A New Approach to Youth Community Service

“This looks like it is going to be real long and boring.”

“When can we go home?”

This is a glimpse into the first day of a new community service learning program (click here for photos.)

Five months ago I was asked to work in the Bronx Family Court with a program called the Juvenile Accountability Court (JAC), an alternative to incarceration program for youth aged 10-15 on probation.

Although I was excited to be working with teenagers, family court isn’t a place people exactly look forward to. If anyone has been to the Bronx, they know the lines are long, the elevators stop where they want and people are often grouchy.

Participants in the JAC program have to complete sixty hours of community service and meet probation requirements such as staying in school or receiving counseling (from Full Circle Health, a project partner). To keep track of progress, they also agree to make regular appearances before a judge.

When I started, the feedback from our family court partners - everyone from Olivien Manns-Nelson, the Branch Chief of the Department of Probation, to the judges and attorneys we work closely with – was that community service could be improved. They felt dissatisfied with the park clean-up projects that were available to JAC participants because they didn't do anything to address the issues that brought young people into court in the first place.

With this feedback in mind, I put together a concept paper proposing a community service learning program that combines creative community service projects (such as painting over graffiti) with workshops that address issues such as truancy, substance abuse and anger management.

The local High School for Law, Government and Justice (a project partner that among other things, serves as the host of our Community Advisory Board) agreed to host the project on Saturdays. I recruited our first class of participants and on February 3rd, the program started.

The teenagers in the group were from different neighborhoods, ethnic backgrounds and experiences. To help out, we hired an artist named George Zavala from City Lore, a non-profit cultural center whose goal is to explore and present the cultural heritage of New York City and its residents.

Nevertheless, my co-workers (Kate Krontiris, planner for Bronx Community Solutions and Kevin Cedeno, a youth intern) and I had to be careful with how we handled everyone. The wrong statement by us or one of the participants could explode into a disaster. With this in mind, we started with introductions, plenty of name games and ice breakers. I knew that if the participants could get along, there would be a better chance of them participating and returning each week.

Another challenge was figuring out what the guidelines of the program would be, and how we could present them to the group without seeming too overbearing. My colleagues and I knew that we had to be firm, but fair. We decided that the participants would create an expectations contact – an agreement between the participants and the facilitators on the rules and regulations of the program.

They came up with a list of rules and consequences two pages long. They disallowed wearing hats, du-rags or bandana’s, along with sleeping or talking over a fellow classmate. The consequences they suggested for violation of this contract were at times harsher than I would have suggested. “For every minute someone is late,” one of the kids suggested, “they have to stay that same amount of time afterwards.” This rule didn’t make it on to the contract - I didn’t want to stay three hours late if someone walked in at lunch time - but several others did.

So far, they have done a good job abiding by their own rules. The lesson learned: when teenagers have some decision-making power, they invest more of themselves in what they have to do.

After two weeks of getting to know each other and hammering home program expectations and curriculum (the theme for this first cycle is conflict resolution because we found that nearly fifty percent of the probationers had been arrested for a conflict related incident such as getting in a fight at school), the kids were ready for some hard work. We took a group of nine young men and women to 176th Street and Jerome Avenue to shovel snow, pick-up trash and most of all paint over graffiti for a handful of storefronts. (For pictures, click Here.)

After a couple of hours of painting, everyone huddled together in our Bronx Community Solutions van for lunch and a quick talk with officer Warren Thompson of the 46th Precinct.

He spoke to the group about his upbringing in the Bronx, his role as a community affairs officer, and offered positive strategies for young people to deal with problems in their lives. Most importantly, he offered the kids a side to law enforcement that they rarely make contact with, one that's considerate and non-judgmental. Having him there may have been the first step in bridging the gap between law enforcement and the young people in our group.

After we finished painting, we discussed the negative affects of graffiti – how it influences people's perception of danger, and scares potential residents and businesses from investing in graffiti ridden neighborhoods. It was a challenge to hold their attention after a long day of work, but some of the young people offered interesting opinions about the difference between tagging - which they agreed was disruptive to the community - and more artistic murals.

Through three weeks, I am very pleased with the success of the program. I know that we have seven more Saturdays to go, and many of these kids have busy and complicated lives, but it’s encouraging to have such a high compliance rate: 75 percent of the participants in the Juvenile Accountability Court attended the first week and 100 percent attended weeks two and three.

The good news is that I'm hearing positive feedback from participants during their court appearances in front of the judge. In court last week, one of the participants was asked by the judge what he thought of the program. “It’s different,” he answered. “It’s better than cleaning the park, I tell you that.”

The same group of resistant teenagers who couldn’t wait to get home when the program started have become enthusiastic participants in the program. Soon they will be working with George to create an artistic presentation (either a video or a theater scene) around resolving conflict. Our goal is to have them present it during their graduation ceremony to our JAC stakeholders and other at-risk youth.


Anonymous said…
Great work, Mr. Claibourne Henry!

Innovation is one of the many keys that administrators have overlooked. Too often, they are trying to maintain the status quo, even when they know that a project or initiative does not work or has never worked.

Soon enough, hopefuly, you all can have a new slogan:

"You don't know JAC!"

Because the programs and processes will work to benefit those mandated to them.

Thank you for your service!

Yumy Odom, TU PASCEP
ROP Facilitator
Philadelphia, PA
Anonymous said…
Claibourne: I think you're right on the mark with this approach. It's obviously well thought through and based on solid understanding of the types of strategies that are most likely to positively impact the lives of at-risk inner city youths. We need more creative thinking like this in cities all around the country. Ilook forward to hearing more about the program's success.
From Ft. Lauderdale, FL (one of the cities that could use some help)