Bronx Community Solutions

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Bombers Win Their First Game!

It finally happened.

The B.C.S. Bombers won their first game, at a score of 58 to 40. Playing against a team from FEGS/CDI, the Bombers got off to a commanding lead and never looked back.

Last week, the team had a practice session with coach Judah Zuger where they worked on set offensive and defensive plays to strengthen their team cohesion. Last night, the team put into action the plays they had practiced and showed that they have really come together as a unit after only about two months of playing together. This game was great, in part thanks to our partners from FEGS who put up a tough game.

Check back for news about more wins in the near future!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

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.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

NY1: Crown Heights Community Center Helps Keep Peace In NYC's Most Polarized Neighborhood

As part of their Black History Month programming, NY1 (New York City's local all-news channel) has been running a profile of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, a project of the Center for Court Innovation that works to creatively address and reduce neighborhood conflict in an area with a history of inter-group strife.

NYT: Job Corps Plans Makeover for a Changed Economy

"With better training, high school diplomas or, better, degrees from community colleges, many graduates of such programs, it is hoped, will become chefs instead of hamburger flippers; plumbers, electricians or carpenters instead of pickup laborers; nurses instead of health aides."

The issue of disconnected youth receives a lot of attention in our field. This recent article (registration required) details efforts to modernize the curriculum at Job Corps, a much vaunted federal education and job training residential program that dates back to Johnson's "War on Poverty." Some studies mentioned in the article suggest that the model may not benefit teens, though it may have some benefits for their slightly older peers in their 20's. It's a reminder of how difficult it can be to reach young adults.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Working with the Community

Seven-thirty at night, walking down Hunts Point Avenue on a cold night, I turn the corner of Hunts Point and Longwood to walk into the 41st Precinct.

Some people might assume that I would be there to lodge a complaint. On contrary, I’m being escorted to a meeting room filled with people from the community who are attending a monthly police precinct council meeting.

It’s one of many meetings that I attend as a coordinator of community initiatives at Bronx Community Solutions.

The challenge for us is community engagement in a borough with upwards of 1.5 million residents, twelve precincts and community boards, each of which hold monthly meetings. (Community boards are the most local level of government, where citizens can take a part in the decision making in their district and express their concerns about different issues. And precinct meetings give the local residents a chance to meet with their police captain and talk about public safety issues affecting their neighborhood.)

Attending community meetings is not just for public relations purposes – we get a lot of tangible ideas from these meetings. For example, based on feedback from community members at the 41st and 48th precincts concerned about prostitution, we’ve decide to create specific classes tailored for women to get them out of the lifestyle. We've also gotten suggestions about step streets and graffiti removal projects to target with our community service crews.

Accessibility to the community is the key principle for us at Bronx Community Solutions. That’s why we organized a Community Advisory Board, to help give us feedback on how we’re doing. But it’s not enough to organize our own meetings: we want to show we’re a responsible and active member of the Bronx community.

My job has been to set up a rotation for BCS staff to attend a meeting per month.

In creating the rotation schedule, I did my research. Working with the Community Advisory Board. I identified four target zones hit the hardest by low-level crimes. Two zones are located in the south Bronx, so we decided to first tackle the South Bronx and then spread north.

The next task was recruiting Bronx Community Solutions’ staff to help out. Since we have spent a lot of time explaining the concepts behind Bronx Community Solutions in the courthouse, our staff was ready to do the same within the community.

Still, we are careful to provide training to everyone who’s participating. And since we only ask staff member to attend one meeting a month (usually held in the early evenings) it has not posed an overwhelming burden.

Today, we’re active in eight out of 12 community boards and five out of 12 police precincts.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Video Killed the Radio Star

We decided to try posting video on YouTube. Now you can watch an eight-minute documentary about Bronx Community Solutions right here on the blog (press play)

You can also view pictures of our grafitti removal projects, an impact panel, or the basketball league on Flickr.

Monday, February 05, 2007

My Turnaround

Before starting my internship at Bronx Community Solutions and going to the Federation Employment and Guidance Services (FEGS) - Career Development Institute (CDI) I was not doing so well.

I was smoking weed, hanging out all night, drinking, and doing things that I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I had a job but I was spending my money on things that I did not need. My sister made me realize that I needed to start doing something for myself. When a family member told me about FEGS I thought “Hey I should go and see how this program works.”

So I quit my job and the next morning I went to CDI orientation group. CDI has a lot of good programs, such as GED training, job placement, and vocational programs. They also assist all participants with metro cards and lunch.

Once I began attending CDI, I started looking for a new job. I began my first internship at a community center (the internship lasted eight weeks). I was still smoking weed at the time and I thought, “No matter what, I am still going to get a job”. Once I finished my internship there, CDI had another job for me at a department store. I was told that I would need to take a drug test before they hired me. So I had to tell my case manger that I couldn’t go because I was still smoking weed. That’s when I realized that I had to stop smoking weed. It hurts when you have a good job waiting for you and you just blow it. It didn’t take long for FEGS to find another internship for me. Staff members, Ann Jeffreys and Hans Bernier, thought I would be a good match with an agency named Bronx Community Solutions.

I got the internship and fell in love with the new program. I met great people and was learning a lot. My supervisor Judah Zuger was amazed at how fast I learned all my duties, such as giving referrals to clients that need job placement and GED training. I help coordinate the basketball team, which is fun to do because I see it as something positive for other young people to do. I also help Judah keep in touch with program graduates who get employment referrals, because we want to know how many of them end up with jobs. I spent a lot of time on the phone and on the computer keeping track of the information.

Another role I play is to talk to some of the clients when they come into the clinic. Especially with the younger girls, I try to talk to them about how I got here and flipped the script from a negative to a positive. I don’t smoke, drink, or hang out anymore because I want to turn my life around and be more responsible. I’ve also decided to apply to college and I start classes in the fall.

My internship was coming to an end and Maria Almonte-Weston, along with the Bronx Community Solutions staff, thought it would be best to hire me on a part-time basis. I thought I might have to go and find another job, but I was wrong. Maria, Kate, and Aubrey gave me the good news that I am going to be a Bronx Community Solutions staff member. As a Program Assistant I will be coordinating office management. This includes timesheet operation, vendor payment and invoicing, office supply, and vaction requests. I will also continue to do client conuseling, help with the BCS basketball team, and use my skills to assist on other new youth programs that BCS is starting.

I was so happy I started crying. Bronx Community Solutions staff members are great, especially Maria, Robert, Kate, Saudi, Judah, and Sarah. I can’t forget the staff members at FEGS either, because they did a great job by helping me get where I am. I know I can make it in life. If I made it in Bronx Community Solutions and in FEGS, I can do it anywhere.