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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Teaching Tolerance to Teens

How often do you hear the N-word, the B-word, anti-Semitic remarks or rants against homosexuality?

How often do you stereotype or make generalizations based on someone’s race, gender, religion or sexual orientation?

Unfortunately, answering “every day” to at least part of either question is probably the norm. With that reality in mind, Tolerance and Diversity became the perfect theme for the Juvenile Accountability Court’s most recent community service learning cycle. Click here to Read More.

In the midst of brainstorming ideas for our third cycle of community service learning, Chief Bronx Family Court Judge, Clark V. Richardson suggested the theme of Tolerance and Diversity after presiding over a case that involved a hate crime. In addition to the stories heard about Chinese food delivery men who are robbed en route, it is not uncommon to discover racial epithets or intolerance as the motivation for teenagers assaulting one another. As young people begin to define themselves and group accordingly, conflict with others can become a way to demonstrate their allegiance. Travel the Bronx and one will be hard pressed to find a teenager who does not know about the so-called Dominican-Puerto Rican rivalry. The concern within the court system is when this intolerance turns violent. Working with Judge Richardson’s suggestion, the goal of our theme was to take a birds-eye view of this type of intolerance and address related issues. What is the role of a Hispanic woman? Is bi-sexuality a choice? Is there anything wrong with questioning the existence of God?

Questions such as these would generate discussion and expose the diversity of beliefs existing just within the group itself, teaching everyone to be more understanding and tolerant of each other and by extension of greater society. The more we explored the theme, the more we recognized how extensive it was. To simplify things, we decided to divide it into four separate categories: race/ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

After spending the first two sessions providing the group with general information on all four topics, we divided them into groups of four and assigned each group one of the topics to specialize in. We reviewed key concepts such as genocide, homophobia and racism. We studied events like the Holocaust, the tragedy of Matthew Shepard and the Civil Rights movement. Also, for the first time, we included current events related to our topic. Diversity in the 2008 presidential campaign, the Jena Six controversy, and the incident surrounding Senator Larry Craig of Idaho all made for a lively discussion. With each meeting, they gravitated toward their distinct topics, asking more and more questions, often times competing with each other on who was smarter.

In addition to the workshops, we also made sure to include our core community service projects. In early October, we spent an entire day painting over graffiti at the Andrew Freedman Home, located at 167th street and the Grand Concourse. Originally designed as a home for the elderly, it now also houses organizations like the Head Start and Family Preservation programs. The following week, the Juvenile Accountability Court probationers spent the day packaging supplies at the World Vision warehouse, a community based resource center located in the South Bronx.

For the first time we also took the group on a field trip during the week. After school one day, the probationers gathered at Bronx Family Court where we escorted them in the Bronx Community Solutions community service van to the New York City Tolerance Center, located in midtown Manhattan. The group took a tour of their state-of-the-art facility, learned about intolerance in the media and had an opportunity to ask tough questions and test what they had learned in our workshops. The experience was rewarding for everyone and we are ambitious to include a trip to the Tolerance Center in every cycle of community service learning henceforth.

Keeping with tradition, the cycle finished with a graduation ceremony held this past Wednesday night. In attendance were Judges Clark Richardson, Monica Drinane and Sidney Gribetz. There were also several probation officers, a team from the corporation counsel, staff from Full Circle Health and Bronx Community Solutions, and a representative from the New York City Tolerance Center. As the audience circulated the fair-like presentations, the group explained topic-related literature on their tables and answered challenging questions from the event's guests. To highlight their topic, the group assigned to “gender” played one of R-Kelly’s hit songs “Feelin’ on your Booty.” The song wasn’t playing for entertainment, but rather as an example of misogynistic lyrics. At the “race and ethnicity” table, scenes from the film American History X played in the background to underscore the group’s message about racism and white-supremacy. After about twenty minutes, the guests returned to their seats for a brief Q & A session and the presentation of certificates.

Thinking back on our first three cycles, this was the best one yet. Aside from this being our largest group to graduate, and for the first time the presence of so many judges and family court personnel at the graduation, the young people in this cycle were really able to grasp the theme and many of its concepts. Probationers with the Juvenile Accountability Court come in all shapes and sizes. The level of maturity and intelligence varies greatly and it’s important that we take this into account with the ideas we present and the activities we engage in. Tolerance and Diversity worked because of both its breadth and simplicity and we will be sure to consider such characteristics in every theme we choose hereafter.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Fight Against Drunk Driving

My new article on preventing drunk driving deaths in New York is on-line at Gotham Gazette. You can view it here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mapping plan backfires

According to reporting in the New York Times, in response to accusations of racial profiling the Los Angeles Police Department recently decided to scrap a plan to create a map detailing the Muslim communities in that city.

"In his testimony, to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mr. Downing said the project would determine the geographic distribution of Muslims in the sprawling Los Angeles area and take 'a look at their history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status and social interactions.' [and] . . . factors like exposure to the puritanical teachings of the Wahhabi sect, instability in countries of origin and where they get their news. He also suggested that the study would result in helping amplify the voice of Muslim moderates who could counter fanatics."

The deputy police chief in charge of the project gets high marks for his community policing efforts, even from those who oppose the plan. However, Peter Bibring, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. of Southern California, said in an interview, "Police can and should be engaged with the communities they are policing, but that engagement can't be a mask for intelligence gathering."

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bronx Media on the Web

I often enjoy reading the Metro section of the newspaper the most. I thought I would post a round-up of the Bronx local news outlets and blogs I've found on the web. Click here to view it. Does anyone have one to add?

Beekman in the Bronx: Bronx and NYC news as reported by Dan Beekman.

Bronx Bohemian: In search of the artsy and bohemian in the Bronx.

Bronx Report: Opinionated, fine-grained observations on daily life in the Bronx. Also some reporting on U.N. related issues, and an interest in equitable lending practices.

Bronx Beat: The student newspaper of the Columbia School of Journalism, published in the Spring semester. [03/30/2009 - link does not appear to be working at this time]

Bronx River Alliance: Their calender and announcements section is a great source for upcoming events.

Bronx News: This is the website of Bronx News, a borough-wide paper, Parkchester News, the paper of the Parkchester development, City News, the paper of Co-Op City, and Vocero, a Spanish language paper catered to Puerto Ricans.

Bronx Times: On-line version of local paper for the Morris Park and Throgs Neck area. The New York City section of this busy discussion forum has lots of (often inflammatory) neighborhood specific opinions on crime, amenities, and real estate values for people contemplating a new home or an apartment.

City Limits: News and analysis focused on New York City's non-profit, policy and activism sector.

Crain's New York Business: Covers stories related to business, real estate, politics and small business. Often break's political stories and publishes important feature pieces.

Daily News: Bronx Borough section.

Daily Politics: The blog of Daily News political correspondent Elizabeth Benjamin

Gotham Gazette: Excellent reporting on New York City public policy issues. Good guide to NYC-focused blogs here, and an archive of criminal justice related articles (including several by former Bronx Community Solutions Project Director Aubrey Fox) is available here.

Highbridge Horizon: Online version of local paper covering Highbridge.

Hunts Point Express: Online newspaper serving Hunts Point and Longwood.

Mr. Babylon: Daily observations of an anonymous, disaffected public school teacher at a Bronx public high school.

Mount Hope Monitor: Online version of Spanish/English community paper serving the west Bronx neighborhoods of Mount Hope, Morris Heights, South Fordham and University Heights.

New York City News Service: A city-wide news service by the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

NY1: Bronx Borough section.

NYPD Rant: Busy discussion forum for police officers to rant and gripe.

New York Sun: Local daily paper for New York City, with particularly good reporting on legal issues.

NYT City Room Blog: Metro/City Section blog of the New York Times. Courts and Law beat.

Norwood News: Online version of local paper serving Norwood, Bedford Park, North Fordham and University Heights.

Picture The Homeless Blog: A prominent New York City homeless advocacy and policy organization.

Razor Apple is a blog about New York City arts, culture and happenings.

Riverdale Press: Online version of local paper serving Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Kingsbridge Heights, and Marble Hill, including an informative police beat section.

Subchat Interesting city-wide news service, a bulletin board for discussion of rail and rapid transit topics.

Starts and Fits: This New York-centric blog written by urban planner Aaron Donovan is focused on land use and transportation.

Streetsblog: Fantasic group blog focused on livable streets and transportation, a project of the Open Planning Institute.

West Bronx Blog: Great group news blog on variety of local Bronx subjects. Probably the best source of Bronx related news on-line.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Reporting: Case Study of Failure and more on L.A.'s Skid Row

I thought these two articles were worthy of being highlighted. The first installment in a three part series from the New York Times follows a trail of scandals and disappointments in the city child welfare system that provides an interesting case study of the dynamics that can allow a good idea to fail in implementation. The second article, from GOOD Magazine, is an interesting gloss of life for families and children living in L.A.'s Skid Row area, and the effects of the City's policing strategies there.

Click here: Foster Children at Risk, and an Opportunity Lost to read the full New York Times article.

Click here: Welcome to Los Angeles to read the full GOOD Magazine article.

For highlights

One of the painful truths of child welfare work is that the best agencies can make terrible mistakes. . . . The tensions only worsened in the late 1980s and early ’90s as the crack epidemic sent tens of thousands of additional children into foster care, nearly all of them black or Latino. Overwhelmed, the foster care system began to fail. Newborn babies were left in hospitals; children who had been removed from their homes for their own safety were made to sleep in city offices for nights on end; those who made it into foster homes regularly became lost in a netherworld of bureaucratic indolence. . . . An idea about one new way forward emerged. Foster care agencies would be created that would be run by people who looked like, and shared the culture of, the children in their care.

'The time of white missionaries tellng people of color how to live their lives must come to an end.' Luis Medina, a charismatic and outspoken child welfare administrator who had grown up poor in the city, became one of the most aggressive proponents of the new philosophy. Mr. Medina liked to say that foster care in New York had become an evil and racist system that was engaged in little more than rounding up poor minority children. He suggested that the traditional foster care agencies that had long been dominant were too interested in collecting government checks.

This inflammatory but poignent comment left by a reader here on this blog gives a glimpse of the frustration felt by parents in Family Court:

the Bronx family court is a laugh. It is a zoo with no order and no professionalism. No one helps me. The judge, lawyer, ACS worker and all those involved are part of a plot to destroy the human family in the name of federal funding while kidnapping and saling our children to the highest bidder supposedly in "the best interest of the child". This horrendous practices called 'hearings, reunification plans, custody/visits' are horrific and illegal and immoral and inhumane yet it is still in full effect and still attack, degrade, destroy INNOCENT PARENTS and children and families. What manner of beast would do this to our children and our families? Please help me. If you have any information, advice, prayer, legal referrals, etc. I most certainly appreciate it.

From "Welcome to Los Angeles:"

In September 2006, the Safer Cities Initiative deployed 50 new cops on loan from other divisions to target drug crimes and so-called quality-of-life crimes like public urination and jaywalking. Critics worry that the initiative, a partnership among the LAPD, the Mayor’s office, the City Attorney, and the Central City East Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for property owners, is a lot of one-time money with solutions that don’t address the root problems. That being said, the numbers are looking good. “Crime is down 30 percent,” says Commander Smith. “The homeless population in Skid Row is down significantly ... and we have made 7,500 narcotics and parolee arrests since Safer Cities was implemented.

The stories in Skid Row are almost always the same: domestic violence, addiction, illness, incarcerated husbands, missed appointments, and canceled benefits. With no place left to go and no resources, this is where people end up. It’s the last stop, made up of the people at the bottom.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Learning From Failure

"In general, it is human nature to shout about new ideas that have succeeded - while failure is discussed in hushed whispers, if at all . . . If we want to encourage criminal justice officials to test new ideas and challenge conventional wisdom, we need to create a climate where failure is openly discussed."

The Center for Court Innovation's project on failure in the criminal justice system - an edited transcript of the discussion can be found here - was recently released, and has already generated a lot of buzz in the legal blogosphere, from sites as diverse as the Legal Blog Watch, Open Eye Communications, AlertInfo and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (the event's sponsor).

It also got me thinking about the important role that failure has played in Bronx Community Solutions.

As Project Director, I've spent a lot of time touting our successes, which at this point I can rattle off without breaking a sweat: steep reductions in the use of jail for low-level offenders; more sentencing options for judges and greater utilization of community service and social service mandates; a 40 percent increase in compliance with court orders; over $1 million in community service projects for the Bronx; and literally thousands of participants who have been connected to social services like a job, drug treatment or recreational opportunities after their mandate is complete.

I'm proud of what we've accomplished in the almost three years of operations in the Bronx. But it's not really all of the story. Any experienced practitioner (or even educated citizen) is by now familiar with the de rigeour litany of project success: it seems like even the most modest policy initiatives are bristling with impressive statistics and achievements. On balance, I think that's a good thing - after all, we live in a more results oriented world.

What's lost in this relentless chatter about problems solved, milestones reached and money saved, however, is a candid discussion of the challenges and frustrations of public sector innovation. That's why it was such a relief to hear committed professionals talk about failure. It's about as close as you'll get to the experience of hearing their thoughts over a beer (without the beer, of course).

If that were the report's only achievement, it would be well worth reading. But the piece also does a nice job of capturing something about Bronx Community Solutions that I've found hard to put into words.

In private moments, I think of the accomplishments cited above as the coin we pay for being allowed to fail. What I'm proudest about Bronx Community Solutions is that we've taken an open minded, non-bureaucratic approach to addressing problems faced in a large, urban courthouse. Inevitably, that's going to lead to failure, as we try out new things and discard what isn't working.

As the transcript nicely captures, it's possible to survive failure. It doesn't have to be a career killer. In fact, failure should be built in to any successful project.

So I leave you with a question: have you failed lately? And if not, why not?