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Brenda Huang / Staff Illustrator

It struck me immediately as I started reporting on Arise, a summer program for youths in West Harlem, what a small world I had stumbled into.

For example:

"The program director, Alicia, is actually one of my mom's friends," says Jourdan Perez, a high school senior who attended Arise last year.  "One good thing is that they have Alicia Barksdale up there," says Earl Davis, a local nonprofit founder who gave participants a presentation. "There was one student in here who, I know his parents, and he's off to Yale," he adds.  "It's funny, I knew the wife of the particular business [owner]," says Curtis Archer, whose son Julian interned at a local ice cream parlor through Arise before attending Yale (it is unclear if there is a connection there). 

Every interview has a snippet that connects it to another, like red lines on a detective's pin-and-string map.

Arise's full name is Arise! SYEEP, a clunky but endearing acronym for "Summer Youth Employment and Education Program." Arise matches its participants, attendees of public high schools in West Harlem's Community District 9, with jobs in mostly local businesses and organizations. As the name suggests, it also provides them with tutoring.

The West Harlem Development Corporation, which started Arise in 2017, is charged with managing the sum of money pledged to the neighborhood by Columbia as mitigation for the various impacts of the University's expansion into Manhattanville. The largest portion of this sum by far is the $76 million Benefits Fund, which the WHDC distributes as grants to locally active nonprofits, and which will expire in 2024.

The expiration of those grants will have an altogether negative effect on these nonprofits; some will be forced to scale down or, worse, shut down. But one positive could be the heightened presence of programs run by the WHDC itself, such as Arise. Conscious that its grantmaking activities are entirely dependent on the Benefits Fund and therefore unsustainable, the WHDC hopes that its in-house initiatives will endure, supported by its own small endowment and, eventually, outside funding.

Arise is the product of an effort by the WHDC to mobilize actors in the community who do not typically overlap—government, businesses, nonprofits, schools, parents, students—to fill the need for summer enrichment programs outlined by Community Board 9 in its most recent Statement of Community District Needs. This hints that the WHDC's post-2024 role in the neighborhood could be that of an organizer. Solving the biggest problems currently facing West Harlem—affordable housing, healthcare, and crime are listed in that same Community Board statement, to name a few—will also require the coordination of CB9's disparate actors. The WHDC could use its unique connections to start conversations about them.

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Arise's application process has just two "really basic" requirements, says Dean Morris, WHDC director of programs: Be a West Harlem resident and attend a public high school. After that, "it's first come, first serve." The matching of students to jobs is similarly barebones. "On the little application thing, there was a section like, what are your career interests and stuff," Perez says.

The program itself has two components, one being education and the other employment. As a junior, Perez was in the workplace three days a week and in the classroom for the remaining two. For first-years and sophomores, it’s the inverse: two days in the workplace and three in the classroom.

Some of the educational nonprofits among the WHDC's grantees provide teachers for Arise. "Because we fund them throughout the year for afterschool enrichment, it made sense to reach out to them to deliver the programming over the summer," Morris says. The rationale for adding education to Arise's equation was preventing summer learning loss, the tendency of all—but especially low-income—students to lose some of their gains from the school year over the longest vacation.

I am, however, told that the program did not completely match up to its educational ideals. "It wasn't what I was learning in school," Perez tells me. The program focused on basic money management, while he had spent the year learning calculus. Archer more bluntly says that his son Julian "would absolutely say that it was a waste of time." Morris is very open about having received complaints about how "engaging" the math portion of it was, and says he is working to fix it.


Arise
Courtesy of Mickey N. Wade


Arise’s employment component matches students with paid jobs at participating organizations. Many of them are West Harlem-based, and many are WHDC grantees, Morris tells me. Alicia Barksdale, Arise program director and Perez’s mom’s friend, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the program’s wide variety of job postings. She often rattles them off in passing when she makes her points: “Supreme Court, Criminal Court, daycare centers, nonprofit organizations such as the Boys and Girls' Club, International House, Columbia University…” Perez worked in a State Senate campaign, while Julian Archer worked at the Sugar Hill Creamery, a local ice cream parlor.

Perez's experience with this aspect of the program was mixed. Due to his interest in political science, he was matched with a job canvassing and making calls for the State Senate campaign of Marisol Alcantara, the incumbent in New York's 31st District, which encompasses much of Manhattan. While the general gist of the job matched Perez's interests, it turned out to be a bad personal fit. "I actually found that I disagreed with some of her policies," he says. Perez was put in the awkward position of working for the victory of a candidate he wouldn't vote for.

This mismatch taught him two important lessons: that life sometimes asks us to collaborate with people we disagree with, and that he does not want to work in a political campaign. "I felt like it was better to figure that out now," he says, pointing out the silver lining. Despite that, his placement was far from perfect.

Nevertheless, to the WHDC, the most important aspect of Arise is not so much the work itself as it is the experience of working. "It's an enrichment program for teaching [youths] the basics of employment," Barksdale says. It is supposed to give participants, for many of whom Arise is a first job, a sense of the rules, routines, and responsibilities of work.

In this regard, Perez's job was much more successful. He found his work "rewarding" and enjoyed the new responsibilities it brought to his life. "It was the first time that I really had to rely on the subway to get somewhere," he says, which made his world bigger and more mature.

However, Earl Davis, who runs a nonprofit called Project Brownstone and was one of many community leaders that the WHDC invited to speak to the Arise kids, saw no evidence of this maturity. His time speaking to them, he recalls, was marked by a lack of engagement from the youths. Drawing from that experience, as well as his conversations with youths who participate both in Arise and Project Brownstone, he says, "My biggest pet peeve is, you give, but are [the kids] giving back? That whole two-way conversation."

"That's key, two-way conversations," Morris tells me—except he is making the opposite point. One of the things he says he tried to impress on speakers he invited to present to the kids was that "it should not be a one-way conversation, it should be a conversation where the kids can ask questions." To him, some presenters seemed to dominate the speaking time and forget to be mindful of the youths' age and background, creating an environment in which they refrained from asking questions.

Curtis Archer says that during his summer at Arise, his son showed an unprecedented level of responsibility. He would say things like, "Oh, you know what, I can't really hang out here, I gotta get to the office," or, "You know what, maybe I won't stay up too late, because I have to get up tomorrow and go to work." He also noticed that his son learned from his exposure to the mentality of the two small-business owners he worked with.

But Davis also questions the effect of paying participants. Because of the program's first-come, first-serve nature, "it's a given that you're going to be a part of it," which he says could lead youths to treat it less seriously than they should. Some of the former Arise participants he knows thought of the program as if "you're just getting paid to go to school," he recalls.

Three weeks earlier, Barksdale made a similar point: "This is a job, they are getting paid, this is not them going to school." She says she’s had to impress that notion on parents who came to complain about Arise's "strict rules and regulations" concerning punctuality. She repeatedly emphasizes that the program made its rules strict to teach youths, through experience, the difference in expectations between school and work. Davis is an admirer of Barksdale's disciplinary style. "Alicia holds them accountable," he says. "They need more of that." Nevertheless, he still stands by his point about the participants' low effort levels relative to their financial compensation. "I don't understand how you expect this [program] to work if you're not going to have some skin in the game," he summarizes.

"[Arise] was a way we could really, financially, put money in their pockets—and they have to put some skin in the game too, by coming," Morris says. He believes the fact that Arise pays its participants is one of the best things about it. Not only does the money, in his opinion, incentivize participants to show up to work and class, it also makes them financially independent.

Morris was particularly moved by a chance meeting he had at a Foot Locker with a few participants shopping with their paychecks. "It just symbolized to me that it makes them a little more independent from their parents, as far as being able to buy things that their parents might not be able to afford," he says. Financial independence is very closely linked to personal independence—having extra spending power allows youths to go out on their own and forces them to learn to manage their money.

Archer very succinctly sums up why the money was good for his son: "College ain't cheap."

Despite his specific issues with Arise, Davis is far from an opponent of the program. "They're on the road to doing really great work," he insists, "but I definitely think they're doing some things that need to be looked at." It is easy, given its litany of participating organizations and job placements on offer, to forget that Arise is still just two years old. "Next summer, it'll be better," Davis anticipates.

Morris affirms this: "After every summer, we try to reflect and debrief." For now, this process mainly relies on personal feedback. "We bring [the kids] to this office and sit around this table and have conversations," he says. The issues Perez and Julian Archer raised about Arise's educational component are not news to him, for instance. But Morris is interested in adding longer-term analysis to the formula. "We want to look at the longitudinal impacts of what we're doing in terms of, when they went back to school in September, did they do better?" Finding ways to track its students' progress over time would give the WHDC more insight on how to improve.

Arise's goal for next year is to provide education during the entire year, especially in the form of college preparation: helping with SATs, essays, and applications. "The kids look for that," Barksdale says, "They ask, 'Can we do year-round?', because some of them have nothing to do after school."


Arise
Courtesy of Mickey N. Wade


Through student feedback, the WHDC is identifying areas of need in the neighborhood. “We also have a youth committee,” Barksdale says, “so [the kids] have a president, VP, and secretary, and they discuss and they bring to us what they think, and the thing is, we listen.”

It would be remiss not to mention Arise's longest-term goal: showing youths how to give back. Mickey Wade, WHDC communications director, says that she hopes participants leave the program saying, "I can go to college wherever I want, but I can come back because I've seen people creating businesses in West Harlem, I've seen people creating nonprofits that serve the very place where I grew up, and I can do it too—and I did it, and I got paid for it."

Over the last decade, the WHDC's main activity has been granting Columbia's money to various nonprofits. It is easy to see each transaction as a one-off payment, another number on a dwindling balance sheet. But it isn't all about the money—every time the WHDC interacts with its neighborhood, it creates human capital.

The nature of the WHDC's activities means that it’s in constant contact with all of West Harlem's major players: Columbia, local government, local businesses, local nonprofits, local schools, and so on. Few organizations are as well-connected as it is.

It takes a monumental coordinative effort to establish even a small summer program, simply because the issues it tries to address are monumentally wide-ranging, touching on economics, politics, education, and culture.

The WHDC's most meaningful contribution to the community might not come from Columbia's funding, but instead from its being one of the only local organizations at the intersection of all of those spheres. "We're nimble enough," Morris says, "to make a decision to start a summer program, to find what it is we're trying to accomplish, and then put it into action because of our connections."

Arise is far from perfect. But that is a feature of the program, not a bug. A program in its infancy, run by an organization with only seven full-time staff members, and based in a deeply challenged neighborhood, can be expected to have some flaws. They will be ironed out, over time, by community dialogue.

The WHDC has started a discourse in the neighborhood. As long as the WHDC is open to listening—as Barksdale assures it is—Arise will keep getting better.


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