Thursday, October 31, 2013

October at the Crown Heights Mediation Center

Dear Crown Heights,

October has been an exciting month at the Mediation Center.

We began a new year of our youth program, Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, with a fabulous group of Youth Organizers. They have done a lot in the few weeks since they got started, including exploring the neighborhood with a Crown Heights scavenger hunt, learning about techniques for conflict resolution, and beginning to discuss the roots and causes of violence.

Youth Organizers outside the Brooklyn Children's Museum as part of their scavenger hunt

Our program for young men ages 16-24, Make It Happen!, began last week, with a new group of participants.

On October 16th, we hosted the New York Legal Assistance Group’s mobile legal clinic at the Mediation Center, providing free legal services to more than 20 community members.

The S.O.S. team, along with community residents, held two rallies in response to shootings within the catchment area. Both rallies received a turnout of about 20 people, and reinforced our message that gun violence must not go unnoticed.

Neighborhood residents at the October 10th rally against gun violence

We held our first Community Conversation of the winter season, bringing together a diverse group of 25 neighbors to discuss experiences of and causes of violence within the community. The conversation sparked a dialogue that we will continue into our second Community Conversation on November 21st.

The S.O.S. Clergy Action Network held a youth symposium, called Power Filled Me, in which over 50 community members came together to listen to a panel of young people share their lives, struggles, and experiences. The annual S.O.S. C.A.N. Faith Walk had a fantastic turnout, with over 200 attendees walking from Nostrand Avenue to Troy Avenue on St. Johns Place, raising community awareness with prayers for non-violence.

Audience listens to youth panelists at Power Filled Me

We welcomed two new staff members to our team – Farrah, S.O.S. Program Assistant, and Frankie, Youth Program Assistant.

We are looking forward to November, when we will have a number of events. NYLAG will bring their mobile legal clinic to the Mediation Center on November 13th. We will hold our second Community Conversation, on November 21st, 6:30 pm, at Launch Charter School on 1580 Dean Street. We will also hold an S.O.S. Fish Fry on November 22nd. All are welcome!

As always, thank you for your continued support, and we always welcome your ideas about how to make Crown Heights safer and healthier for all.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Make It Happen!

Make It Happen! is an OVC (Office of Victims of Crime) funded program run in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation's Domestic Violence department. Special Projects Coordinator Kira Cohen sat down with Founder and Project Coordinator of Make it Happen!, Brandon Gibson, to discuss the program, which begins its second full year today.

Kira Cohen: Can you tell us about when the program started and why there was a need for it?

Brandon Gibson: We got a grant to do a program that dealt with young men of color ages 16-24 who’ve experienced violence, and as a result of that experience, they now have some traumatic manifestation of those experiences. I came on board to really be the coordinator who initially was just mainly connecting those young men to resources that could help them deal with those experiences and those traumatic manifestations. We were supposed to be the bridge to traditional victim services. What we found was that if we were just going to be the bridge, in many cases, we were going to be a bridge to nowhere. Because many of the traditional victim services – not all, but most – cater to women and children, not this demographic. So the mission sort of widened and deepened, and it became more of, not only do we have to be the bridge to services, but we need to be a service in and of ourselves. And that’s how Make it Happen was birthed.

One-on-one sessions and group sessions are the main two components of Make it Happen. During the one-on-one sessions they meet with me every week. Those sessions can be for fifteen minutes to three hours, depending on what they want to talk about. And our group sessions are a little bit more targeted, where we have about fifteen to twenty guys in a group, and we work with Connect, an anti-domestic violence organization, and they sort of counsel men who are perpetrators of domestic violence, so they co-facilitate the group sessions with us. And so we have different topics ranging from identity to sexuality to fatherhood to race, and we talk about these things in depth. And that’s one aspect to the program. So that’s really a mentoring component, camaraderie, brotherhood, kind of thing, and then the other component is in trying to inform traditional victim service agencies better on how to service this population, how to make their services more friendly to our guys.

KC: So how do you go about doing that?

BG: We have stakeholder meetings with agencies, and we talk about some best practices that we see that they could use. For example, whenever we have a group session, we don’t start the group session until I have one-on-ones with all the guys who are going to be the in the session. So it’s not even just a formal application process, but an actual one-on-one session, where I get a chance to figure out who these guys are, they get a chance to figure out who I am, and so by the time the group sessions roll around, they’re a little more comfortable, we see who is who and who’s coming in with what, for the most part. That’s one of the best practices that we have, and there are others.

KC: How many years has the program existed?

BG: We had a trial, a test group, about 5 weeks, in 2012 last summer. And then we had the next group this past January, and that was like the first full cohort, 12 weeks. And then this upcoming one is the second full cohort.

KC: Are you able to share some of the experiences that might lead people to your program?

BG: One of my participants was mentioning how he used to smile a lot. You know, he would be in school and he'd walk around smiling, until one day a group of guys came up to him and we like, "you smile too much."  And they beat him up because of it. And from then on he said that he doesn't like to smile. Smiling is a sin in some instances, unfortunately. So, you know, there's a lot of sad stuff like that. Where guys are just constantly being victimized because they just want to... be. They just want to be who they are and they're not allowed to. They have to fit this particular mold in order to survive, even if it's not true to who you are.

One of my other participants, his mom actually introduced him to gang life. So if it weren't for that he probably not have been involved - maybe, who knows - but he certainly wouldn't have been introduced the way he was introduced, which was by such a dominant figure in his life, because it's pretty hard to say no to your mom. So that's kind of the stuff that we're dealing with.

KC: Can you tell us about what you’ve seen come from the program in terms of success?

BG: I have one guy, he was a felon in Atlantic City. He came out to New York, and he got in touch with our program and to make a long story short after being in our program- we’re not the only people that were a part of his success, but according to him we’re a major part- he got his GED, and now he’s at Rutgers University studying to be in business, and we stay in touch regularly. He was one of the first participants last year.

Another guy, who is really trying to get a job and go to school. He’s in school now, and really trying to turn over a new leaf. And we have other guys, whose success stories aren’t as glamorous, but you know, guys who are just starting to take responsibility for their own lives, and really trying to be somebody.

And then we have stories that aren’t so great. I have guys who are really smart and have great potential but are sitting in a jail right now. And this is after being in our program. But they still keep in touch with me, I visit them at the jail and, you know, the beat goes on.

KC: It’s a connection.

BG: Yeah, and it’s a process. No one person changes just like that. And the thing with these guys is that they come from places that are so different and opposite to what I teach and what we talk about. So we may talk about conflict resolution. Well, conflict resolution in the hood is “I’m gonna handle you,” and I’m teaching “We’ll talk,” so… but because I come from the streets that they come from, I understand. I get it.

KC: How do guys usually find out about the program and connect to you?

BG: I either canvass, so I’ll walk around the streets and introduce myself to people and do it like that, I’ll go to churches and speak at churches, and they’ll refer people. I’ll connect with schools and schools will refer kids to us and that’s pretty much how we do it. S.O.S. will refer people, people will just walk in from the street, and the front desk will be like, "hey, you should join this program," and then they’ll call me.

KC: Could you sum up the mission of the program?

BG: Our mission really is to give our participants the tools necessary to overcome those traumatic experiences, and to be able to succeed in spite of those experiences. That’s really what we’re here to do.

For more information on Make It Happen! or to join or refer someone to the program, contact Brandon Gibson at or call 646-943-0074.

It's My Park Day at Brower Park October 26th

On Sunday, October 26th, Friends of Brower Park will host It's My Park Day! Community members will be sprucing up the park and planting 2,000 daffodil bulbs for spring planting. Come out and enjoy making the park even more beautiful! 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Interview with Marlon Peterson

Project Director Amy Ellenbogen interviewed outgoing Mediation Center staff about their experiences at the Center and with the work they've done. Marlon Peterson worked at the Mediation Center first as a Violence Interrupter, then as Program Coordinator for Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets and then as the Associate Project Director.

Marlon at Arts to End Violence Gallery with YO S.O.S. participants

Amy Ellenbogen: What were your first impressions of the Mediation Center?

Marlon Peterson: What comes to mind is, “These people seem like a good fit for me." Also, I felt really welcomed from the moment of my first interview with Derick Scott. I remember him saying to me during the interview something like, "I see a lot in you." So, my impression was that of care.

Amy Ellenbogen: Oh, that is nice. I know that at our volunteer appreciation ceremony recently a volunteer mentioned the same thing.   Are there things that you think the Mediation Center as an organization does to cultivate caring?

Marlon Peterson: Yes, no doubt. People here care for people, and a lot of time and energy is put into that. It's familial here and that encourages a sort of internal support system that makes sure everyone is okay beyond work responsibilities. People say hi here and really care to hear how you are doing or how your weekend was. It's not perfunctory.

Amy Ellenbogen: Hmm. Well, I'm curious. Do you think that all it takes is saying "Hi" and “How was your weekend?”

Marlon Peterson: In some ways, yes. This work and world is really hard at times. Many of the people here and this community are into this work because life has had really tough lessons to teach them. Life doesn't always care about how you are doing or how you are feeling, it just happens to you. And many of us are accustomed to the frigid temperatures of the world. So, anytime people genuinely acknowledge your presence, especially when they don't have to, it goes a long way. For instance, people really acknowledge birthdays here as an important thing.  This is the first place I ever had anything like a birthday cake.

Amy Ellenbogen: Wow. That is cool. I know that is the same for several other staff members and participants.

Amy Ellenbogen: You had three positions here at the Mediation Center. What are some of your most memorable moments in each of your positions?

Marlon Peterson: As a VI, it had to be the night we all went into the "Carter" on Sterling and Rochester in the narrow stairwell with about 8-10 teens all high and ice grilling us. As a team of OW's and VI’s we all sprang into action, had each other’s backs without having to say anything, and ultimately built a good relationship with a group of boys that probably trusted few people--even themselves.

With YO SOS, I think it was at the last graduation.  Sometimes as leaders things drop off after you leave. So to see more kids finish YO SOS and to see Ruby-Beth lead them and Lizzie and Pete without my physical presence was heartwarming because it showed that the work I did there was beyond myself, but I was able to see my passion passed along. That's really important to me.

Amy Ellenbogen: Hmm. I totally know what you mean!

Marlon Peterson: As an AD, I'd say the Kingston Avenue Festival. That event was a brainchild of mine and I was able to see so many people, staff, volunteers, and especially those kids dancing on the stage on that rainy and cool Saturday afternoon. Those moments are priceless.

Amy Ellenbogen: Yes! The Kingston Avenue Festival was really, really fun.

Amy Ellenbogen: What do you think is the most valuable lesson you learned during your time here?

Marlon Peterson: That I need to eat, and pay attention to my own well-being. I also learned how good feels to matter. That comes from spending 1/3 of my life being forced to believe that I did not matter.

Amy Ellenbogen: What were the kinds of things you experienced that helped you know you are important and matter?

Marlon Peterson: Definitely working with YO SOS. Those young people inspired me, and gave me credibility. They depended on me, and that was important. I also appreciated the staff who looked to me for answers and advice. I always keep in mind that I was only ten months out of prison when I came to CHCMC, and they trusted me. Coming from a place where authority never trusts you no matter what you do, that was significant for me. 

Amy Ellenbogen: You spent 10 years incarcerated. What advice do you have for people who are currently incarcerated but want to work in nonprofit social justice work when they return home?
Marlon Peterson: I'd say that they should know the difference between nonprofit work and grassroots work. I'd also tell them to start pursuing their interests from in there by being a part of organizations in a substantive way. What you do inside, you will do outside. That truism held true for me. I would also say that they understand that people work is sacrificial work, and that creating contacts to volunteer with before release is essential.

Amy Ellenbogen: What are some of the difference between nonprofit and grassroots work that you think people should understand?

Marlon Peterson: The nonprofit sector does phenomenal people work, but with funding/funder and political limitations. I believe that a grassroots principle within non-profits is necessary. You always need a core that caters to the authentic voice of the people. Many times in the non-profit world we find ourselves trying to keep people employed which means going after money that doesn't necessarily fit your level of expertise, or doesn't substantively address an issue in a thoughtful way. The grassroots element does the work that the people need and not what the grant requires.

Amy Ellenbogen: Thanks Marlon.  Can you tell me a little bit about your new job?

Marlon Peterson: I am the Director of Community Relations at the Fortune Society, and I'm a part of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy. A huge chunk of my job is still anti-gun violence work. Fortune has licensed behavioral health clinicians on staff through its Better Living Center. Many of us in this work understand that there are high levels of untreated and unacknowledged trauma that exists around experience of gun violence. That understanding, however, is not recognized by many and we want to bring that awareness to the masses. We also want to treat those folks behind and in front of the gun, both parties in that trauma. In this role, I also get to reach out to community partners that do the violence interruption work on the ground level. Being mobile is one of the perks of my gig; I'm more than an office guy/paper pusher---I might have some attention issues. 

As part of the DRCPP, I get to advocate for and against policies that interrupt the unjust and unfair practices of the criminal justice system, particularly the prison system. I'm still figuring out what all of that means for me, but it should be exciting. 

Amy Ellenbogen:  Marlon, it has been a true privilege and a pleasure to work with you. You've brought a great deal of thoughtfulness, creativity, enthusiasm, and wisdom to the way we work. We will all miss your warm presence and positive energy in our daily work but are delighted to have you as an ally at Fortune Society.