Grassroots Change in the Bronx

“You guys give us an opportunity to be at the table with the decision makers,” Ruben Austria of Urban Youth Alliance told me over a cup of coffee this morning.

I had asked Ruben what a grassroots, community-based organization like Urban Youth Alliance gets out of a partnership with Bronx Community Solutions.

It’s pretty clear what we get from Urban Youth Alliance: an organization that finds jobs for clients after they finish their Bronx Community Solutions mandate. That’s a win-win for us, because a job is not only a stepping stone to a productive, crime-free life, but a powerful incentive for completing a court mandate.

So far, we’ve sent over 300 clients to Urban Youth Alliance, a number that far exceeds the targets in the small contract we signed with them.

To be successful, Bronx Community Solutions will have to recruit social service providers who can work with thousands of offenders annually. The good news is that in the Bronx, there’s no shortage of community-based agencies.

The more challenging news is that these agencies rarely interact with the courts, particularly small and mid-sized groups – such as churches, block groups and neighborhood associations – that form the backbone of civic life in the Bronx.

It’s easy to see why. For one thing, the offender population is a difficult group to work with. For another, the courts can be a difficult environment to navigate.

Urban Youth Alliance is a good example of an organization determined to get its foot in the courthouse door. Up until 1998, they were a small organization funded largely by church donations. That year, they were approached by Public-Private Ventures, a national non-profit, to serve as a local partner on a youth anti-violence initiative. Urban Youth Alliance used their connections with local churches to create a youth mentoring program called Bronx Connect.

A breakthrough came two years later, after Ruben received a call from a Legal Aid attorney who said he needed a mentor to get his client out of jail. “He told me he found us in the phone book,” Ruben recalled. After Ruben recruited a local churchgoer, the judge agreed to release the offender. "We realized, 'this is what we want to do.'"

To learn more about running an alternative to incarceration program, Ruben spent months sitting in family court, observing cases and asking judges and court clerks what they wanted from a partner program. His work paid off: by the end of 2001, they had 10 referrals. It jumped to 20 referrals in 2002 to 40 the year after.

To win the court’s trust, Ruben lavished attention on his clients. “We used to show up (for court appearances) that we didn’t have to, just to make sure the judges knew who we were.”

Around the same time, Reverend Mike Carrion (who had served as Urban Youth Alliance’s Board Chair) agreed to leave a high-paying job in the private sector to start the Workforce Development Institute. In their first year, they served 1200 clients with a small staff of job developers and no earned income. “Mike’s attitude was ‘if we do the work, God will take care of us’” said Ruben.

Today, Urban Youth Alliance has 14 full-time staff members. With funding from the Department of Labor and the City of New York, along with a steady stream of clients from Bronx Community Solutions, they've greatly increased their capacity - moving "from retail to wholesale" as Ruben put it.

I visited the organization a few months ago, and was impressed by the dedication and commitment of the people who work there. Most of the staff live in the Bronx, and their shared religious commitment helps fuel a passion for helping troubled individuals in the Bronx. Now, their concern is making sure that they hold on to the values that sustained the organization in its earliest days. "We have to make sure we don't lose our character as we get bigger," Ruben told me.

If courts are going to reach beyond purely legal solutions to the problems presented by low-level offending like drug abuse, unemployment, homelessness and mental illness, they're not going to be able to do it alone. Our role at Bronx Community Solutions is to serve as a broker between the courts and organizations like Urban Youth Alliance, and to find ways (such as providing financial assistance and access to court leadership) to support these groups.


A nice follow-up to last week's story on Urban Youth Alliance: The New York Times reported today that Imagine Schools, a "nonprofit charter school organization based in Arlington, VA" plans to open a 800-student charter school in the long-abandoned old Bronx courthouse by September 2007. Its local partner in operating the school will be Urban Youth Alliance. Another nice sign of the growth and maturation of Urban Youth Alliance, as well as its commitment to serving citizens in the Bronx!

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