Earlier this month, on the top floor of an inconspicuous building on West 124th Street, the Rev. Maurice Winley stood on a small stage in front of a socially-distanced audience. In the back of the room, pizza and cupcakes lined a table; puffy winter coats were draped across the backs of chairs.
“I know where you’ve been. I’ve been there too. I know what it’s like to rebuild your broken world, brick by brick,” Winley says. Winley, who is a third-generation resident of West Harlem, earned his GED diploma while he was incarcerated and went on to work for several community organizations before founding his own: the Living Redemption Youth Opportunity Hub.
“It’s not an easy journey. So let’s build this brotherhood. Let’s build this community. Let’s build together so we can effect change,” he says.
Winley had addressed a group of 25 residents of the Manhattanville Houses and Grant Houses, two public housing complexes situated just a few blocks from Columbia's gates. They had just completed a training program required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for anyone seeking a job in construction.
More than just practical, the certification was, for many in the crowd, a first step toward rebuilding lives interrupted by incarceration. They are some of the 103 young people indicted following the 2014 police raid of the Manhattanville and Grant Houses—the largest police raid in New York City history.
The raid was the city’s response to a long and complex history of violence in West Harlem. While violent incidents decreased after the raid, residents say that the city government failed to address the underlying causes of the violence. The neighborhood continued to lack crucial resources and residents lost even more loved ones to mass incarceration.
Over six years later, many incarcerated as a result of the raid are beginning to return home. Two Harlem-based organizations—the Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy Foundation and the Living Redemption Youth Opportunity Hub—have taken the lead to support these individuals’ reentry to the community and address the underlying issues that sparked the violence. Both organizations’ work is grounded in firsthand knowledge of the community’s needs: pathways to well-paying jobs, non-police conflict intervention from people who understand the neighborhood’s social dynamics, and consistent support for young people who might otherwise engage in violence.
The approach is distinct from top-down programs led by outside entities who have never lived in Harlem. Central to these organizations’ missions is the cultivation of close relationships between community members and full-time, paid mentors called “credible messengers”—people from the neighborhood who know what it is like to grow up in West Harlem. Many credible messengers are also formerly incarcerated themselves.
Last year, a grant from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office allowed the organizations to ramp up their outreach and programming, including programs like the OSHA training. It also represents an acknowledgment by city officials that community members themselves are best positioned to support their peers.
“We’re hoping that this becomes a new paradigm and a new model,” says Winley, “that it can actually be an intervention tool that can be preemptive prior to doing takedowns like the one we saw back in 2014.”
While prosecutors charged young people from the complexes with engaging in “gang violence,” residents and community leaders say the real story is more complicated. They claim that conflicts rarely stem from disputes over drugs or money but rather from interpersonal tensions that spiral out of control—often growing out of the decades-long hostility between the housing complexes.
“You just grow up and people are telling you ‘Oh, we don't mess with them.’ So you just follow suit of what everybody else is doing,” says Lloyd Williams, a credible messenger from the Murphy Foundation.
Derrick Haynes, who grew up in the Manhattanville Houses and now runs the Murphy Foundation with Taylonn Murphy, traces the beginning of the conflict back to 1972. That June, his eldest brother, Eli Haynes Jr., went to a party at the Grant Houses. When Eli’s friend got into an altercation with a Grant Houses resident, Eli tried to intervene—the situation escalated, and the Grant resident shot him. Eli died from the wounds; he was 15 years old. From that point forward, Haynes saw the tensions between the Grant and Manhattanville Houses become increasingly violent.
When Damian Garcia and his twin brother Raymond Garcia moved to the Manhattanville Houses in their early teens in 2009, they found that the hostility between the two complexes was a defining force in the neighborhood.
“People were just doing it because they were bored,” says Raymond Garcia of the fighting. “It started off as some back and forth fighting … people fighting one-on-one—and then it just got out of control.” A simple argument at school could escalate into full-blown conflict on social media and ultimately end in a physical fight. Each altercation further escalated tensions between the complexes and perpetuated the cycle of retribution.
Residents say that in the absence of youth programming and job opportunities, young people were left with unstructured time that allowed for these tensions to grow.
Matthew Torrence, a credible messenger who grew up in West Harlem, remembers spending his after-school hours at the Manhattanville Community Center. Kids flocked there after school to play basketball, play pool, and work on the computers. “It was crowded and it was beautiful,” Torrence recalls. Centers like this provided a safe space for kids to hang out, get help with their homework, and have access to adults from the community who they could turn to for support or guidance.
But under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in the 2000s, the neighborhood’s once-thriving community centers were taken over by private organizations and public access to them was increasingly restricted.
Without this structure, young people found other ways to spend their free time. “It’s always an outlet that you’re looking for as a kid,” Williams says. “If you go outside and your friends say, ‘Hang with us, we win this game, we take care of each other.’ ... You’re gonna flock to that, because that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for some kind of structure, for something that makes you feel like, ‘Hey, I’m loved over here.’”
By 2011, violence between Grant and Manhattanville residents was reaching a boiling point. For teens in the complexes, it did not matter whether they had actively partaken in any of the fighting; just by association, they were at risk of violence from residents in the opposite house. “You couldn’t walk to the store without getting in an altercation,” Raymond Garcia recalls. “I couldn’t go [to school], because to get to school I had to take the train and had to worry about getting jumped.”
That September, the neighborhood was devastated by the murder of Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, an 18-year-old from the Grant Houses. She was a basketball star at Murry Bergtraum High School—ESPN’s HoopGurlz ranked her 16th nationally among women’s high school point guards. Tayshana Murphy was shot and killed by two young men from the Manhattanville Houses who were seeking retribution for a murder committed by someone in her complex.
Torrence is deeply connected to the people affected by Tayshana Murphy’s death. Her brother, Taylonn Murphy Jr., is Torrence’s close childhood friend. One of the two people convicted of killing Tayshana Murphy—Tyshawn Brockington—is Torrence’s godbrother.
He saw the intense pain experienced not just by the Murphy family, but also among those close to Brockington. “People on both sides of the gun were losing … Parents were losing a kid, whether they died or went to jail,” Torrence says.
Tayshana Murphy’s father, Taylonn Murphy, was devastated by his daughter’s death. However, he did not want revenge; instead, he wanted to end the cycle of violence that took his daughter’s life. He developed a friendship with the mother of Robert Cartagena, the second person convicted of Tayshana Murphy’s murder; discouraged teens who sought retribution; and began building the framework for a community-based conflict intervention organization that would become the Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy Foundation. Taylonn Murphy wanted his daughter’s legacy to help a community traumatized by violence find peace by bringing a divided neighborhood together through on-the-ground conflict mediation and community building.
Shortly after Tayshana Murphy’s death, Haynes introduced himself to Taylonn Murphy at her vigil and offered his condolences. Tensions between the houses were high, and some residents of the Manhattanville Houses were hesitant to attend the vigil. But Haynes felt that it was important to show his support.
A few days later, Taylonn Murphy called Haynes. “He wanted to come do a walk through—a peace walk through Manhattanville,” Haynes recalls. “And I told him, ‘Hey, if you’re coming in peace, if you’re not coming to cause any conflicts, I’ll meet you, and I’ll walk through Manhattanville with you.’”
The walk marked the beginning of a shared commitment to building unity between the developments, but not everyone was immediately on board.
“I just tried to explain to people, ‘He’s coming to break bread, to see if we can try to de-escalate this conflict,’” Haynes says. “In the beginning, nobody thought it could work. But here we are 10 years later, and we’re building bridges between the two developments.”
After the walk, the pair started meeting regularly and discussing plans to resolve tensions between the houses. Murphy and Haynes saw an opportunity to bring the neighborhood together, and in 2014, they created what they called a “safe zone” on Old Broadway, a small block between the Manhattanville and Grant Houses next to the above-ground 1 train tracks. They reimagined the block as a neutral zone where people from both complexes were welcome. Old Broadway was once a hotspot for fighting between rival groups from the two houses; to combat this past, Murphy and Haynes brought out basketball hoops and game tables and grilled hot dogs for neighbors. Families from both sides of the block started spending time there.
Fights stopped breaking out on the block after it became a communal gathering place. “When the boys used to come [to the block], they would see that … this is a safe zone, we can’t do that. It’s your own family there,” Torrence says. “Actually, [Haynes and Murphy] had them come together one time and shake hands.”
But the police were gearing up to take a very different approach.
In the summer of 2014, the Garcia twins were 17 years old. Raymond Garcia had a job sanitizing the housing complexes and Damian Garcia had just been hired at a local McDonald’s. They were set to start their senior year of high school in the fall.
But on the morning of June 4, 2014, residents of the Manhattanville and Grant Houses awoke to the sounds of helicopters whirring and doors crashing in. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had indicted 103 residents on charges ranging from assault to attempted murder to charges for less direct involvement in violent incidents. That morning, some 400 police officers stormed the housing projects and arrested 40 residents, some as young as 15 years old.
Prosecutors used social media posts and surveillance footage from the neighborhood to indict and arrest young men who allege that they were only minorly associated with violent incidents.
“I didn’t know what I was getting arrested for. I was just dumbfounded; I didn’t know what was going on,” Damian Garcia recalls.
By the time fall came around, the twins were not starting a new school year; they were on Rikers Island awaiting trial. The previous year, a store camera had recorded the Garcia twins walking with a group of their friends shortly before one of them shot a person from the Grant Houses. Prosecutors used the footage, along with several of the boys’ Facebook posts, to charge them as conspirators to a shooting. Raymond Garcia was sentenced to six years in prison and Damian Garcia was sentenced to seven.
The twins felt that they were caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. “We went to jail for being around someone who shot somebody,” Damian Garcia says. Conspiracy charges, which allege that the defendant was involved in plotting to commit a crime, are notoriously difficult to disprove in court. The defendant must prove they had no knowledge of the crime prior to its completion—an incredibly subjective standard for which it is nearly impossible to produce evidence.
The Garcia twins were tried as adults despite having been minors at the time. Youth offenders get felonies expunged from their criminal records after completing their sentences, but adult offenders are not afforded the same leniency. The Garcias will both have felonies on their permanent records.
The raids left a hole in the West Harlem community: A generation of young men were effectively removed from the neighborhood overnight. While violence decreased in the following years, the root causes persisted. Though less intense than before, rivalries persisted, and many of those engaging in conflicts were as young as 13.
In 2019, the Office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.—the same DA who authorized the 2014 raids—acknowledged the impact of the raids and created the West Harlem Reentry and Restoration Project, which awarded $3 million to local organizations that support reentry and community healing. The DA’s office declared that the project was a direct response to the aftermath of its 2014 intervention.
Winley’s and Haynes’ respective organizations—the Living Redemption Youth Opportunity Hub and the Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy Foundation—secured funding from the grant in partnership with the Osborne Association, a New York state non-profit focused on reentry programs for formerly incarcerated citizens.
Credible Messengers: A New Model
Since its founding in 2012, the Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy Foundation has worked to build a support system for young people in West Harlem. In the past year, it has worked closely with the Living Redemption Youth Opportunity Hub. A primary service of both groups is hiring and training credible messengers who provide support for teens and young adults. Unlike armed police officers, who often lack the context to properly address community tensions, credible messengers have firsthand knowledge of what it is like to grow up between the Grant and Manhattanville conflict. This makes them particularly well-positioned to mediate conflicts or resolve crises when they arise and to offer meaningful guidance and support in the long term.
Credible messengers are on call around the clock to stabilize situations before they can escalate into tragedy. Dorin Hammond, a credible messenger from the Hub, sees his work as “putting out the little flames before it becomes a forest fire.”
Sometimes, that might mean leaving the house at 4 a.m. to resolve a dispute or a crisis. Elijah Scaitterworth, who has been a mentee at the Hub for several years, recalls one night a few years ago when credible messengers effectively resolved a potentially dangerous situation.
Scaitterworth was in the South Bronx, right next to a bridge, when he ran into someone who had acted aggressively toward him in the past. Scaitterworth has dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder from events in his childhood and says he quickly felt threatened as the man walked toward him on the street. Before long, the two started to fight. Luckily, Scaitterworth’s godmother was nearby and she put him on the phone with Jason Davis, a credible messenger at Living Redemption Hub.
When Scaitterworth called, Davis was in a meeting with other mentors at the Hub. “Jason and everybody told me to start walking across the bridge,” Scaitterworth recalls. They stayed on the phone with him as he walked and they talked him through his anger. By the time Scaitterworth was halfway across the East River, a group of credible messengers had made their way to him and were by his side.
“They know how to de-escalate [situations] in a productive way that honestly a lot of police officers don’t,” Scaitterworth says. “The Hub knows how to do it—they should have badges.”
Formalized credible messenger work in Harlem goes back to the launch of the Arches program, which began as a component of former Mayor Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative. Arches uses the credible messenger model for reentry mentoring through partner organizations across the city. The results have been promising: A 2018 report by the Urban Institute found that participation in the initiative reduced the chance of one-year felony reconviction by over two-thirds and reduced two-year felony reconviction by over one-half. The impacts were especially notable among the youngest program participants.
“In pretty much any project …, most people don’t grow up thinking that the police are for them,” Williams says. “If the police come into the neighborhood and say, ‘Hey, you know, we want to try and help,’ they’re not going to believe it. They’re going to think the police are up to something.” Credible messengers, on the other hand, already have the trust of many people in the neighborhood through personal connections or even having the ability to relate to the experiences of neighborhood life.
City officials have recognized the success of community-led harm reduction and have started incorporating the credible messenger model into their anti-violence efforts. The credible messenger model is a key framework in current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Crisis Management System, which is a citywide initiative for combating gun violence that launched in 2017.
Although immediate conflict resolution is a key part of their work, these organizations also help their mentees set up Individual Success Plans, which are long-term life plans, and work closely with their mentees to set those plans in action. Credible messengers help their mentees with everything from establishing career paths to navigating convoluted, bureaucratic processes like accessing health care services or obtaining a New York ID.
The problem is not always that resources and social services do not exist, but rather that people are not aware of how to reach them.
The organizations act as a bridge in this regard, and their deep roots in the community allow them to reach people who might otherwise fall under the radar. Credible messengers “canvas” the neighborhood regularly and approach young people to spread the word about their programs. If they hear through the grapevine that someone is struggling, they make it a priority to reach them and bring them into the fold. “I’ll walk through the projects looking for you,” says Chris Moore, a credible messenger at the Hub.
The Garcia twins got involved with the Murphy Foundation through Torrence, who they knew growing up. They also knew Taylonn Murphy Jr.—who was also incarcerated in the raids—from childhood.
“[Taylonn Murphy Sr.] opened so many doors for me,” Raymond Garcia says. “When it came to job placement programs, to anything that would make my life better, I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know all the types of licenses or certifications I could take advantage of. … [He] gave me hope.”
Program leaders say that trust, relatability, and strong relationships are the core of what makes their approach effective.
“Whether it’s education, whether it’s workforce development—all the various intervention services and opportunities and supports will only be as successful as the quality and quantity of relationships,” Winley says. “We desire to build a relational infrastructure, a relational ecosystem, around not only these individuals targeted—these 103 individuals and their families—but let it radiate into the whole West Harlem community.”
The Murphy Foundation operates out of the Community Board 9 office on Old Broadway, the same block where Murphy and Haynes laid the groundwork for a “safe zone” back in 2014. The office is in a storefront with big windows; passersby wave to the credible messengers seated around a big round table inside and stop in to say hello.
The Hub is located on the top two floors of Soul Saving Nation, a church on West 124th Street. When participants come for their one-on-one or group sessions, they are greeted with a warm meal and a place intended to feel like home. Hammond calls this the “living room effect.”
“What is a living room? It’s a place where people can let their hair down, a place where they can be themselves,” Hammond says. The goal is to create an atmosphere of comfort and ease—one where mentees feel like they can open up about their experiences and be supported unconditionally.
When he first connected with credible messengers, Scaitterworth had been living in homeless shelters on and off for years. With the emotional and practical support he found at the Hub, he was able to secure an apartment, where he now lives with his dog, an American terrier named Storm.
“[People at the Hub] knew I had something to offer the world, but I had to start by looking within myself,” describes Scaitterworth. He says that credible messengers helped him reach mental stability and gave him a sense of home and community.
“The Hub is like a family,” he says. “It's a safe place.”
It is family—and love—that grounds these organizations’ work. “We really believe that love is going to be the transforming agent of this community, as people experience unconditional love, as they experience relevant instruction, as they’re provided meaningful roles,” says Winley.
Love was certainly a visible force at this month’s OSHA training graduation ceremony. People from both the Manhattanville and Grant Houses were now gathered in a loud room celebrating a new chapter. On a small stage at the front of the room, Haynes, Winley, and Murphy called the names of each participant and presented them with a certificate of completion and a stipend for their involvement in the program.
“This is just the first step,” Raymond Garcia says about the OSHA training. He returned home last July—now, he’s eager to make up for lost time. His dream is to open a barbershop one day, and he hopes that earning a stable income through construction work will help make that possible.
“I feel like this is the second chance we didn’t get back when we were 17,” Raymond Garcia says.
Before the end of the event, Murphy comes up to the microphone and tells participants that he is proud of them, that he loves them, and that he believes in them.
“We are the change we’ve been looking for,” Murphy says. “We see the light in you. We’re investing in you because we see the light in you. So keep your crowns on straight—take this thing and run with it, kings.”