Dispatch from the Field: Organizing Kids and Young People to Build Communities in NYC

January 9, 2019

I’m JustLeadershipUSA’s NYC Community Organizer, working to #CLOSErikers, build communities, and end mass incarceration.  I go to after-school centers and other places where young people gather in all the boroughs of the city. I talk to them about our struggle to close the jail and ask them what they would like to see in their community over the next few years.  Most of the kids have never had this experience before—someone coming to them and asking their opinion about what their community needs—and they’re very responsive. I can relate, because when I was growing up, no one ever asked me my opinion. It took many years and a lot of setbacks for me to find my voice.

I see myself as an educator and a role model.  When I tell kids about what I’m doing now, they want to get on board.   They ask, “Harvey, what can we do?” I say, “We’ve got buses going to Albany, so get on the bus.  We’re going to stand before elected officials and tell them, no more criminalization and abuse of New Yorkers, and no more deaths or trauma and no more solitary confinement.”  They say, “For real? Let’s go!” People follow good people, and kids want something good to stand on. They turn to gangs because they have nothing else, but I’m giving them something to fight for and that gives them hope.

You can’t teach something that you don’t know about; you can’t talk about snow if you’ve never seen snow.  Kids listen to me because they know I’ve been where they’ve been. I know what it’s like to grow up surrounded by poverty and violence.  I grew up in the Mott Haven Projects in the South Bronx in the 1980s when things were really rough. My father was shot and killed when I was four months old, and in her sorrow, my mother went over the deep end and became addicted to crack.  Me and my older brother basically raised ourselves. A lot of people don’t understand what poverty really means. I was brought up in poverty, and I had no hope and no positive role models. In school, the teachers were there to tell us, “do this and do that, fight for an A.”  But that wasn’t what I needed. I needed to be loved and listened to. So anger built up, and I felt I had to get money by any means necessary. I became a drug dealer and ended up doing two state bids.

I understand how the justice system is built on people going around in a revolving door.  You can’t make bail so therefore you have to stay in jail, so when you come home you’ve got to have money to keep your freedom.  God forbid if you fit the description of someone suspected of a crime! You’re going to end up in jail, and the system is built around money.  So now you think, “I gotta get money, I gotta get money, I gotta get money,” and chasing money you will eventually fall. If you’re going to talk about “corrections” then you’ve got to correct the system because there’s nothing correctional about it.

As organizers our job is to paint visions of healing justice and a brighter future and get people involved in creating that future. Imagine a kid who’s really struggling, the way I did, maybe their family is struggling with trauma and addiction and they’re kind of lost and imagine that instead of schools that see them as a bad kid because they’re not passing their classes because they can’t focus, imagine there’s a social worker in that school, and that social worker can maybe connect this young person with a counselor that can listen and help this youth work through their trauma. And imagine that there’s also a community center in the neighborhood, and it’s open all kind of hours and it has all kinds things for kids of all ages, if they want to do music or they want to play sports or they want learn a skill or they even just want to sit down and talk to someone. We could have that for kids and young people. We have the money to do that in New York City.  New Yorkers have to demand that money be reallocated from the closure of Rikers to building communities with whatever our kids need for a brighter future.

When I came out of prison, my luck changed.  I got a job at the Fortune Society, first as an accounts manager and then as an outreach worker helping formerly incarcerated people find jobs.   I discovered how powerful I could be as long as I wore a suit and tie, put my ten toes on the street, and didn’t take no for an answer. I realized I wanted to do more to change the criminal justice system and heard about JustLeadershipUSA.  At first I was a volunteer; then I was hired part-time and then full-time. I love what I do, educating my community and giving back when so much has been taken from us or kept from us. When I leave a conversation with four or five kids, I know I’ve touched them because I’ve given them a vision of how things could be and how we must demand investments in our neighborhoods and well being and build communities.   I go into depth and I don’t shade and I don’t hold back my tongue. I speak to them as I would want to be spoken to. Seeing how excited they get when they know they can speak up for their neighborhood is amazing.

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