Role Model

Melissa Sawyer

Class of 2014 | Youth Empowerment Project

Annually since 1986, YLC has selected a class of outstanding New Orleanians who serve as Role Models by actively contributing to the betterment of the Greater New Orleans region. These individuals are an inspiration to YLC’s young professional members and to the community at large.

Our 2020 Role Model Class is comprised of past role models from YLC's 34-year history. Revisiting our Role Models is an opportunity to learn about their changes in leadership, leadership lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what makes them Proud to Call New Orleans Home.

Melissa is a Founder and the Executive Director of the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP).  Melissa received her B.A. from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and her M. Ed from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).  Melissa first came to New Orleans through Teach for America (TFA) and she returned to the city after receiving her Master’s Degree in order to help reform the state’s juvenile justice system.

In 2004, Melissa and two other juvenile justice advocates founded YEP to support formerly incarcerated young people as they transitioned back into their communities. YEP was the first program of its kind in the state of Louisiana. Over the past 16 years, YEP has expanded to engage young people who live in poverty, are out of school or work, or have experienced trauma. 

Under Melissa’s leadership, YEP now provides mentoring and youth advocacy, adult education and high school equivalency preparation, employment readiness and career exploration, and out-of-school time enrichment programming. As a community-based nonprofit, YEP’s programs have been developed in response to unmet community needs and are aligned with YEP’s core purpose, which is to empower young people to improve their lives and the lives of others. 

Melissa has earned national recognition as an expert in the juvenile justice and youth development fields and she regularly speaks on a range of issues that include innovative and effective strategies for engaging vulnerable youth and non-profit sustainability.  Among the recognition she has received for her leadership at YEP, Gambit Weekly recognized her as the New Orleanian of the Year (2016), the New Orleans Bar Association presented her with the Liberty Bell (2017) and she was recognized by the Times-Picayune as one of the 300 people “who have made New Orleans, New Orleans” (2018).  Melissa currently sits on the Boards of Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) and Operation Spark.