important mission. Not only did she enjoy those subjects, but Lawson had witnessed many Black students give up on science without truly giving it a shot. With employment opportunities for STEM occupations growing fast, she wanted to ensure her program participants were exposed to those fields.
“Black kids do not often pursue careers in STEM,” Lawson says. “And after working with students for so long, I’ve realized it’s not an issue of their ability to grasp the content. Much of it has to do with confidence. That’s why we focus so much on SEL learning: It allows our students to build the fortitude, tenacity and confidence to do difficult things, like take on a rigorous STEM curriculum.”
The organization’s STEM programming includes the Food Playground, which teaches cooking through STEM concepts. What is the chemistry behind making ice cream? What is the melting point of saturated versus unsaturated fat? They replicate their results in the kitchen, making food for themselves and their families. Through The Be. Virtual Program, students learn to code and create virtual reality video games. And the organization’s annual Youth TechCon, to be held at TU this fall, provides the opportunity for young tech enthusiasts to learn more about topics like robotics and coding.
“We make programming fun, and we show them things that relate to their daily life,” she says. “So when they go through our curriculum, they don’t realize they’re learning. They just think they’re having a good time.”
Another mission of The Be. Organization is to assist young adults in preparing for their futures beyond high school. The annual Beyond a Dream Youth Conference (held at TU in the spring) provides middle and high school students the opportunity to learn more about careers in fields such as health care, finance, entrepreneurship and the arts. To provide support at each stage of the college application process, The Be. College Ready Program aids students in filling out applications, writing personal essays and understanding financial aid packages.
Since its launch, the organization has grown to include a staff of program coordinators
associates, contracted enrichment teachers, a communications and marketing manager, an executive assistant and, almost every term, TU students who work as interns.
“I am forever grateful for my experience with Towson, and now I love that I get to be a partner with the university and provide current students internship opportunities,” Lawson says. “One of the things I like about being a leader is coaching, and being able to guide these students from a Towson alumni perspective holds a special place in my heart.”
TU connections also are apparent on the organization’s board. Andrea Ross ’10 met Lawson through Alpha Kappa Alpha, when they served together on a few sorority committees following graduation. When Lawson launched The Be. Organization, Ross decided to volunteer. But when she witnessed Lawson’s passion and the impact she was having on Baltimore youth, Ross decided to step up her commitment and serve as the board’s secretary.
“When I think of a leader, I think of someone who instills their hope in others,” Ross says. “That’s what Tonee does. She exudes passion. She believes in her mission, and it makes you believe in it as well. She makes you want to be a part of the conversation, and she makes you want to be a part of the change.”
But that change doesn’t come easy. Racial bias is everywhere, and the disparities in funding facing Black-led organizations impact their ability to provide sustainable services to their communities. As administrators, parents and students spread the word about the impact of The Be. Organization’s programming, everyone wants in. Unfortunately, there’s not enough staff or money to serve those who reach out.
To create a new approach to funding, the organization has teamed up with two other Black-led youth empowerment groups, I Am Mentality and B-360, to form the Baltimore Legacy Builders Collective. The collective was initially backed by a three-year grant from the T. Rowe Price Foundation (now concluded) that covered costs related to joint programming, programming space and fundraising resources, including a chief development officer. The groups hope this unique model will serve as an example to other Black-led nonprofits.
“You never want to tell a child ‘no,’ especially when it comes to something that can positively impact their development,” Lawson says. “That’s been the hardest part about this. But when I engage with students and see a lightbulb go off in their heads as they grasp the content, those moments are so rewarding that I know I can keep doing this. I can keep working and fundraising and trying to grow this organization, so we can serve all the schools who reach out to us.”
Kelley Freund is a freelance writer based in Virginia. She writes for university magazines across the country.