Graduation, Family Court Style
"I can’t believe I’m finally done!” beamed Ignacio Lara, a young man who had just completed sixty hours of community service.
For a group of six young men, Tuesday evening's graduation ceremony marked an important accomplishment in their lives. Participants in the first cycle of the Juvenile Accountability Court Community Service Learning Program, these young men successfully completed sixty hours of service to their community in the Bronx.
Starting in early February 2007, the Bronx Juvenile Accountability Court (JAC), in partnership with the New York City Department of Probation and Bronx Community Solutions, launched an innovative community service project designed to promote accountability while addressing issues such as truancy, drug use, family problems, criminal mischief, and anger management.
Led by project coordinator Claibourne Henry, Ignacio and his fellow program participants completed a series of meaningful community service projects (such as removing graffiti from a busy Bronx street corner and organizing a clothes drive at World Vision, a local charity) and academic workshops addressing issues such as conflict resolution and peer pressure.
Their final product was a 10-minute film, called "Teenage Voices," that summarized their experiences in the program as well as their thoughts about how to resolve conflict in a positive way.
The film was screened to a rapt audience of judges, probation officers, attorneys, and family members, and was followed by a question and answer session.
Previous to this program, young probationers mandated to complete community service were sent to park sites where they were told to pick up garbage with little supervision or context about why their service was important. Donovan Spradley, another graduate who has had some experience with this previous version of community service, said last night, “This is way better than cleaning up garbage in the park. Over there, they don’t really tell you about why you’re cleaning. In this program, we learn about why doing graffiti is bad and we also learn how to work together as a group.”
His comment about working as a group came out as a major theme among the graduates last night, who all agreed that they learned a lot about how to “work with other people without problems,” as one participant said.
When asked questions during the question-and-answer portion of the program on Tuesday, the participants would turn to their fellow graduates to say “Can I take this one guys?” or “I got this, I got this,” ready with an answer to the question. It was clear from the beginning of the program that the relationships that these young men had built with each other and with the facilitators were strong motivators for getting them to come back each week to complete the program.
“We have experiences in common, so we can share what we know and express our feelings to each other,” said Ignacio.
Because this innovative program is intended to encourage critical thinking about choices, decisions, and consequences, each cycle has a theme. Since most of the participants for the current cycle were found responsible for conflict-related offenses (such as a fight in school or at home), the theme for our pilot program was conflict resolution.
Partnering with City Lore, an arts organization focused on the local culture and history of New York communities, the JAC participants were able to explore their responses to conflict as well as develop new tools for resolving a heated situation without violence. Through theater activities with George Zavala, an experienced teaching artist from City Lore, the young men had a chance to “act out” the pressures of being a teenager, putting their thoughts and experiences into a video (produced and edited by them) that the audience of judges, probation officers, attorneys, and family members viewed last night. [Click here to view “Teenage Voices.”]
These young men and their fellow graduates said that they have been encouraged by the community service project to think more seriously about their futures and what they need to do in order to accomplish their goals. They are also excited about bringing their graduation certificates to their next court appearance to show the judge.
In May, we're set to begin the second cycle of the project on the theme of citizenship, a topic we've already started exploring with our first set of graduates. Not surprisingly, they have a lot they want to share with us.