Everyday I work with young people at Youth Force, a South Bronx-based center that supports youth organizing and advocacy. On a recent morning, looking out the window from my desk onto Jackson Avenue, I saw a young girl standing on the corner suggestively. To see prostitution on a street like Jackson, with its abandoned buildings and warehouses, is not unusual. What was rare was to see a young woman out there who didn't look beat down, who didn't appear to be ravaged by drugs and disease, who still looked beautiful and bright-eyed and hopeful.
Her name is Brenda, she's seventeen, and the mother of a baby with another on the way. She's married. In many ways, she reflects the spirit of this neighborhood. The poorest congressional district in the nation, Mott Haven–like Brenda–is struggling to survive.
Seeing her took me back. Growing up in L.A. on the West Coast–a.k.a. the Stress Coast–we made up life as it came. Aside from parents and police, there wasn't much else in the way of adult support. Occasionally, we had coaches or teachers we could relate to. But for the most part, income, acceptance and sex education came by way of Street University. So when I came to New York in 1984 at the age of 19, I was blown away by all the youth programs here. It seemed like there was something positive for youth on every block. It wasn't surprising to me that youth crime rates in LA were so much higher. Here was a city that clearly loved its young people.
But increasingly, I wonder what our city has to offer youth like Brenda. Just as New Yorkers clutch bags and cross streets to avoid young people, too many of us stood by quietly over the past three years as city programs for young people like the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council and the Youth Human Rights Commission were eliminated and city education spending was radically reduced. So many New Yorkers did nothing as hundreds of nonprofit youth programs closed their doors–the casualties of budget cuts.
Imagine the contributions of such programs to even one New York family:
In January, five-year-old Lucin Amanda Rosario was on the front pages of New York's daily newspapers. Sitting in her bedroom in the St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem, Amanda was hit by a stray bullet. At Youth Force, we knew of Amanda not through the papers, but because her aunt, 19-year-old Marangely Sanchez, is a tenant organizer here. The papers reported on the crime, concentrating on forensics and police reports. What went unreported were the daily heroics and compassion of two youth programs who came to the support of Amanda's family.
In the South Bronx, Marangely had been a member of the East Side House Settlement's Project High Road since she was in junior high school. They helped her to conquer her stuttering, obtain her GED, survive the death of her father and enroll in college. When little Amanda was shot, the program's staff and participants were at Marangely's side providing emotional sup-port and around-the-clock babysitting for Amanda's sisters so the child's family could be at the hospital.
In Central Harlem, Amanda has been a member of the Motivation Room, an after-school program run by the Rheedlan Foundation at PS 207. The program organized regular trips to the hospital to support Amanda's mother, helped with the family's financial needs and organized a community celebration of life to welcome Amanda home.
Since 1994, the New York City Department of Youth Services (which was recently merged with the Community Development Agency to create the Department of Youth and Community Development) has been cut by over $29 million-nearly half its budget. These cuts meant multiple losses for young people: tutoring, recreation, summer jobs and college preparation were eliminated for many of them with one blow. This month 600 students and their families at IS 183 in Harlem are trying to imagine life without High Road. By the time you read this, High Road may be a memory: it is closing its doors on May 30.
So what does the future hold for Brenda, Marangely and Amanda? New York City spends as much as $88,000 a year to detain a young person awaiting trial. A youth center that provides the same young person recreational, educational and cultural activities after school and on weekends costs $350 to $1000 per year per youth. For the last two decades, Los Angeles chose police and prison as its youth development strategy. But the blood of LA's youth continued to flow. Now LA looks to New York for what to do with its young people. Of course LA wants to know about summer jobs and afterschool programs. Will New York have anything to show?
For our immediate future, all New Yorkers should call Mayor Giuliani and urge him to support the proposal made by the Emergency Campaign to Restore Youth Programs for a $25 million increase in this year's budget for youth services.
For today, Youth Force organizers–themselves 16 and 17–went outside to connect with Brenda, to talk to her about job opportunities, the young prostitute on Jackson Avenue, to offer a sandwich. Tomorrow, if she needs someone to talk to, a bit to eat, a different job, a way to get back to school, or day care for her children, we'll be here again.
Kim McGillicuddy is a community organizer with Youth Force in the South Bronx.