Despite community leaders’ requests to improve safety measures in Morningside Park, residents have long advocated for youth programming in an attempt to prevent community violence.
“Both locally and city-wide, we think that there are tremendous opportunities to see our young people not as potential violent criminals, but as young people who need to be engaged and can be a great service to their city,” Jess Dannhauser explained. Dannhauser is the CEO of Graham Windham, a nonprofit that assists children and families.
Not only does strong youth programming give children and young adults something productive to do with their free time, but it also provides emotional support for those who might not have a strong support system at home.
Although conversations surrounding youth education and after-school programs reignited in the wake of Barnard first-year Tess Majors’ death, local residents soon found themselves grappling with a new crisis: COVID-19. The pandemic forced programs to adapt to health guidelines that prohibit large gatherings. In addition, an economic recession has posed a new challenge for programs that need more funding in order to conduct their services.
The role of youth programming
Growing up in West Harlem, Kelvin McAllister witnessed the effects that gang violence and drugs had within his community. McAllister noticed the lack of community and youth programming, and took it upon himself to found one of these programs in 1990 after becoming a parent.
He founded Uptown Inner City League Baseball, an organization that uses sports to create opportunities for local children by immersing them in a team experience.
“You’re going to be part of a gang that’s not rooted in violence,” McAllister said. When describing the ways in which he welcomed the young people who joined his baseball league, he said, “When you join the program, you are my son or my daughter.”
Graham Windham, like many other youth programming organizations in the area, understands its role in the community as not just keeping kids occupied, but also tending to their emotional needs.
“Just getting to more kids doesn’t typically work. You have to really go deep and engage,” Dannhauser said.
In the aftermath of Majors’ death, Graham Windham aimed to partner with similar organizations in the community to engage and connect with the young people. “We checked in with our kids to make sure they had what they really needed,” Dannhauser added.
McAllister’s response to Majors’ death was similar to that of Dannhauser and Graham Windham. He felt that the tragedy could have been avoided if there were more opportunities for youth programming and ways to engage the young people in the neighborhood.
“It really impacted us [as a community], because what if these young people had an opportunity, if they had a place to go—a storefront with a learning center where they could have gone to do their homework, or to use computers, or to do a project, or just to associate with one another. An idle mind is the devil’s advocate,” McAllister explained.
McAllister and his team of volunteers wanted to ensure that his baseball league also provided opportunities off the diamond. Consequently, they developed mentoring programs and brought in health professionals to educate the youth on mental and physical well-being. He also began a tutoring program to help the players improve their grades in school and provide opportunities for SAT prep.
Adjusting to the pandemic’s challenges
As the pandemic challenged the traditional organizing methods of youth programming, leaders’ main priority was to ensure that all of their members could still attend school and their extracurricular groups.
Graham Windham quickly moved everything it could to virtual platforms and held sessions to help make students more comfortable with Zoom and other technologies. It also helped the community by procuring donations that funded the purchase of headphones and 350 laptops for students in 2020. Graham Windham staff also developed a technology team that addressed student issues with Internet connectivity and laptops.
“You can dance together, or you can dance virtually,” Kristen Ragusa, the vice president for youth success of Graham Windham, said. “So we didn’t stop! We created more because we knew that with such a tough time, the more you listen and the more opportunities you give them to come together and learn and grow and do things, they will feel better.”
Graham Windham saw yet another opportunity to step in when the city canceled its Summer Youth Employment Program due to COVID-19. The organization developed the Scholars of Service program in its place, creating 170 jobs for young people. These service-oriented jobs paid youths wages that they could use to support themselves and their families in a time when so many faced unemployment. One such group created a garden where they grew fresh vegetables to give out to the community, another taught elderly residents how to keep in touch with their families through technology, and another worked with a food bank to help it create a business plan.
“There was a lot of loss for our young people during COVID, and it continues. Giving them an opportunity to take some control and understand the needs, and to just own it and give—that was huge in all this. … We were available for them when they needed us,” Ragusa explained.
Due to COVID-19, McAllister’s baseball league lost its permit to play or gather in the park and could no longer participate in tournaments with teams across state lines. Even so, McAllister tried to get youth from his league to meet up for small, socially-distanced workouts in groups of two or three rather than the whole team. He also explained that he keeps in touch with every member of the league, and that they’re all connected through platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook.
“We want to know what they’re feeling and what they’re going through. It’s important that they know that just because we’re not on the field, it doesn’t mean that we’re not on the same team anymore,” McAllister explained.
A vital need for funding
Although many organizations were able to continue their programming in new ways, there is little that can replace the importance of a group gathering. This is especially significant for youth programming, which is rooted in creating emotional bonds between young people. To accomplish this goal, however, one glaring issue needs to be addressed: the lack of funding that youth programming receives from the city.
“Police can’t be our priority for community safety. It felt like everything was being taken away except from that,” Dannhauser said, commenting on the ways in which other methods for community safety are prioritized over youth programming.
Youth programs are reliant on funding, as many are free for the students who participate. Thus, grants and city funding are critical in ensuring that these programs continue to run. They require proper funding in order to purchase materials, hire staff, and maintain facilities.
Deirdre McIntosh-Brown, the youth, education & libraries committee co-chair of Community Board 9, echoed this call for more funding. Throughout the past year, CB9 has aimed to help youth programming organizations with strategic planning. Its main focus has been on advocacy, increasing outreach that pushes youths in the community to learn about and join these programs. However, McIntosh-Brown believes that this is not enough. The neighborhood desperately needs more funding to keep these programs running and to build new ones, McIntosh-Brown explained.
“[In the past year] youth programs were strengthened, but there is still a lot more progress to be done,” McIntosh-Brown said. “[The city] does not see the equity and value in programs for our youth. We continue to shout and to raise our voices to bring attention to the fact that the youth is our equity. They are our future and our now.”
Continue reading part 3 to learn about how the University has addressed safety concerns following both the death of Tess Majors and calls to defund Public Safety.
Staff writer Maya Mitrasinovic can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @m_mitrasinovic.