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Monday, March 26, 2007

Naomi Campbell and Community Service

Naomi Campbell's short community service stint was splashed over the tabloids last week, causing the media to focus its attention, however briefly, on the topic.

Aside from enduring five days of sweeping floors and cleaning toilets, Naomi (or the "Dumpster Diva" as she was dubbed by the paparazzi), came up looking pretty good, managing to garner non-stop coverage of her dazzling fashion sense.

What took a beating was the idea of community service as a meaningful court mandate.

Even the normally staid New York Times got into the act, writing this passage on Sunday. "Ah, Naomi. Maybe it was when you stepped out of the black Cadillac Escalade in your gray fedora and chinchilla (a furry cousin to New York's Taco Bell-loving rat) coat and your bodyguard handed your black bag to a police officer, who carried it, valet-like, into the sanitation depot at Pier 36. Maybe that was the moment when the community service ideal seemed to lose someting in the translation."

Add celebrities and tabloid reporters together and ridicule is inevitable. Wisely, the Department of Sanitation (where Naomi performed her community service) decided to have her complete the work behind closed doors, preventing a replay of the Boy George disaster, in which photographers took pictures of the singer sweeping the same spot over and over again.

Still, behind the jokes is a serious, and (for us) a potentially debilitating belief: that at best, community service is humiliating make work with no redeeming value, the equivalent of breaking rocks by the side of the highway.

My sense is that community service advocates are always careful to emphasize the hard-nosed nature of the work to avoid the "soft on crime" tag. At Bronx Community Solutions, we certainly try to send a message about accountability: for example, members of our crews wear orange vests that clearly mark them as participants, and they work hard, painting over graffiti, cleaning step streets or picking up trash in the park.

But we also aim higher. In part, it's an issue of respect: our crew supervisors treat participants firmly but fairly, and often end up helping them get a job or a referral to a drug treatment program. (One of our crew supervisors, Ramon Semorile, even teaches a Spanish-language social service class once a week.)

It's also a matter of the work itself. Not surprisingly, our participants know make work when they see it. That's why we try so hard to organize meaningful community service projects, such as assembling health care kits for WorldVision, an international charity, for distribution overseas. We also appreciate that our partners at World Vision start the day by briefing our participants on how the kits help combat AIDS in Africa.

Even more traditional work can be rewarding: when our participants painted over graffiti outside the New Friendly Day Care Center, the facility's director brought everyone hot coffee. It's hard to ignore the benefits of having children (and their parents) walk past a freshly painted wall.

Meaningful community service is a win-win for the participants and the community, but admittedly it can be hard to organize for the thousands of Bronx Community Solutions participants who have to complete a work obligation in addition to social service. After two years, however, I think we can say we're moving in the right direction.

Gotham Gazette

My article on the all-volunteer auxiliary police force in New York City is available at Gotham Gazette. You can read the article here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


On Friday Mayor Gavin Newsome announced plans to open a community court in San Fransisco based on the Midtown Community Court model. You can read about it here in the San Fransisco Chronicle. This quote impressed me with how much there is a growing sense that the community court model is taking hold across many jurisdictions:

"Lisa Lightman, who directs special drug and mental health courts within the Superior Court, said the idea is "long overdue" in San Francisco and that similar programs exist in 30 cities around the country as well as in London and South Africa."

The article also quotes an advocate for the homeless who is very critical of Midtown, a reminder of how controversial "quality-of-life"' enforcement remains.

More coverage here in the SF Examiner.

Update: Sunday, April 29, 2007
More coverage by Heather Knight in the Chronicle. The Court being proposed by the Mayor faces a very bumpy road politically. Click here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Snow Day

We had assumed that Bronx Community Solutions was the only project of its kind in the country.

Imagine our surprise when we found out that the Buffalo Criminal Court had been doing the same thing for the last fifteen years.

Not even a blizzard kept me from checking out the Buffalo project a few weeks ago.

For the last fifteen years, Hank Pirowski has run the C.O.U.R.T.S. (Courts Outreach Unit: Referral and Treatment Services) project, which links defendants to services such as drug treatment, mental health treatment, medical care, anger management and family counseling.

As with Bronx Community Solutions, any judge in Buffalo can refer clients to the program.

The C.O.U.R.T.S program averages about 6,000 referrals a year, made possible by partnerships of over 130 community-based service providers. Referrals to services such as inpatient detoxification, rehabilitation, ongoing drug treatment, mental health counseling, and medical treatment are made on-site.

Like Hank fifteen years ago, we’re trying to stay on the cutting edge of large scale court reform and problem-solving justice while keeping programming costs low. So in order to link offenders to quick and meaningful services, we also must rely on community-based partnerships to provide credible and reliable services. More philosophically, we share the same goals – to weave a community court model into the fabric of a traditional court.

When asked how the C.O.U.R.T.S program maintains its visibility, dependability and vital court support, Mr. Pirowski said, “It’s simple, never say NO to a judge. Try to provide a service that all judges can use.” By creating this universal service, judges begin to rely on the program beyond its available sentencing options and the program becomes more transparent and accessible to everyone. For example, C.O.U.R.T.S. makes toxicology screenings available to all judges.

What's also unique about C.O.U.R.T.S. is how strong the court's relationship is with local treatment providers. Since Hank controls all of the treatment referrals coming out of the courthouse, he can hold treatment providers accountable for their services. Some agencies are so vested in the C.O.U.R.T.S. program that they donate the most vital resource of all – a staff member to serve as a liaison to the courts and the program. By brokering with invested social service agencies, Hank has expanded his staff, which means more visibility in court and overall availability to judges.

Like C.O.U.R.T.S., we’re trying to expand our reach without necessarily spending big bucks. For example, FEGS Health and Human Services System has assigned a staff member, Judah Zuger, to serve as an on-site employment specialist.

We're also always looking for new ways to meet the needs of judges in the Bronx. For example, we recently created the Repeat Offender Program, which provides additional supervision and services to individuals who fail to comply with court orders and continue to re-offend.

Creating all of these vested relationships doesn’t happen over night. Hank has been in the laboratory for 15 years, and is still searching for ways to do things better. “Never be content,” Hank advises, and he continues to ask his staff, “What else can we be doing?”

As a new program in the Bronx, we’ve had to work hard to build our credibility and we often rely on statistics to demonstrate our successes. What Hank showed me is the importance of relationship building. We heard it over and over again during our visit to Buffalo - “Patience, persistence and longevity” is the recipe for a sustainable and successful program. As we go forward with year three of our program, this is a mantra to take back with us to the Bronx.

Bronx Community Solutions In the News

As we've known for a while, step streets are an issue of concern to Bronx residents and city officials alike. A reporter from The Bronx Beat came to check out the work that Bronx Community Solutions has been doing to address this issue.

Click here to read the article she wrote about it!

Friday, March 02, 2007

The State of the Borough

At Bronx Community Solutions, we’re lucky to benefit from the work of four Americorps volunteers from the New York City Public Safety Corps.

Members of the Corps work full-time for a year in exchange for a small living stipend and an educational award. They conduct intakes, help our case managers with group classes and report on compliance to the court. They also participate in regular volunteer and training events.

All of our AmeriCorps members either live in the Bronx, or have family here, so we asked them to attend Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion's State of the Borough Address to give us a sense of what's going on in the Bronx.

Here's what they had to tell us. Read More.

"Going to the Bronx Borough President’s speech was an interesting experience for me. It gave me a chance to listen to some of the changes that will be happening in the community. Even some heavy hitting politicians were there like Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer.

Although I live in Harlem, I have family in the Bronx and for me to spread the word to them felt important because they have no idea about the changes happening or that will happen. Adolfo Carrion spoke about all of the new housing units being established and how many families are occupying them, the many parks they are putting into construction, equipping them with basketball courts, tennis courts and pools. Along with the new Yankee Stadium, a shopping center or mega mall will be in the area creating over five thousand jobs for people.

Something that worries me about this change is since the Bronx is becoming more built up how will it affect people in a negative way? Can people really afford "affordable housing"? Will there be equal opportunity in getting jobs? What kind of crime or police activity will these changes bring? These are just some things I thought about."

-Justin Briggs

"The Borough President spoke about changes within the Bronx and how they are part of an ongoing process throughout the years to come. He talked about new schools, youth centers, recreation, a children's museum, playgrounds, things that would better the community.

He addressed the situation with affordable housing, which we can all agree is not so easy to come by. From what I’ve heard, since 2001, $2.4 billion have been invested in the creation of nearly 28,000 units of housing but it is still not enough. The Borough President along with Council delegation and the Bloomberg administration will invest an additional $34 million in capital funds to build housing.

As we all may know to survive in New York one must have a decent job. Unemployment in the Bronx has declined by 50% from 11.3% to 5.4% and 13,000 fewer people are living in poverty. Major developments are on the way such as manufacturers, businesses, and that new Yankee Stadium, which will bring lots of employment opportunities.

After listening to the Borough President’s address, I must say I’m amazed at and changes taking place. I do believe that the Bronx is improving and will continue to do so. As long as people say there is room for improvement, the Bronx will than be a better place to reside and we’ll have a brighter future to look forward to."

-Edwin Williams

"This was the first time that I had participated in something I would say was so grand! Adolfo Carrion Jr. spoke of the Bronx and how he has been working on making it a better place for us to live. 28,000 new housing units have been constructed, 13,000 fewer people are living in poverty, 10,000 Bronx residents have successfully found jobs through small organizations that the Borough President lent money to and 2,500 families have become home owners. New parks are being built in the Bronx for our kids. A hip hop Museum is also being built and new youth centers. The Grand Concourse is being re-built, subway stations in Hunts Point and Parkchester are being rehabilitated, improvements are being made to Fordham Road and investments are being made into rebuilding bridges throughout the borough.

One thing that stood out in my mind while listening to him talk was really the dedication and love he seemed to show towards our Bronx borough. Attending and listening to Adolfo Carrion gave me a sense of empowerment. It made me feel like I need to get up and do something. I need to be more involved in my community and in my borough and in the things that are going on around me.

Being raised in the Bronx I would have loved having more things readily available for me, and having my kids grow up in a better Bronx, one that they can actually call and have feel like home makes me feel a little better. I fully support Adolfo Carrion and all the changes he is making throughout our borough. Oh, did I mention that Hilary Clinton came to show her support? Everybody get ready for the first female president! And cheers to a better Bronx."

-Caren Rodriguez

“I admire how Borough President Adolfo Carrion is trying to better inner city public schools. He strongly feels the need for a re-commitment to leadership in schools. He also feels that there is a need for an increase in police officer’s salaries. Besides the issues that Adolfo spoke about I also enjoyed seeing Hilary Clinton. I admire her as well. Overall, I enjoyed my visit to Hostos Community College and I learned a lot about issues going on in my home borough.”

-Susan Jackson