The Harlem Justice Corps Combines Education with Community Service for Justice-Involved Young People

The Harlem
Justice Corps
is an intensive career development and service program for justice-involved young men and
women. Project Manager Tai Alex explains how the initiative works, and
participants Elijah Blount and Anthony Brown discuss what they’ve learned so far.


ELIJAH BLOUNT:  And I learned the seriousness of working because they say it’s
hard to get a job, but now as I’m going through the motions in business, it’s hard to keep a job. That’s one thing
I learned.

[As opening music fades]

ROBERT V. WOLF:  Hi, I’m Rob Wolf,
director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Today I’m at the Dempsy Center on 127th Street with
Taí Alex, who is the project manager of the Harlem Justice Corps. Hi, Taí.

Hi, how are you?

WOLF:  Good, I’m good. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.
I’m here to learn about the Harlem Justice Corps, which combines community service with education for young men who
have some criminal justice involvement. Why don’t you explain to what the program is all about?

Sure, I’d love to. So the Harlem Justice Corps is part of a larger city effort initiated by the Center for Economic
Opportunity, and we actually work in close partnership with the Prisoner Reentry Institute as well. The program is
designed for 18- to 24-year-olds who are recently released from jail, on probation, on parole, or otherwise recently
involved in the criminal justice system. We actually serve both men and women, and our particular program focuses
on residents of the East and Central Harlem community.

So basically they’re with us for about
six months intensively, where they work on community benefit service projects, internships, and then we work to get
them full-time employment. If they do not have their GED they’re also in educational classes on a regular basis,
and if they do have their GED or high school diploma, we connect them with the college initiative, and we assist
them to get enrolled in college courses. And while they’re in the program, they work directly with a life coach who
helps to keep them motivated, to help keep them on track, and hold them accountable to the promises that they made
to themselves and to us when they started the program.

WOLF:  Tell me a little bit about
what they’re actually doing when they have a work project. Can you give me some examples of the kind of work members
have done?

ALEX: Sure. So basically, in the first two to three weeks they’re in orientation phase,
and in the second week of orientation they start doing what’s called community mapping, where they actually go out
into the community with our site supervisors, and they scope out projects. So the site supervisor may have picked
out about five to 10 suggested projects, and the crew members will actually go and research them, meet the folks
at the site, and decide amongst themselves if they’re going to do the project and before the project even begins,
they actually do a presentation to the community advisory board, which is composed of community members who are invested
in the program.

It’s a PowerPoint presentation and a lot of the groups have never done something
like this before, so that’s an added skill that they get experience with. Some of the past projects include working
at the National Black Theater, at Mt. Zion Church. They also did a project a couple months ago at SCAN-LaGuardia,
which is a community service center in East Harlem, and right now they’re working at a day care at a public housing
building in Harlem.

WOLF:  Is it an opportunity for them to learn new skills?

ALEX:  Usually what the site will need assistance with is rehab work—renovations, things like that.
So a lot of times they might need several rooms painted. They might need the floors redone, tiling.

may come in with a lot of experience, and they might teach the other corps members, help teach the other corps members,
along with the site supervisor, or they may come in with no experience at all and they end up learning while they’re
there. But I think that in addition to sort of hard skills that they learn, they’re really focusing on soft skills,
like learning to show up every day on time, stay for the whole day, check in with their supervisor when they can’t
be there, working with a team, staying motivated, things like that that they maybe haven’t had the experience with
in the past. So those are the kind of skills that we’re really promoting. And then while they’re at that site, they
might learn about what services that site has, so in the case of National Black Theater they were invited to go to
theater productions for free by the director there. He actually brought one of our members who were interns later
on, and invited us to come back since to do other work there.

WOLF:  I’m interested –
you mentioned life coaches before. That sounds like an incredible resource for someone who has made some bad decisions
earlier in life and is now trying to get their life back on track. What does a life coach actually do?

ALEX:  So the life coach basically starts working with the corps member even before they enroll
in the program. Before we enroll anybody in the program, we have them fill out an application and they go through
a series of interviews where they get to talk to us about why is it they want to be here. Once they’ve gone through
that process, they’re assigned a life coach and that life coach actually works with them before orientation, to make
sure they’re going to be here, that they’re going to participate. They kind of know everything they need to know
about the program, and they start to develop a very close bond. They’re basically their primary person and the program
really is modeled after that approach, that each member in the program has their primary person, who is their life
coach. So the life coach will, in addition to sitting down with them to kind of think about long-term and short-term
goals, they’ll assist them with anything that comes up. So whether they need assistance getting benefits, whether
they have family issues at home, whether they have child care issues—the life coach will help them with that, to
try to resolve those issues so that they can be at work full time, and be employed and functioning. The life coach
initially was to be a kind of support system and a motivator. They also serve as someone to be helpful and hold accountable.
So you know, it can be a challenge for the corps members to show up every day and to show up on time, so they actually
help to keep them focused, and that is actually something that could include home visits, it could include mediations
with family members and other corps members, whatever it is, and it’s kind of on a case by case basis.

WOLF:  Let’s talk for a moment about context. The Harlem Justice Corps really is part of this movement
that’s emerged over the last 10 years to offer more support to people who are returning from prison, or who’ve been
under criminal justice system supervision. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that, about how that kind of support
and structure benefits someone who’s transitioning back to trying to lead a law-abiding life in the community.

ALEX:  Definitely. I would agree it definitely is part of a larger initiative, nationally and specifically
here in New York City, because there are other programs. So our program is part of the Young Male Initiative through
the Center for Economic Opportunity. They have other programs that kind of focus on this work. We also partner with
the Re-entry Court, which has been involved in this work for many years. I think that the benefits to having a program
available, particularly for young people coming out of prison is that they are more high risk – they tend to be more
high-risk, just by the very nature of their age, and the other kind of problem that I think everyone is seeing is
that if someone is arrested in your community, they get arrested, they come back to the very same community where
they got into trouble, so to speak. The same friends, the same family members, the same underlying issues that perhaps
led them to make that poor decision. If there are no job opportunities and no educational opportunities, there are
limited options for that person to make any positive changes. So programs like this really are essential to providing
a very basic opportunity – employment, education, economic growth in the community are all very fundamentally important
things to help that individual make a positive change.

WOLF:  Can you give me a sense
of the results you’ve seen so far?  I know you haven’t done a formal evaluation yet, but can you give me
a picture about what’s emerged from people who have completed the program?

ALEX:  Definitely.
We do have, so we’ve completed one full year of programming and most of our corps members who graduated are employed
full time, and if they’re not working full time, they’re working with job developers to obtain employment. We also
have members that are enrolled in college, so they’ve been working towards their degrees. We have a corps member
who just recently graduated and passed the GED, and others that are still working on their GED.

Great. And now we’re going speak with two participants in the Harlem Justice Corps, Elijah Blount, and Anthony Brown.
Thanks guys for taking a minute out of your day to speak with me. So Elijah, how long have you been a participant
in the Harlem Justice Corps?

ELIJAH BLOUNT:  I’ve been a participant in the Harlem Justice
Corps for about five weeks, going on six weeks.

WOLF:  Tell me a little bit about your
experience. What have you done so far?

BLOUNT:  My experience—basically it’s all new
to me, so I’ve learned a lot of things about myself, besides about just maintaining and community service. I’m learning
that you know, I’ve got leadership qualities in me that I didn’t see before. I’m learning how everything rolls downhill,
you know, you’ve got to delegate responsibilities. Being responsible—I learned that. I learned that punctuality is
everything, says everything about you and I learned the seriousness of working, because they say it’s hard to get
a job, but now as I’m going through the motions of business, it’s harder to keep a job. That’s one thing I learned.

And basically I’m giving something back to my community I can really see helping. Like the day care center,
for example, the small kids they are getting accustomed to seeing us, so they always say hey, what’s up? 
What are you doing?  Ooh cool, what are you doing?  Pointing that out. So they just, you know it’s
real nice, it’s real cool.

WOLF:  And the day care center, that’s where you’re doing
community service?

BLOUNT:  Yes sir.

WOLF:  And Anthony Brown,
how long have you been in the Justice Corps?

ANTHONY BROWN:  If I’m not mistaken, since
about October 7.

WOLF:  What have you been doing? Tell me a little bit about your experience.

BROWN:  Most of the things I’ve been doing at the current work site, I’ve already known. However
working around a large group of people, and sometimes by myself, has really given me a chance to polish my skills
because I could say that I knew it, but I wasn’t as good at it as I am now. And just being able to work with different
people that I don’t know—like he said, be around those children, it’s really a big difference. We finished one room
already and, you know, just the look on the children’s faces when they ran into that room and saw the difference,
it just made me kind of happy.

WOLF:  Tell me about what this community service consists
of. You’re working at a day care center. What is it you’re doing, exactly?

BROWN:  Basically,
we are renovating all of the rooms, like buffing the floors, stripping them. We’re just bringing the room back to
life, basically. You know if they look clean, look new, you’re going to be in a good mood, fresh jumping, you’re
going to be ready to get everything done.

WOLF:  Do you guys have long term goals yet? 
Do you know where you want to be in a couple of years?

BROWN: Well, right now I think for me it’s
more of a transition stage. I’m in between completing short-term goals that I have in life, and putting my foot through
the door to embark on long-term goals, like receiving my OSHA, going back into college.


BLOUNT:  One of my goals is just to work to the end of this year, you know? 
Get ready for the holiday season. But some of my long-term goals? I’ve got a goal that I want to see myself work
at the Department of Sanitation. And I know working through Harlem Justice Corps is going to help me get my foot
in the door, so I can see one of my short term goals being completed in the next six months.

Great. Well listen guys, you sound great, and I really appreciate you telling me about your experience, so thanks
very much. And thanks, Taí. I really enjoyed learning about the Harlem Justice Corps.

My pleasure. Thank you for coming.

[Closing music]

WOLF:  I’m Rob
Wolf, Director for Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To learn more about the Harlem Justice Corps
or the Center for Court Innovation, visit our website at www.courtinnovation. org where you can listen, also, to
our podcasts, and you can also listen to us on iTunes. Thanks for listening.