Bronx Community Solutions

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

We want to hear from you!

If you've attended a meeting of our Community Advisory Board or an outreach event. If you live or work in the Bronx and you want to tell us about what's going on in your neighborhood. If you read our blog. If you work in the courts or law enforcement. If you work in public policy, government or social services. If you get involved in your community...

We'd like to hear your suggestions! Please add a comment to this post if you'd like to share an idea with other readers (click on "comments' at the bottom of this page). If you have a specific idea for a community service project or a social service, please contact us by clicking here or calling (718) 590-8573.

Friday, July 27, 2007

NYT: With Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking

"James Lamb of Federal Way, Wash., created an online map to illustrate the spread of graffiti in his town and asked other residents to contribute to it. 'Any time you can take data and represent it visually, you can start to recognize patterns and see where you need to put resources,' said Mr. Lamb, whose map now pinpoints, often with photographs, nearly 100 sites that have been vandalized."

According to the New York Times, millions of users on the Internet are using free products from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to create a fast growing "GeoWeb," an explosion in amateur cartography that some are comparing to the revolution in desktop publishing from twenty years ago. The article suggests that maps will play a growing role in how information is organized and found. Click below to read more or go to the full article.

Already, over 25 million pictures on the photo-sharing site Flickr are “geotagged” providing location data that allows them to be viewed on a map or through 3-D visualization software like Google Earth. Microsoft has created 3-D models of 100 cities worldwide and aims to have 500 models in the next year, and Google Maps allows users to navigate through street level photography in several U.S. cities. Users of a service called MotionBased, a Web site owned by Garmin, the navigation device maker, have used Global Positioning System devices to create more than 1.3 million maps of hikes, runs, and road trips. Since Google launched a new service called My Maps in April users have created more than four million maps ranging from fanciful to practical and simple to complex. Most importantly, improvements are allowing multiple layers of data to be viewed on a single map and Google is working on a search engine that makes it easier to search through all online maps.

One group of students and professors are working on a project that adds photographs, videos and interviews to a map-based project documenting the house-by-house reconstruction of a section of New Orleans. Those designing the project want local residents to contribute. “The hope is that the community will tell the story of its own recovery with the map as the dashboard."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Graduation, Family Court Style – Part 2

"Giovanni should be commended for his excellent painting skills while cleaning graffiti" read the certificate of completion for Giovanni Costa, one of the eleven graduates of the Juvenile Accountability Court’s community service learning program.

This past Wednesday, the Juvenile Accountability Court held a graduation for the second class of young people who completed sixty hours of community service, a mandatory requirement and one of the most daunting aspects of their probation. What makes this project unique is not the certificates presented upon completion, but rather the structure of the program itself. Taking a new approach to youth community service, the program combines innovative community service projects with youth specific academic workshops all focused on a uniting theme. The goal: to hold the probationers accountable for their behavior while addressing issues that effect their lives and may have led to their arrest.

The theme for this cycle was “Citizenship,” chosen to help give the participants a better understanding of their role in society. We felt that it was important for them to know how their actions dictate whether or not they are contributing positively as good citizens to their community. We introduced this concept day one and made sure to reiterate it throughout the entire program. Sixty hours later, spread over four weeks, the participants who completed got the opportunity to share their experiences with the very same court players who hear and make decisions about their case. In attendance were two family court judges, five lawyers from the Office of the Corporation Counsel and three probation officers. Also in attendance were Bronx Community Solutions staff members and most importantly, the parents of several of the participants.

While we played a slide show documenting the four weeks, each participant was responsible for explaining different components of the program. A few participants spoke about painting over graffiti and even read a letter of appreciation from one of the business owner’s whose property they helped clean. Another participant spoke about building book shelves at World Vision, a community-based resource center located in the South Bronx, that would later distribute the book shelves to schools in need. Other participants spoke about their experience at the Bronx Community Solutions' Play Streets event, a week long initiative to reserve a city street and provide a safe space for school age children during weekday hours. Painting over graffiti and building book shelves can be fun, but they really enjoyed helping young children and were proud to speak about it. “We painted their faces, gave them lunches and just played with them,” said Freddie Bonilla. “They had a lot of fun with us.”

After the slide show, our guests met Donovan Spradley, the Juvenile Accountability Court’s first youth peer leader. As our most mature graduate from the first cycle of community service, we offered Donovan an internship as a peer advocate for the next group of young people. The idea is to continue to engage young people, where appropriate, beyond their sixty-hour community service commitment. “It was strange to be on the other side,” side Donovan at Wednesday’s graduation. “I know what they’re all going through and I just tried to offer them some advice.” For the next cycle, we will offer another recent graduate an opportunity to be a peer leader as well. The graduation then concluded with a brief Q & A session and the presentation of certificates.

After two sixty-hour cycles, I am still learning a lot about how to interact with young people and develop effective programming. However, it was really encouraging to see the parents and guardians of so many of the participants in attendance. Their support for their children sent a clear message: they want to be involved. This has started to generate a lot of ideas, particularly the idea of creating some form of a parent advisory board so we can all share thoughts on how to better help their kids. That’s an idea we’ll be experimenting with in our next cycle.

Friday, July 13, 2007

New Farmers Market in Mott Haven

According to the Daily News, a new farmer's market has just opened in the South Bronx at 138th Street and Cypress Avenue selling produce from community gardens in the city and farms in region, along with eighteen other Greenmarkets in the Bronx. "It's very rare to find this kind of produce in the South Bronx," said one customer. "Here you have one of the highest concentrations of public housing, and all they get is the leftovers from the supermarket chains," say the folks responsible for setting it up. (click here to view the full article)

Getting The Word Out

One message we keep receiving from community members and stakeholders is that although community service crews can make a real impact on local conditions (especially by filling gaps in regular city services), the impact doesn't last if community groups and residents don't take responsibility for keeping things clean and safe. It's one reason we always try to make our projects visible and explain their purpose. We're also hoping that publicity can amplify our message. We recently produced a transcript of a video piece by Lily Jamali that's available on the WNBC website (you can view the video here) so I thought I would post it here.

Reporter: Its 9 AM in the Tremont section of the Bronx. An army of orange descends on a set of concrete steps tucked away just off Jerome Avenue. They’re picking up trash and in the process trying to make this step street a little more inviting to neighborhood residents like Eric Ameyu who says he doesn’t like to come here at night. (Read morebelow for the full transcript)

Eric: Sometimes when you come down here you feel it. You feel like, yeah, it’s scary. It’s scary to come down this side in the night. That’s how I just feel about it.

Reporter: These workers are not a part of the Department of Sanitation. Instead, each one is with a group called Bronx Community Solutions, sentenced to community service for committing misdemeanors like drug possession, petty theft, or vandalism. Instead of paying a fine or spending time in jail, they’re responsible for sprucing up this Bronx step street.

Crew Member: Look at it all the graffiti and all this stuff, it’s not right, it’s not right...

Reporter: Eddie Melendez is serving the last of a three day community service sentence. Melendez says cleaning the neighborhood is the first step towards revitalizing this area.

Crew Member (Eddie Melendez): If it was more clean we would bring more people into the Bronx and more business and that’s what the neighborhood needs now, ‘cause we need jobs and we need opportunity. If it’s clean more business come into the Bronx.

Reporter: Every year eleven thousand offenders work on a variety of community improvement projects organized by Bronx Community Solutions. Director Aubrey Fox says the group started sending its crew to clean step streets in response to complaints from neighbors.

Aubrey Fox: If a place feels clean they feel confident, they feel secure, and I think our goal is to give residents a sense of security about their step street.

Reporter: There are 94 step streets in NYC. Some say the reason so many look the way they do is that there is no single city agency responsible for them overall. So in places like Tremont community organizers say these step streets would otherwise go overlooked.

Aubrey Fox: Our community service crews help fills gaps in the services the Department of Sanitation is able to provide. We work closely with them to identify which step streets need to be cleaned and to go back as often as we need to, to keep them clean.

Reporter: Ultimately both the organizers and the defenders working with Bronx Community Solutions hope to hand off responsibility to the people who live here.

Crew Member (Eddie Melendez): I hope you know that doing this today would help everybody to open their mind, and make them come outside to clean their own neighborhood, because if you don’t do it nobody else will.

Reporter: Lily Jamali, WNBC News…

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Playing in the Street

When three-year-old Alex threw his ball into the street last week, his day care teacher encouraged him to chase after it. She wasn’t playing with fate, she was simply engaging him in a sports activity on a block closed to traffic. Called “playstreets,” these blocks are city streets reserved for recreation for school age children during weekday hours. Community organizations, block associations, or other groups can apply for the designation, which must be approved by the residents, the local precinct, and the area’s community board.

The stretch of Nelson Avenue, between 168th Street and 169th Street in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, has had playstreet status for a number of years, thanks to the New Friendly Day Care Center, which applies yearly. In March, while painting over graffiti at the Day Care Center, we noticed their playstreets plaque and wondered what the court could do to build on that idea.

Conceptually, playstreets require and celebrate cooperation between neighborhoods and law enforcement agencies to ensure that a block is safe for the young people who live there. One of Bronx Community Solution’s most important goals is to help build positive engagement between Bronx communities and the entities that police low-level crime (the police department, the courts, etc.). What better way to do this than through organizing a week of fun and educational activities for young people? We would be sending the message that courts can work like community-based organizations to strengthen relationships with community stakeholders and to build confidence in the judicial system.

In the months leading up to this week-long event, Bronx Community Solutions worked with organizations on the block, such as the Day Care Center, Highbridge Community Life Center, and Sacred Heart School, to plan a week of fun activities (in partnership, of course, with the 44th Precinct and Community Board 4). Relying on eight years of experience running this program at our sister project in Crown Heights, we collected materials (mostly through donations from organizations like World Vision and Materials for the Arts) for activities such as arts and crafts, sports, board games and books, and face painting. We also connected to our strong network of service organizations and city agencies to provide educational materials and activities.

John Johnson, from the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, played a recycling game with the young people, rewarding them for correctly recycling egg cartons, paper boxes, and juice bottles. The Fire Department towed their 50-foot fire safety trailer onto the block and kids got to experience what it is like to be in a fire, while also learning how to avoid fires in the first place. This was especially poignant, given the devastating fire that took 10 victims (most of them children) in this same section of the Bronx in March. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office gave away safety information to adults and crime prevention coloring books for kids, and Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center's Mobile Health Unit did on-site screenings for diabetes, cholesterol, and heart disease. Young people got to play games with the Parks and Recreation department’s Playmobile and some of them even got to practice their skating skills in a skating rink set up by the Skatemobile.

The Bronx Borough President’s Office sent resources and information to be handed out and all children on the block received a nutritious and free lunch from SchoolFood, the Department of Education’s summer food program. One of the largest programs of its kind in the country, the SchoolFood program likely gives away as much food during the summer as all of the city's pantries and soup kitchens combined. Finally, Bronx Community Solutions’ community service department sent crews to do clean-up and maintenance projects throughout the area for that week, broadening our services beyond one block of Nelson Avenue. What made the week feel even more successful was that all of these city services were free of charge, making the entire event not only educational and fun, but also cost-efficient. It was an example of how many services the City of New York offers to those who are wise to the opportunities and can plan ahead.

As much fun as it sounds, however, it wasn’t all “play” for everyone on the block. Staffing the different activity tables (such as face painting, board games and arts and crafts) were the youth participants of the Juvenile Accountability Court (JAC). Located right next door in Bronx Family Court, the Juvenile Accountability Court operates as an alternative to placement program for at-risk youth on probation ages 10-15. All probationers in the program are required to complete 60 hours of community service. (Click here to see a video of their experiences.) For this group of young men and women, their community service obligation required them to work as a team all week: they set up the tables and prepared the playstreet in the morning, they staffed the activity tables in the afternoon and they cleaned up at day’s end. When asked if the work was worth the time, one of the probationers responded, “Of course. We helped make the kids happy.” Several others even admitted to having fun and offered to volunteer their time at future playstreet events. Although this may not be the most traditional type of community service, the opportunity for teenage probationers to help other kids is a powerful one and was recognized by all.

“This week has just been wonderful. Those kids had a great time,” said Ms. Bertha, the day care center chef who would likely remain unfazed by a tornado. A kind, loving woman who quickly fired up her grill at our final day barbeque and probably broke a record for the number of hamburgers she cooked in 20 minutes, Ms. Bertha noted that the event had been an educational experience for everyone. Not only was it beneficial for the block residents and for the young people helping to staff the event, but it also gave us at Bronx Community Solutions a chance to connect with the community we serve daily in a very different context. While being chased by screaming, gleeful three-year-olds is not the first thing that comes to mind for problem-solving justice practices, we in the Bronx think that it certainly has a place at Nelson Avenue and 168th Street.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Graffiti Clean-Up in the Bronx Times

The Bronx Times, a local paper covering Throgs Neck and Morris Park, recently carried coverage of our graffiti clean-up efforts. You can read about it (including quotes from our project director, Aubrey Fox, and comments from community members) here. (07/20/2007: The link is down now. Here's the information on the article: Bronx Times Reporter, 07/05/2007, Bret Nolan Collazzi, "Youth line up in Country Club for court-ordered graffiti cleanup")

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Criminals to Champions

"When I came to Bronx Community Solutions I was labeled a criminal and now I am getting a trophy and being called a champion." That's what one of the members of the Bombers said while Bronx Community Solutions celebrated the first season of the our Basketball League. Click below to read more.

The trophies were shining and the young men were smiling as the celebration took place: as they collected their trophies everyone enjoyed food, drinks and praise for these young men changing their lives. Greg Berman, the Director of the Center for Court Innovation, and Aubrey Fox, the Director of Bronx Community Solutions, watched as the young men, family, and friends came together. Each of the team members gave a few words about their experience.

“I enjoyed playing basketball instead of spending time getting in trouble”

“I enjoyed playing against the police instead of being arrested by the police”

"It was a lot of fun with giving back to the community when we performed community service hosting a Basketball Clinic at SCAN Mullaly Park.”

This pilot program was aimed at changing police and community youth perceptions of each other from antagonist to comrades. Officer Warren Thompson of the 46th Precinct received a plaque for his help in organizing police officers for the Bronx Bombers to play against and expressed how eager he was to participate in the next season. Vivian Gonzalez the Director of SCAN Mullay Park received a plaque for her help in hosting the games and providing an easy opportunity for our youth to enroll in her organization. A very special plaque was awarded to the referee Arnold “OT” Warren for his unconditional dedication to youth in our community. As the event concluded, a photo slide show brought back memories and captured the essence of the entire season.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Bronx Week: Judge For Yourself

Recently here in the Bronx we celebrated the 10th annual Bronx Week an event sponsored by the Bronx Borough President which consists of a week long series of events including athletic competitions, tours of historic Bronx landmarks, a parade, and things that make the Bronx unique in its own essence. This year, Bronx Community Solutions had the opportunity to plan and run an event as part of the week's activities, which we called Judge For Yourself. Our goal was to give members of the NYPD's Explorers program an inside view of the court and demystify people who work in the justice system.

The Explorers is a program designed to educate young men and women, ages 14-20, about law enforcement and encourage them to pursue a career in the law. The program focuses on six areas: career, service, leadership, social, fitness and outdoors. Part one of this event was held at the Criminal Court building led by our very own Maria Almonte-Weston, Aeli Gladstein, T.K. Singleton and my fellow Americorps members Susan Jackson, Caren Rodriguez and Edwin Williams. Here is where the Explorers got a feel of what happens and goes on in the court room. They got a chance to hear from the sergeant in charge and got a running commentary from Bronx Community Solutions staff. Afterwards they went down the street to The Bronx School of Law Government and Justice to play an exciting game of Law Jeopardy. This was an opportunity for the Explorers to show their knowledge of law terms, giving and answering questions, and participating. We based these activities on the events we hosted for Law Day.

Later on that week was part two where the young explorers from 44, 47, 48 and 49th precincts were able to step foot in the Supreme Court building and encounter important court representatives. The representatives included Executive Assistant District Attorney Odalys Alonso, Chief Clerk of Bronx Supreme Court Steve Clark, Executive Director of Bronx Defenders Robin Steinberg, Clinical Director of Bronx Community Solutions Maria Almonte-Weston, and moderated by Deputy Borough President Earl Brown. Each panelist described their position, duties and what it was like in there position. They were asked a number of different questions from the Explorers like "should first time offenders who have committed a serious crime be given a second chance?", "what do they think about drugs in our communities and how we could make a difference?" and "What motivates you to keep doing a tough job day after day?" These are just examples of the outstanding questions they presented. There was so much participation and feed back that there was a feeling that we would not be leaving in time. The panalist answered every question to the best of there opinion and professionalism and gave the group of young explorers a lot of insight.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Quality of Life Crime And The Connection to Serious Crime

According to the New York Times, a recent, particularly brazen shooting in a park in Harlem has led some residents to voice their concern about quality of life crime which they say leads to an atmosphere that encourages more serious crime. Among the quality of life concerns described are marijuana smoking in public view, and young "wannabe" gang members lurking vaguely around certain areas. It's an interesting snapshot of perceptions of safety and also makes the connection to class and gentrification. Go here to view the article.