After working with gang members for five years, Reality Changers founder Christopher Yanov felt that it was not right that most inner-city teenagers today know more people who have been shot or killed in the street than people who are on the road to college.
As a response, Reality Changers began in May 2001 with four eighth-grade students at the Hispanic Presbyterian Church near downtown San Diego with the hope of building first generation college students.
Starting with just $300 to its name, Reality Changers has given more scholarship awards to college-bound students than any other single organization in San Diego County since 2006, according to its web site (www.realitychangers.org).
Reality Changers opened two more chapters in Solana Beach (2004) and in City Heights (2006), with both new sites led by program graduates.
Recently named by San Diego Magazine as one of San Diego’s new civic power brokers, Reality Changers President Christopher Yanov raised and awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to inner-city students before turning 30 years old.
Yanov earned four college degrees in just five years. He graduated in two-and-a-half years from UC San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Spanish literature. Yanov also completed two master’s programs at UCSD with degrees in peace and justice, and international relations.
Yanov was selected as an inaugural commissioner of the San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, and is the chairman of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Education and Workforce Development Committee. He is also putting the finishing touches on his book “How to End Gang Violence in America.”
- What brought you to this area?
I came to San Diego in 1996 to attend UCSD. I majored in political science and Spanish literature, specifically choosing UCSD to be able to study in the border region.
- What makes your work special to you?
Every moment of my work contains the opportunity to make an impact. Sometimes, the students of the program get caught up in what “might have happened” if Reality Changers didn’t exist — gangs, drugs, long jail sentences, or worse. “I know, I know...” I tell them quietly, trying to change the subject as quickly as possible. We’ve made better results happen and it’s better for them to stay focused on how they can change the future in special ways for the younger students in the program.
- What would you still like to achieve professionally?
I would like the books that I am writing to have as big an impact nationally as the Reality Changers program has had locally.
- Who or what inspires you?
Honestly, it’s the students who have not made it into Reality Changers who inspire me to work harder. For example, one of the subjects of my books is a young man named Gabino, who was sentenced to life in prison when he was just 16 years old. What if Reality Changers had been stronger and had more resources to pull him up and out of the lifestyle he led? That’s what keeps me up at night.
- If you hosted a dinner party for 8, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?
Considering that I still have to raise just about all of the money for Reality Changers, I’d invite seven donors seeking to make a transformative, tangible change in San Diego. And as I would want my guests to truly enjoy their meal, for my eighth person I’d invite a chef.
- Tell us about what you are currently reading.
I have been reading through all of the books written by local best-selling author Victor Villasenor.
- What are your favorite films?
The best movie about why kids get wrapped up in gangs is a little-known movie called "Squeeze." My personal faves are "Back to the Future" and "L.A. Confidential." And everyone is always telling me that there should be a movie made about Reality Changers, but it was only recently that I developed a Hollywood-level story line: think "Dead Poets Society," but grittier.
- What is your favorite vacation destination?
The best feeling in the world is driving down to Ensenada, Mexico, for a weekend or longer. And don’t worry... the only risk about going down there is the risk of not wanting to come back!
- Please describe your greatest accomplishment.
My hope is that it hasn’t happened yet!