Person – Role – System

pexels-photo-261621In 2014, legislation was passed in Kentucky to reform the juvenile justice system.  Shortly after its passage, I accepted a job that put me in charge of enacting that new legislation for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice.   I had been looking forward to the ceremonial bill signing with the Governor for weeks.  It was such an exciting thing to get to be part of, an opportunity that the little girl in me, never would have believed would have been true.  Girls who come from where I do, don’t do this sort of thing.

When I woke up, on the day of that event, the excitement I felt only days before had been completely quelled by reality.  I was going to a ceremonial bill signing of legislation to reform the juvenile justice system, while my brother was wanted for robbery; his picture having been splashed all over the news for days.

If there is a more fitting definition of irony I can’t begin to imagine what it might be.

I was in a meeting, only two days before, discussing assessment tools when I found out.  My phone buzzed on the table alerting me that I had a message.  I waited until there was a lull in the conversation and then mindlessly picked up my phone to see who had issued the electronic summons.  My heart sank immediately when I saw the words.

“Have you seen the news?” A simple question followed by an attached video.

man-coffee-cup-penI debated momentarily before opening it.  It was never good when people sent me those words.  It was never good when those words were followed by a video.  It was never good because it always meant that some child that I had known through my years of system work had died…or had done something unthinkable…or had been the victim of something unthinkable.   It happened so frequently that I caught myself wondering which child it might be, silently bargaining, even, about which one I might be willing to spare.  I muted my phone and hit play.  Right there in the room. Right there in the middle of the important work that I was doing.  I hit play because I couldn’t not know what or who it was.

My heart was beating out of my chest, as I sat there feeling like a little girl again, helplessly waiting for that video to buffer.  As the video was buffering I could feel something inside me start to spool.

For just a moment I was back in that old dirty trailer that we called home.  The silence that happened just before the yelling was worse than the yelling itself.  The silence that happened just before the throwing of plates or the punching of walls was far more painful than any violence I ever witnessed or encountered.

“What is taking so long?” I cussed and brooded, trying to clear my heart from my throat; the pain in my stomach growing stronger by the second.

The anticipation of the thing is always so much worse than the thing.
I felt relief wash over me as the video finally began after what seemed like a lifetime.  In an instant, there he was.  My brother’s face right on the screen as plain as the last time he sat next to me.  Though admittedly, I couldn’t remember how long ago that had been.  Scrawled under his face were the words, “Suspect in Robbery.  If you have information please call, blah, blah, blah.”

I quit reading.  I thanked God that it wasn’t a child I’d worked with and that it was only my brother.   I would have to later contend with how I was going to have this conversation with my mother.  She is devastated every single time.  The sound of a question pulled me back to the room away from the reality of the world from which I come.  The world I long ago escaped that sometimes intrudes and runs parallel to the one I carefully crafted for myself.

I was as thankful for the question as anything I can ever remember.  I quickly jumped back in role.  I’m good in role.  It doesn’t come with all the softness that my person brings to the table.  So, I put my feelings aside and focused on the task at hand.  We had assessment tools to create.  We had a juvenile justice system to reform.  No time to be worrying about this now 3rd time felon who would undoubtedly be returning to prison a 5th time. (He had committed three actual offenses yet had been returned twice for parole violations.)

Had we grown up today, I feel certain, my brother and I both would have been filtered into some child serving system.  I mean the evidence of the need for intervention is right there, in his behavior and my memories. I went to work in the system as a way for me to support children the way teachers and coaches had done for me.  As a way to keep others from turning out like my brother.  At the time, I held this mental model that systems save children.  By proxy, didn’t that mean that I would save children?

The longer I did reform pexels-photo-533189work, the more I learned.  The more I learned the more I began to question what I had initially believed with the whole of my heart.   If systems save children why then did so many exit those systems and die? Why did so many go on to be homeless?  Why did so many go on to live out their lives much like my brother, convicted of crimes and in and out of prison?

The research is clear that the side effects of system involvement have long lasting impacts on children, families, and communities.

For eight years, researchers have followed about 600 young adults who aged out of the child welfare systems in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. The report finds that at age 23 and 24, former foster youth are more likely than their peers to be:

Unemployed — Less than half were employed.

Homeless — Almost 25 percent had been homeless since exiting foster care.

Pregnant — More than 75 percent of young women had been pregnant since leaving foster care.

Convicted of a crime — Nearly 60 percent of young men had been convicted of a crime, and more than 80 percent had been arrested.

Uneducated — Only 6 percent had a 2- or 4-year degree.1pexels-photo-690800

The Quarterly Journal of Economics, “Juvenile Incarceration, Human Capital and Future Crime: Evidence from Randomly Assigned Judges, paper — authored by Brown University’s Anna Aizer and MIT’s Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. which analyzed 10 years of data on approximately 35,000 juvenile offenders in Chicago found that juvenile incarceration decreases the chances of high school graduation by 13 to 39 percent. While it increases the chances of incarceration as an adult by 23 to 41 percent.2

Holy goodness, I didn’t sign up for that.  It is an unthinkable kind of pain to learn that the very thing you thought was helping, might actually be causing harm.  Inevitably, I fled after 20 long years.  I landed at Urban Strategies in February of 2017 looking to finally begin the work I had hoped to be doing all along.

As the Southern Regional Director at Urban Strategies, I get to contribute to measurable results that keep families at the center.  Central to Urban’s mission, work is done every day to effectuate change in the very place that can make the biggest impact, within the community itself.  Serving 30,000 families which equates to roughly 100,000 individuals, Urban Strategies works in 12 unique communities across 12 major metropolitan areas.  We have expertise leading Hope IV, Choice Neighborhood and human capital projects creating sustainable change in resilient communities saturated in unrecognized and untreated complex trauma.

I am proud to say that from 2013 – 2017, Urban Strategies utilized Public Safety US_logo_400x400Enhancement grants to supplement our community development work within Alice Griffith in San Francisco and Bienville Basin in New Orleans.  These efforts focused on assisting residents with education and school connection, employment, housing stability, correcting literacy issues, connecting individuals to pro-social activities and persons, disrupting harmful cognition, and empowering youth and adults to pro-socially be part of change within their own communities.  In addition, both sites put a heavy focus on supported re-entry for individuals returning from incarceration. Our approach was based off the research by Andrews and Bonta (2010)3 identifying the Central Eight criminogenic needs that put individuals at-risk of criminal behavior. The payoff of this work has been a 22% decrease of Part 1 Crimes in Alice Griffith in 2016 and a decrease in overall crime in Bienville Basin in 2017 by 29%.

My person is no longer hiding out in role drowning in a sinking system.   She is knee-deep in the work, proud of the difference made.  And for the first time, in a long time, with the whole of her heart, she knows that it is right.

About the Author:  Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Family Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…

References

  1. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125594259
  2. http://org/studies/government/criminal-justice/juvenile-incarceration-long-term-consequences
  3. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1017929.pdf

 

Of Pride and Shame

They are disruptors.

Disrupting status quo.  Disrupting systemic inequities.  Disrupting mental models that create conditions for those first two things to persist.

Alfonzo, Leensa, and Maya are the youth leaders of the Green Garden Bakery (GGB).  GGB is a youth run, green business selling vegetable-based desserts to the Minneapolis and Heritage Park community.

14374180-1184272284928901-7981714549407481856-n_origIn 2014, after participating in gardening and cooking classes through Urban Strategies’ work in the community, the youth decided they wanted to turn their new skills into a business. A business where they grew the product, developed the recipe, developed the branding, and managed the retail aspect for distribution and sales.  To top things off, the youth developed environmentally friendly packaging to support their responsibility for taking care of mother Earth.

Their financial model is as incredible as the teens themselves; one third reinvested back into their business, one third paid to themselves, and one third invested into their community through charitable contribution.  Since their business model is based upon this notion of thirds, it is only fitting that during my conversation with them, I readily identified a whole other division of thirds these remarkable teens address in the way they approach their work.

13925042-1085557974866266-1611052900780157809-n_origAs the Chief Financial Officer, Leensa is among a very low number of females who dare veer into finance.  In fact, as she recently learned from her own research, women make up only 10% of CFOs in all businesses.  Leensa shared that she is the only female and the only African American in her computer coding class.  A clear indicator of how our educational experiences can mirror where we see ourselves in the workforce.  She goes on to say that “Women believe they are not capable.  It comes from society, TV, stereotypes, because you are black and a woman, there is no one else like you in the field.”

Alfonzo identified that he is aware of how he and others like him are classified by society.  “Young black males are not seen as being interested in business.  People assume that we are in the streets.”  This is a matter of truth that he is confronted with on a daily basis. His role of Chief Executive Officer fundamentally challenges this wrongly labeled narrative.  GGB has 100+ youth from the local community enrolled in a youth development program that supports the business.  This program provides out-of-school time activities and teaches gardening, baking, and the ins and outs of developing and running a business.

Maya, Entrepreneurship Chair, believes that she has benefitted from having the experience to learn the importance of networking.  “It has given us a resume; more specialized skills.  For young African Americans often people don’t open up that door [for networking].”

Though the disruption of gender and racial stereotypes was not included as a part of their official business plan. There is no discounting that they have helped construct a door to that very opportunity for themselves and other children in their community.

Heritage Park is one of many food deserts in this country.  “Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” (1)7137098_orig  “The United States Department of Agriculture reports that about 23.5 million Americans currently live in food deserts, including 6.5 million children. Typically, food deserts are defined by: 1) the lack or absence of large grocery stores and supermarkets that sell fresh produce and healthy food options; and 2) low-income populations living on tight budgets. These food deserts are also signified by high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in the community, which result from residents buying their food from corner stores that sell processed foods, and plentiful fast food options.” (2)

GGB has taken on this issue by including as part of their business model, the planting and harvesting of fresh fruits and vegetables which are included in all of their products.  Few people consider how the geographic location of where you grow up influences the healthful food options available. It is shocking that a country with vast accumulated wealth, would have geographical regions that lack access to healthy food. This condition continues to be a real issue.  Most especially in impoverished communities like Heritage Park.

As part of our work for the last 40 years in distressed urban communities, Urban Strategies has focused work around increasing economic mobility and self-sufficiency.  It has become increasingly obvious that simply connecting people to work is not the complete answer.  We must be intentional in including wealth building opportunities into our community work.  These opportunities coupled with increased employment will begin to close the wealth gap that exists in communities of color.  It would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today, if average black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades.” (3)

It is easy to see how this plays out in Heritage Park where the average annual income is $20,267 and the median income is $16,887.  GGB has paved the way for others in their community and communities like their own to see entrepreneurship as a legitimatHeritageParke option to wealth building.  Contributing to the wealth gap that exists along racial divides is the lack of minority run businesses. As Dr. Claude Anderson notes, “In 1860, 99% of all Black people worked for Whites. Today, 98% of all Black people work for Whites. You are enjoying a social illusion because you go to someone else’s restaurant, but you don’t own the restaurant yourself.” (4). 

GGB youth leaders identified opportunity, networking and skill development as a key roles for their success. GGB is doing its fair share to help other youth realize the potential that exists within themselves and their communities.  They are operationalizing how entrepreneurship can change the game in wealth attainment and opportunity.  Recently, Urban Strategies hosted a youth retreat in Florida.  This brought together the youth leadership group from GGB and Miami’s Northpark development.  Here GGB leaders shared how they were able to turn their skill set into a thriving business.

Of this experience, Alfonzo said, “It is a way for us to impact other kids by showing them that they can make something happen on their own.  A way to show them that their output depends on what they do.”

A store front.  A corporate sponsor.  A legacy.

NBA_Minnesota
Green Garden Bakery youth show 2016 Minnesota Timberwolves Rookie Kris Dunn their social enterprise.

Not your ordinary responses from teenagers about what they have set as goals that they want to achieve before they graduate from high school.  One conversation with Alfonzo, Maya, and Leensa easily showcases that they are extraordinary.  Perhaps, the most “extra” part about them is the masterful way in which they work the soil.  Not only do they prepare the soil to grow the produce for their products, they also till the soil in other communities to encourage their wealth building opportunities.

The fact that in 2017, we have young people acknowledging and actively confronting the inequities in America brings an incredible source of pride.  Conversely, the mere fact America has yet to provide a solution for these same inequities brings an incredible source of shame.

Support Green Garden Bakery here:  https://greengardenbakery.weebly.com/

About the Author:  Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…

References

  1. http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-deserts
  2. https://newsone.com/1540235/americas-worst-9-urban. -food-deserts/
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2016/10/05/how-to-close-americas-wealth-gap/#7e8df3f5a873
  4. https://www.jetmag.com/life/college-advice-business/

 

Because Of, Not Despite.

Urban Strategies, Inc uses real-life stories to connect the reader to our revitalizing work.

His math lesson in “less than” didn’t come from a well-worn book.

It came from an early understanding of the mental models people hold about people like him; people on food stamps, people living in public housing, people accessing public benefits in any way.  Its why, growing up, he felt the need to keep those things a secret.  Even from his closest of friends.

man-person-school-head

Looking at Donovan Duncan today, you would never be able to guess the challenges he faced in his childhood.  He is a graduate of the University of Akron with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Finance and The Cleveland State University with a masters in Organization Development. As the Senior Vice President at Urban Strategies, Inc. he has a range of leadership responsibilities.  Among those is oversight of program operations in the 29 distressed communities where Urban Strategies does its work.  Communities just like the one where he grew up.  In fact, when I asked him, he offered very directly, “I am no different than the families we serve every single day.”

His mother gave birth to him at the age of 18.  He is her second child.   Though he is the second in birth order, he was the only one of her 4 children who never lived with her.  His first exposure to fractions.  Instead, he lived his entire childhood with his maternal grandmother.  Unlike Donovan, his grandmother never had the luxury of graduating from high school so it was something that she demanded of him.  At the tender age of 11, she couldn’t spare the time.  She had to get on with the business her parent’s early death prevented them from completing; raising herself and her siblings.   This is why his grandmother stressed to him, the importance of graduating from high school.  Though she worked hard all her life, the jobs that she could get with less than a high school education, meant the home that she could afford for the two of them was one in public housing.

Thankfully, his grandmother also intuitively understood that all educational opportunities are not created equal.  She knew that in order for him to thrive, she had to find a quality educational setting that wouldn’t water down his ambition.  For that reason, she enrolled him in a Catholic school outside the neighborhood.  She may never have known how truly on the mark she was with that decision.  “Only 60% of children who attend urban schools graduate.  Only 40% of those who graduate read at a 4th grade level.” (1)calculator-paperclip-pen-office-66862

She wanted him to understand that a good quality education and a high school diploma were the path to the “greater than” that he deserved.

The rise in incarceration that has come to be known as mass imprisonment began in 1973. (2)  Donovan’s father was part of the growing number of African American men who spend some part of their lives under correctional control.  Despite being approximately 14% of the American population, African American’s are 34% of the total 6.8 million correctional population. (3)  His father was incarcerated before he was ever born and remained incarcerated for the majority of his life.  With such startling statistics, you don’t have to be a math major to figure out early how heavily the odds are stacked against you.

Donovan could have easily embraced those odds and let them defeat him.  Instead, his grandmother had a different plan.   She instilled in him a strong work ethic and an impenetrable narrative.  She reminded him regularly that he is not special despite the adversity he faced, he is special because of it.  There is so much to be said for the power of one. One person with hope and vision can absolutely change the world.  Though, his grandmother was not the only positive influence he had in his corner.  In fact, he learned the importance of multiplication as he experienced the love she had for him multiplied by the love of a strong, supportive group of people who would see him through college.

pexels-photo-264636Donovan got his first job at the age of 8 years old bagging groceries at the corner market. True to form, by the age of 10 he was working the cash register.  Not only did he find work at that corner market, more importantly, he found a village of adults willing to hold him steady.  So steady in fact, that by the age of 14, he received an internship at the Cuyahoga Metro Housing Authority (CMHA).  He continued at that internship through college and later went on to be employed there as the Director of Development and Operations. He credits both the people and the opportunities available to him for his success.  He also found at the housing authority more people to add to his support system.

“It was a village of individuals, rooting for me to be successful,” he recalls.  “They bought me books.  They took me to school when I had no other way.  They were some of my biggest influences…the people that started me believing I could be successful. ”

On his left forearm is a tattoo of a quote that his grandmother repeated to him over and over again growing up:  “When you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.”  He holds the belief that it is his purpose to open the same opportunities for others that were afforded to him.  It is no coincidence that part of his destiny includes providing results based leadership at Urban Strategies, Inc.  As was destined, our mission closely aligns with his stated purpose.

These days he can be found rattling off numbers from six different line items in a budget and totaling them in his head before others can even get them on paper.  It’s no wonder Donovan Duncan is great at math; in many ways, his life depended on it.  Counter to the widely held belief, bootstraps are not the answer to the problems plaguing our children today.  His life is proof that when you start with a strong narrative, add in support, multiply with opportunity, and add in a good solid education, the sum of that equation creates infinite possibility.

My optimistic side basks in the glow of what the world might look like if we provided children across all communities with this same kind of opportunity and support.  The pessimist, on the other hand, can’t help but wonder why we haven’t done this already. But the realist in me, as painful as it is, well she already knows the answer.

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Demographics of Families involved in Case Management with Urban Strategies, Inc.

 

Because of Not Despite Visuals - FINAL-page-001

About the Author:  Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…

 

References

  1. Hernandez, Donald J. (2011) Double Jeopardy: How third grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation via aecf.org/m/resoursedoc/AECF-DoubleJeopardy-2012-Full.pdf
  2. http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justi
    ce-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/
  3. naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/