Thursday, May 24, 2012

ENGAGING ALUMNI

A common feature across most youth programs is the existence of alumni, former members familiar with the program and its goals who are now doing something else. Though no longer directly involved, alumni often are interested in remaining involved with the program and can provide the experiences of someone in the program at times and locations that would be difficult for an actual member. In addition, alumni who work with the program in this capacity receive further opportunities to build leadership skills by representing the program to external partners and other interested individuals and organizations.

The Youth Justice Board shares its program model and the strength of its approach to youth-adult partnerships at conferences across the country, informing other youth organizations and advocates about the best ways to empower young people. Including alumni in these conversations ensures that the audience gets to hear from someone who actually completed the program and can talk from that perspective. And alumni further build public speaking and presentation skills, while getting insight into the professional dynamics of conferences and other events.

Our post today comes from Josh Pacheco, an alumnus of the Youth Justice Board who attended a service-learning conference with Youth Justice Board Program Coordinator Linda Baird in Minneapolis in April and was asked to share his experiences there.

Josh and Linda at Our World, Our Future

When I was first asked to write a blogpost about
Our World, Our Future, the 2012 National Service-Learning & Youthrive Peacejam Leadership Conference, I was a little hesitant to say the least. It wasn’t because I had nothing to say about the conference or because nothing interesting had happened. In fact, it was the opposite. So much happened during the conference that I had a hard time deciding which things to share.

What was Our World, Our Future? The conference brought together young people and adults interested and involved in service-learning to allow them to share their knowledge and ideas and to reinforce a sense of solidarity and shared purpose among the many people across the country who engage in civic service. The conference featured lots of workshops that dealt with different aspects of service, such as helping poor countries get clean water and helping communities create more parks. I had the chance to be part of the conference as an alumnus of the Youth Justice Board program and as a current member of the Center for Court Innovation’s New York Juvenile Justice Corps, an Americorps program.

The conference was a great experience overall but one of the best things for me was that many of the conference attendees were young people like myself. As a result, I was able to attend sessions that were facilitated by youths and hear from them how they are making a difference in their communities. In talking to these other youths, I was surprised to find that we shared many of the same interests, even though we did not all come from the same parts of the country. Many of them were also interested in coming to our session about the Youth Justice Board, which was perfect since the Youth Justice Board is a program that helps young people become leaders in their communities. It felt good to see youths from all over find inspiration in the aims of our program and recognize it as means to making a big difference in their own communities.

Linda Baird, program coordinator of the Youth Justice Board, and I spoke to a group of youths and adults about how youth-adult partnerships can be used effectively to make change on community, city, and national levels. We also spoke about how the Youth Justice Board uses service-learning in its everyday work to give young people from New York City the opportunity to share their ideas and opinions about city policies with policymakers and other stakeholders. Overall, the conference was a great experience for me in that I learned that it isn’t only youths and adults from New York City that want to make a change, but people from all over the country. While there’s certainly a lot of work that needs doing, it was rewarding to realize how many people are working together to get it done. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

YOUNG PEOPLE REPORTING: AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS WATLER

We're starting a series called "Young People Reporting" that will feature members of our youth programs talking to Center for Court Innovation staff about their experiences as young people and their work at the Center. Our inaugural post features two members of the Harlem Youth Court, Milagros and Shuba, talking with Chris Watler, Project Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center, about growing up in Brooklyn and working in Harlem.

Chris Watler in action, talking with teens

Milagros and Shuba: First off, we would like to thank you for making time to chat with us today. We are very excited to interview you and learn more about your work. So, what is your role at the Harlem Community Justice Center?

Chris: I am the Project Director of the Justice Center. I lead a team of about 25 staff and volunteers and we function here in the court house as what you might call coordinating staff. And obviously I’m not the boss of the judge or the court officers. My job is to help the court achieve a set of goals related to the work that the court is doing and that we want the court to do.

Milagros and Shuba: How did you get to this position?

Chris: Not through any deft planning on my part. I never had any interest in criminal justice work whatsoever. When I left college I wanted to do youth development work and I was fortunate to do work with youth programs. I used to run the community center of Washington Houses in East Harlem here, so I’ve done a lot of that work. And I started with the Center for Court Innovation in 1996. I started running the Americorps program there and one thing led to another and I just kind of rose through the ranks, fifteen years later.

Milagros and Shuba: How do young people fit into the work of the Harlem Community Justice Center?

Chris: Young people fit in in a couple of ways, I think, that are important. As you guys know, we have a youth court program, so we see young people as leaders in creating what I call “off ramps” for other young people who are in trouble with the law. So I think that’s an important piece of work. The other way young people, I think, fit in here, and should fit in more, is really being a voice here about what happens and what should be happening. And I actually think that’s an area where we’ve been challenged a lot, because the justice system doesn’t do a great job of listening to young people, unfortunately. But the Center for Court Innovation is trying to change that through the Youth Justice Board and other initiatives that see young people as resources. And I think in the future, for example, we’ve created a new position, leadership position, here in the Justice Center, which is someone who is going to be responsible for youth development. And that leader is going to have, in her portfolio, the youth court and other programs. And that’s important for me, because that is the first time that we’ve ever created a leadership position to really focus on youth development. So I see that as an opportunity to do more for young people.

Milagros and Shuba: What is the most valuable thing that the Harlem Community Justice Center provides for youth in Harlem?

Chris: Our mission is to provide access to justice. The challenge for us is that we are a court, first and foremost. We have to assure that people’s rights are preserved and so when there are problems or issues that come up, or conflicts, the court in our system of government is one of the most important organs of government and it is, it decides situations that come up. And that’s important, because that’s our key role, is in making sure that we’re doing that, providing access to justice, and kind of helping people to resolve conflicts. With that said, there are some specific things that we do that I think are very important to young people. One is providing an opportunity that’s for young people who are involved in the justice system to have a way out because it’s a very sticky system. Let’s say you cut school, maybe you start hanging out with the wrong people. One thing leads to another. I’ve seen people we’ve tried to work with when they’re younger in our adult parole program, which means they wound up, whatever happened, going to prison and they’re coming back out. They still live in this neighborhood. And it’s an opportunity again for us to say to them, alright now you’re twenty-one or twenty-two, we saw you when you were sixteen and we’d like to keep you from going further into this.

Milagros and Shuba: What do you wish the Harlem Community Justice Center could do for young people in our neighborhood?

Chris: You know, there’s so much that I get excited about… One of our newest initiatives is going to be working to provide jobs, helping young people to get jobs and careers. And I’m very excited about that because particularly for people who get involved in the justice system, their outcomes in terms of employment and education are pretty bad. So we’re excited about this new program that’s going to help us to do that. I wish I could provide, I don’t have any other word for it, it’s just love for people. You know, people just need love and caring, to know that people care for them. And so many people, we had a parolee this morning, who’s twenty-three years old, and he’s talking about college, and his case manager is talking to him, and I come out because I hear him talking about college. You know, he wants to get into fashion. But he’s worried about debt and all this other stuff. And he just had these two people like totally acknowledging his dream and wanting to give him a pathway towards his dream and he left here really excited. And I think love counts for something in this world and we should provide more of that for young people.

Milagros and Shuba: What do you like most about your job?

Chris: This. I do. Any time I have the opportunity to talk to clients, to community members. Yesterday we had a law day celebration and we had a meal afterwards and people are standing around the hallway so I invited them come in my office sit around this table and we just had lunch and I got to hear people stories. I love that.

Milagros and Shuba: What challenges you most about your job?

Chris: It feels to me like it’s really, really hard to convince people to do what’s right. Now that’s a loaded response, because what’s right, people don’t always agree what’s right. But I feel I know what’s right, and I want those things to happen but it takes a lot of work to get it to happen. So whether it’s partnerships or pursuing new grant opportunities, it’s really, really difficult to get that to happen. And so what makes it difficult is just we’re human beings, we’re in different organizations, there are rules and regulations, so it’s always how to get to the good because there’s always all this stuff in between. A lot of my time is spent trying to push that stuff aside and really free up my staff and our volunteers to really do that good work. And that’s not easy.

Milagros and Shuba: What were you like as a teenager and how does that affect your work with young people in Harlem?

Chris: I grew up in central Brooklyn, a neighborhood called Crown Heights. My parents were immigrants, my father was from Honduras, he had a sixth grade education. My mother was from Jamaica, she has a Ph. D. and two Masters. And I grew up in a fourth floor rent controlled apartment. I lived in a room with my brother and sister until I went off to college. So my upbringing, for me family was always really important. Family was both crazy but they were also all you had. I got to see a lot of things growing up and do a lot of things that were very formative to me, so I often talk about, to my kids, about what it was like going out to play. Like literally, my parents were not running me around to activities. You went outside and you played. Stick ball, all these games that now you only see them in books because young people don’t play those things often any more. Growing up there was a lot of love, there was struggle in my neighborhood, a lot of people struggled, a lot of people had problems. I remember people trying to take my bike, my bus pass, the stuff you grew up with you learned how to do things to live in New York, even as a young person.

But I want young people to have childhoods, I really want them to enjoy growing up and doing the things that young people should be doing, thinking about their future. It’s why violence bothers me so much, particularly gun violence, because it robs us of what I think I had growing up, which is a real sense of community. That if I was messing up in front of my building, there were several women who were always sitting in the window, so my father knew before I got upstairs, you know? I want young people to have these positive experiences so that when they become adults, you can say, as I do, that every kid should have a right, at least to have what I had, at least to have that, so that drives me a lot. My family was not rich. Both my parents worked, but we did alright. I think all young people should have that in their lives.

Milagros and Shuba: What kind of advice do you wish you could give yourself at 16 years old?

Chris: Oh god… I should have stuck with basketball. Not handball. Talk about a dead end sport. You know it’s interesting, I have to say, there are very few regrets. I think the one thing I would have said to myself is to be more of risk taker. I went to Catholic schools and I grew up in a family where being good was valued and being compliant was valued. And there’s a real elegance and symmetry to that. I didn’t worry or think a lot about adult things. But you know, I wish I had taken some more risks. I wish I did a little better in school. I was a C student. That wasn’t great. I could have done better. So yeah, you can’t look back. That kid, at 16, he was alright.

Milagros and Shuba: Do you consider yourself a role model for the young people in the neighborhood?

Chris: I try to act as if I am. Whether I am or not is really up to other folks. But I try to behave in a way that I think represents who I am and represents my ideals and what I think, the behaviors I want to see in other people. I try to do that both as a manager, as a father, as a member of my community here in New York City. And, there’s so many young people I’ve worked with over my life, sometimes it’s nice to hear from them when they’re older and now there’s Facebook so I get to see a lot of them with their own families and stuff. And that’s kind of nice. Whether I’ve been a role model? I don’t know… But I do try to be moral and upstanding and have some character because you may not always remember everything about a person but you certainly remember whether that person was good or not. I try to be good.

Milagros and Shuba: What do you believe would be the most effective way to reduce youth crime in Harlem?

Chris: There’s no one way. It’s always interesting working in a community like Harlem because the narratives that come out, it’s a poor neighborhood, there’s a lot of poverty to be sure, but there’s also tremendous wealth in this community, if you’re not just thinking about monetary wealth, there’s tremendous cultural wealth here. People still look out for each other’s kids in this neighborhood, Believe it or not. Relatives, neighborhoods help watch each other’s kids. Those things still happen here. But if we really want to reduce youth crime, there are some things that we know we should be doing. One is, we should be focusing on the young people who are most likely to be violent or to be victims of violence. They’re not going to come to a court house, so you have to go out and see them on the street and reach them on the street. We should be providing education that actually is high quality education. If we could figure out how to do a better job educating poor kids - you know, rich kids, if they decide to be delinquent, it ain’t because they’re not getting a good education. And I think families need to have enough money in order to live decently and it bothers me the gap in this country between people who are rich or upper class and people who struggle. The unemployment rate for young people is very distressing, and a lot of college students graduate and have to move back in with their families after they do that.

And you know, now I’m showing my age a little bit… I do think we need to have a level of moral and character education for young people. We need to help families find that moral compass to be able to teach young people right from wrong. I heard a story and it was actually from one of the parents who I was sitting with, and she came home and found her daughter at home doing something she shouldn’t have been doing with a young drug dealer and she wasn’t very happy. Her response was… she picked up a broomstick and wailed on the both of them. What did that get her? Arrested. And charged. And the charges eventually got dropped but it created this kind of harm between her and her child. And it’s very interesting to me because what she said is, I learned from this situation. And that to me is very impressive. It could have gone a whole other way. She said, I learned from that situation a different way of being. And I praised her for that because I think she knew deep inside of her that what she did was wrong even though what her kid did was wrong, but she was able to see herself, see her role in that and change her behavior and I thought that was very powerful.

Milagros and Shuba: What sort of improvements have you seen in this community specific to youth since you started working here?

Chris: I’ll tell you what I’ve seen since 1990 when I first worked in East Harlem. There’s a big change, for young people. On the negative side, there are fewer resources for young people, fewer community centers, after school programs, they’re not funded well. So even the ones that exist are often really not, they’re doing the best that they can, but it ain’t great. But, what I will say, is that there is technology and knowledge out there a lot more and I think that’s a real positive for young people because if you don’t believe the things I tell you, you can pick up your iPhone and Droid and you can look it up. That wasn’t the case before. It was always the Charlie Brown syndrome, like you never hear the adults really, there’s static, but it’s hard for them to just stay in that world now, because the same data their parents have access to or their teachers, they can see too. And I think that that hopefully will provide an opportunity for young people as they make decisions to realize, what are the risks if I pick up a gun, what are the risks if I have unprotected sex, what are the risks if I drop out of school. Those don’t have to be mysteries any more. They can actually get on blogs, talk to people who have been there.

Milagros and Shuba: Well thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to know more about your work. Thank you.

Chris: Thank you! You guys are great. Very good interview. These are very good questions. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

COMBATING YOUTH VIOLENCE

A few weeks ago, on March 21, Child Welfare Watch of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School hosted an event, Combating Youth Violence: Concrete Solutions for New York City, featuring an address by David Kennedy, director of the John Jay Center for Crime Prevention and Control. The address was followed by a conversation with Reean Charles, a member of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets (YOSOS), New York City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, Kevin O’Connor, Assistant Commissioner of the NYPD Division of Community Affairs, and Iesha Sekou, Executive Director of Street Corner Resources. The conversation was moderated by Errol Louis, host of NY1’s Inside City Hall.

David Kennedy’s address focused on misunderstandings that exist on both sides, on the side of young people as they are perceived by institutions, like the court system and the NYPD, that seek to keep them out of trouble and on the side of those institutions as they are perceived by young people who doubt their fairness. During the conversation that followed, Councilmember Mark-Viverito highlighted a major theme in overcoming this antagonism: “We need to involve the voices of those that are being impacted… and that’s not happening.” Reean Charles, a young person from Crown Heights and a member of the Center for Court Innovation’s YOSOS program, responded by reminding the audience how education campaigns around smoking over the last few decades have helped many young people realize the harms of this habit. She stressed the need for similar programming to educate youths about the dangers of violence and the reasons to resist the behaviors that perpetuate it.

The complete video can be found here and is worth watching, especially the conversation at the end, which starts around 37:00.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A FAMILIAR FACE

Today we’re posting a brief interview with Annelly Chalas, who started working with the Center for Court Innovation five years ago as a high school student, when she joined the Youth Justice Board. We kept in touch with Annelly after she graduated and when an opportunity opened up in 2010 with the Juvenile Justice Corps (the Center’s Americorps Program), we reached out to her to see if she was interested. Annelly joined the Juvenile Justice Corps at the beginning of 2011, and spent a year working as a program assistant with the Greenpoint Youth Court. In January of this year, she joined the Attendance Achievement Program, which helps chronically absent middle school students improve their attendance and performance in school. We take great pride in the young people who come through our leadership programs and it’s exciting when we get the chance to bring them back as part of our team.  In the clip below, Annelly talks about her experiences at the Center for Court Innovation.

video

In the next clip she talks more about her work and where she’s headed in the future.

video

The interview was conducted by Colin Lentz, Program Associate for the Youth Justice Board. Enjoy!