Education & Family

GameChanger: Joni Holifield

We catch up with the founder of HeartSmiles.
—Photography by Tyrone Syranno Wilkens

Joni Holifield hated growing up in Baltimore. The streets around her West Baltimore home were filled with violence and overdoses, but she knew in her soul that something else had to exist beyond her corner of the world. “I couldn’t see it, visualize it, or even comprehend what it would look like,” says Holifield. “I didn’t have anyone telling me that I still had value and purpose.”

While getting her diploma, Holifield worked at McDonald’s, where her boss quickly saw she was a fast learner. Soon, she was managing two franchises and hiring and training staff. After that, she landed a job at Comcast (despite being unqualified) where she worked for two decades before leaving her illustrious career to found her own nonprofit for youth leaders, whom she affectionately calls “Heartbeats.”

What was the catalyst for leaving your great job and burning through your savings to start a nonprofit?
2015 rolled around and Freddie Gray. I was on vacation in the Bahamas, and I saw the riots happening in real time. Something clicked in me. I got so angry and frustrated seeing them burn down their own community. Yes, it’s messed up, but this isn’t the way to do it. Where are the mentors? And then I knew—this is why I had such an unlikely trajectory towards success, so I could go back and talk to these kids and let them know that, regardless of what you think you don’t have, or what you’re surrounded by, you can still make something of yourself. You still have value.

Why the name HeartSmiles?
It means you are smiling on the inside so nothing can break you on the outside. You love yourself regardless of your circumstances. The original purpose was to teach young people about entrepreneurship and leadership at Biggy’s Community Center. Then Baltimore City Schools said, “We heard about this program—you want to do it here?”

You then got involved with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Why the initial reluctance?
Look, an institution can be not so great—but they changed my perspective because there were people on the inside working to do something different. I was given a leadership position with the Center for Adolescent Health’s Youth Advisory Board. And then Hopkins opened the door to Michael Bloomberg and his team at Bloomberg Philanthropies. They arranged to bring 50 Heartbeats to New York. It was a red-carpet experience. The kids got to talk to people in prestigious positions who looked like them, and they made real connections. Bloomberg also gave us operational funding. It’s a beautiful relationship.

What’s next?
In a perfect world, HeartSmiles will not be needed. I want to work myself out of a job. That’ll be possible when we impact laws that make the environment look different. I would like to see the Heartbeats take it to the next level—support people on their terms and show young people they do have purpose, that they do have value, and they can be whatever they want to be.