Bronx Community Solutions

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Friday, December 29, 2006

"How BCS Helped Me"

"I was smoking marijuana pretty heavily. Then I got arrested. I remember a sergeant in Central Booking who told me that even though things seemed bad right now, I could turn it into something positive if I was willing to try.

When my case came before the Judge, he told me that he would grant me an ACD [an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, in which all charges are dismissed after six months or a year as long as the defendant stays out of trouble] if I would go to Bronx Community Solutions for five days of social service classes and counseling.

I remember meeting Robert, Saudi, Ramon, and Tony on my first day at Bronx Community Solutions. They were a great example for me: they gave me high hopes, helped me to recognize my mistakes, and had good advice. Special Terry, a health educator from the City Department of Health, visited to teach one of our classes, and after class she helped me to reactivate my Medicaid and get a copy of my Birth Certificate.

When I got arrested I was out of work and out of school. The people I met at Bronx Community Solutions helped inspire me to do something with my life and right now I’m attending my second semester at the College of New Rochelle. A lot of people give up hope and think they can’t change, but it’s been a year since I smoked marijuana. I stop by Bronx Community Solutions a lot just to say hello because of the respect and friendship that I get there."

-Dennis Sanchez

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Rewards of Persistence

We painted the wall once.
They tagged it.

We painted it a second time.
They tagged it again.

This week, we’ll be painting it for a third time.
If they tag it again, we’ll be back for a fourth time. (See pictures here. Click on the photos for captions.)

While some people might see this as an endless game of cat and mouse, we at Bronx Community Solutions see the positive side: the first time our Tag Team Graffiti Cleanup Unit painted the side of this Chinese restaurant, located across the street from a school in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, the tag was an immense canvas of bubble letters that ballooned across the entire wall.

The second time we had to paint, we saw that the artists had been a little less ambitious: there were some scattered silver scribbles that peppered the length of the wall. This time when we go back to paint, we’ll be painting over a two isolated tags. (Click here for pictures.)

We think that the artists are getting a little tired of us. And that is the point.

Graffiti thrives on two factors: visibility and ubiquity. "Taggers," who are mostly young males, seek attention from other artists and from the general public. Keep going after the graffiti and eventually they'll get discouraged.

It is a lesson learned from the Clean Train Movement in the late 1980s in New York City. Fed up with the fact that the majority of their trains were covered in graffiti, the Metropolitan Transit Authority took whole fleets of trains out of service until the graffiti was removed.

In addition to cleaning the trains, the MTA also starved taggers of the attention that they desired. Graffiti artists became frustrated that their artworks were destroyed so quickly and they tired of putting up tags that they knew would shortly be removed by the MTA. This approach stemmed the problem and resulted in a cleaner and mostly graffiti-free subway system.

A bigger problem, however, is changing the environment where graffiti occurs. The sheer amount of it in the Bronx’s urban surroundings has numbed residents to its presence and has made it harder to engage communities in the process of removal. The obvious sentiment is, “They’re just going to tag over whatever you clean up.”

One woman summed up that sentiment on a recent cleanup project. “You know you’re just wasting your time," she told our crew supervisor. "I swear to God, my son’s just gonna be back out there tonight painting right over it. He’s the one who does it and I can guarantee that it’s gonna be tagged up again in no time!”

Her statement contained a depressing kernel of reality: this Bronx mother feels so powerless to keep her neighborhood buildings free of the graffiti that brings down property values and costs city agencies thousands of dollars a year to clean up, that she believes herself unable to control even her own son’s role in the problem.

It also speaks to a larger, but connected problem: a missing connection between the boy and a youth program that might give him the attention he is seeking in a more constructive way.

Unlike a subway car, we cannot take a neighborhood "out of service." Our goal is to make modest progress toward changing an environment or culture where graffiti is taken for granted. It is a slow process and it happens in little steps. Over time, we hope that neighborhood residents reach the same point as our crew members, who tell us, “I really hope that this wall doesn’t get tagged again.”

Bronx Community Solutions is committed to that gradual process of improvement, however long it takes – or however many re-paintings it takes.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Making an Impact

Theresa (not her real name) came to a realization: “I didn’t want to be broke with no job, no GED and living with my moms.”

What had brought her to this point was her habit of smoking marijuana regularly, and even selling it. Theresa used to think of this as a victimless crime, but at Bronx Community Solution's first community impact panel (for pictures, click here) it became clear that seemingly victimless crimes can severely effect a person's life.

The community impact panel - an idea borrowed from the Midtown Community Court - brought together community stakeholders and young people who had been charged with marijuana offenses, allowing an honest and free-flowing exchange about how these offenses can affect the community.

Melanie, a police officer, said to one of the youth participants, “You see me sitting here and you might just see the uniform, but I am also a person who cares about you and about our community.” The community members — Melanie, a police officer; Pattie, who works for a substance abuse agency; Ruben, a leader in a human service agency, and Inga; a peer counselor for a youth program - shared stories from their professional perspectives and from their personal lives.

Sixteen-year-old Daquan, who is truant from school and not living with his mother, said “I don’t smoke weed, I sell it.” Daquan sees selling marijuana as his only career option. Inga, Ruben, Pattie and Melanie, all speaking directly with Daquan, helped him realize that there are other choices for him. He saw that he was in a room with people who could connect him to services that he did not even know existed.

Luis, 17, does not see that smoking marijuana is such a big deal, but his eyes widened when Pattie talked about her brother, a young drug user who committed suicide.

As an employment specialist from FEGS Health and Human Services System, a Bronx Community Solutions partner, I moderated the panel along with Resource Coordinator Elizabeth Taylor.

We started the group because we felt the usual punishments for marijuana offenses (typically a time served sentence or a few days jail) do not go far enough in helping a young person understand why their criminal behavior is not only self-destructive but also damaging to the community. The underlying issues (such as stress about jobs or school, dependency on the chemicals in the marijuana itself, and self-medication for underlying mental health issues) are not addressed and the young person may not learn anything except that they were unlucky enough to get caught.

By contrast, the participants in our panel opened up about some of the reasons they're using marijuana: peer pressure, lack of role models and the need to numb feelings that they don't want to talk about were cited in the group. By the end of the session, three out of the four panel members said they were interested in pursuing the voluntary services (such as a job referral) that we offer.

Going forward, community impact panels will be a big part of what Bronx Community Solutions offers the Bronx community. Along with the youth basketball league, it's also part of our effort to provide specific services to a population of younger adults.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Making the Basket

"I want something better to do than chillin' on the block" John (not his real name) told the group.

It was the second meeting of the Bronx Community Solutions basketball league, a program for young people aged 16 to 24 who have completed a program mandate with us, along with other at-risk young people. (Click here for pictures.)

Pretty soon, these young people would be hitting the basketball floor, but first we brought them together to hear what they were hoping to get out of the program.

About 40 percent of Bronx Community Solutions participants are between the ages of 16 and 24. Like all our participants, they lead complicated lives, but they can be a hard group to engage in voluntary services.

That's why I thought of the idea of a basketball league for program graduates and other young people. Basketball gets them in the door, but we also take the opportunity to offer them services. And it's clear that they need the help. Last night, five of the young men walked away with job referrals and seven of them registered for after school activities with SCAN Mullaly Academy, our partner in this endeavor. One of these young men, who had been evicted from his apartment last week, even received housing placement in a transitional living community.

After a couple of practices, the team will be playing against teams from the Departments of Corrections, Probation, and Parole; the New York Police Department; a team from the Police Athletic League; FEGS (Federation Employment and Guidance Services); and other after school teams in the Bronx.

Our goal is to bring young people and representatives of criminal justice agencies together in a positive way. In the process, we hope they'll start to see each other from a different perspective - as friendly competitors and even teammates, instead of antagonists.

Captain Muhammad, from the Department of Corrections, stopped by last night to watch the game and to show his support for bridging the gap between the court and the community. He is prepared to "give the young guys a good game" and it is clear that he means business.

Although last night’s game was just a scrimmage, it was an important step for court-community relations: disconnected youth were reconnected to the support structures that will help them bring their A game to whatever positive opportunities await them in the future.

(For a slide show from the event, please click here.)