Playing Peer Support Forward with Gary Z. Linnen · ShiftWorkPlace

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Ep94 Playing Peer Support Forward with Gary Z. Linnen


Youth as problem solvers, not problems to be solved.

Bio for Gary Linnen

Gary Z. Linnen is the CEO of PeerForward, a nonprofit organization dedicated to leveraging positive peer influence and resources to help high-achieving, low-income youth access higher education. Mr Linnen has steered PeerForward’s programs for over a decade, cultivating deep experience in youth development, program innovation, and organizational leadership. Growing up as a black Puerto Rican in Spanish Harlem’s Washington Project, he experienced firsthand the obstacles other people’s assumptions place in your path. He developed resilience and social solidarity from his family, who taught him to stand and deliver.

Before being CEO of PeerForward, Mr Linnen served as a director of tutoring and K-12 operations for The Princeton Review. Mr Linnen has a bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell University and is the first in his family to graduate from a higher education institution.

Episode highlight

Gary is a native New Yorker, born and raised in Spanish Harlem, in particular Washington projects. His family has a long history of being from Spanish Harlem, where his father, who is from Puerto Rico, and his mother are from Dunbar families. 

Growing up, Gary experienced significant poverty. His early school successes caused Gary to be chosen by the Oliver program to attend Weston School with higher standards and reputation, which he loved. Upon his return home, Gary realized others as smart as him, if not smarter, had yet to be given a chance and he knew he wanted to change that. In this episode, Gary shares his journey to develop peer support to overcome the obstacles marginalized youth face. 

In this episode, Gary shares his journey to becoming who he is today. He shares the challenges he had to overcome and how he is making a difference in the lives of teenagers and young adults. Listen to hear more.



  • “Vulnerable for me doesn’t necessarily mean that you express it to everyone else. It means being a self to note to acknowledge where you are as an individual, and what are you going to do about it.”
  • “In a leadership position, individuals are looking up to you. If you’re not being true to yourself, they’ll see that.”
  • “If you’ve never had to make pasta, you don’t know the recipe for pasta. We can’t make assumptions around it.”


Childhood Incidents

Gary grew up in a community where family meant everything to him. Clothes only mattered to him once he was denied in school because his best outfit was a pair of jeans and a grey sweater, not a suit. When Gary was moved from his community to a different world in the name of seeking an education, he realized he was judged by the way he looked, talked, and did things. 

One amazing thing about Gary is he did not bow to the pressure of fitting in; he chose to remain authentic to who he is and show up differently. When Gary moved to Westown, he was among the few black and Puerto Rican individuals in a predominantly white school. Together with some boys, they formed a community to help them get through as a minority group. 

At 16, Gary was going through a phase of finding his identity, and he realized he was gay, but he wasn’t bold enough to talk about it openly until 30 years later.

How Gary developed his Leadership and Culture Style 

According to the principle of Quakerism,  regardless of who you are, there’s a higher being around to help inspire individuals. Although Gary is not religious, he believes in this principle, which guides him on many things. As a leader, Gary has made it his mission to ensure that everybody is heard, seen and has a fair chance.

He also believes that vulnerability to oneself is essential because it helps us find where we are and how we can get past that. In leadership, Gary has learned the essence of giving people time to reflect so that they can get back up and be their best versions. 

Temperament and Personality Influences

Gary always believed he had everything under control based on his ability to juggle many balls and not drop any. About six years ago, he realized that he was juggling too much and needed to slow down because the pace wasn’t sustainable. Through this experience, Gary has managed to reflect and to connect more deeply with his own truth. 

Gary’s family loves celebrations. They love to celebrate their connection with one another.

Influential Groups

The LGBTQ community has played a considerable role in Gary’s life. Since the age of 16, that community space provided him with a sense of resiliency, connection, sisterhood and brotherhood. 

Gary’s family has also been of significant influence since they stand by him all through thick and thin.  

Cultural Epiphanies

Being a Puerto Rican, Gary experiences people with a deficit mindset in his day-to-day life. In most cases, some wonder if he can produce the desired results. He has to answer the question, “Can you do it?” many times even though he has consistent proof of his expertise.

Soap Box Moment

PeerForward is a national nonprofit that works with high schools and colleges to get individuals from low-income communities to and through college. They train and mobilize influential students, regardless of their grades, to be able to help their friends get to and through. By doing that, they build communities and connections to get people to understand their why so that they can persist throughout high school and college. Gary invites us to check out  to understand better what they do.

What Brings out the best in Gary?

Gary has an open-door policy and loves it when people are upfront with him. Being a natural nurturer, Gary wishes the best for everyone. The ability to just be himself also helps him face challenges with ease.


Gary Zebadeen Linnen is a positive force of energy and optimism. His rise through difficult circumstances taught him to leverage relationships to achieve his potential, be true to himself and nourish the drive to do the same of others. Devoting his energies to the uplift of youth through the organization PeerForward, Gary helps youth build strong peer relationships and access academic opportunities that would otherwise be unattainable without support and resources. Gary knows how to believe in youth as problem solvers, not problems to be solved. 

From his strong family roots in Spanish Harlem, Washington, to the many mentors along the way, he learned that the path to hone his natural strengths and build new ones is solidarity. Gary is living proof that when we believe in each other and see youth for the inspiring powerhouses they truly are, greatness is born.


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