When black and brown girls are videotaped beating each other down, the blame game quickly starts. It happened when video of a fight at a Brooklyn McDonald’s went viral. Everyone joins in to accuse and shame: What’s wrong with these girls? Where are their parents? It’s all the Hip Hop and Atlanta housewives foolishness. Vile words condemn their character and culture, and they are ridiculed as beasts and something less than human. Some take a hands-off “those are not my kids” approach, while others gear up to sound alarms, alarms that have been ringing for too long.
When black and brown boys are frisked, kneed, bruised and bloodied by the police, you hear the same refrain: They were probably dealing or smoking or stealing. They should have known better. Didn’t anybody tell them you can’t win against the cops? “Why did they run?” some ask, most recently in the case of Freddie Gray, who dies in police custody in Baltimore.
The blame game is a lose-lose conversation. Black and brown children and young men and women are seen as not children, not whole, not deserving of help but as riotous, unfit for sympathy and unworthy of justice. Often they are not seen as fit to have a say in how they live their lives. They are acted upon instead of given the space to be active in their healing, so they can be the ones to restore their communities and organize for justice.
For two decades, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) has been in the business of ensuring that black and brown youth of New York City not only
survive the streets but also thrive and become the leaders the city and nation need today. We’ve grown from two co-founders and an apartment for office space to owning a West Harlem brownstone with a staff of 30 and plans to expand into a state-of-the-art, out-of-school facility. Our programs are rooted in curriculum and core values of positivity, knowledge, community and future, and a mission to ensure our members develop agency, an ability to read the word and the world, and a drive to become leaders. The lessons and results of the program can be a blueprint for our youth to succeed.
Ninety-four percent of Bro/Sis alumni either graduate from high school or earn their GED; 95 percent are working full time or enrolled in college. The program’s rate of teen pregnancy is less than 2 percent, and no member or graduate of Bro/Sis is incarcerated. As I reflect on the nonprofit’s beginnings and impact over the past 20 years, I cannot help but reflect on what is happening with youth now.
Yes, there is real violence within our community and failures of families, schools and policies to protect young people from harm. What those young people did – the fighting, recorded to shame and entertain – is unacceptable; it warrants consequences but also an opportunity for redemption. Critics pointing to the Brooklyn fight do so without making broader and more significant connections to factors such as racism and poverty that keep families broken and neighborhoods nothing more than zip codes to be demonized. Some point to everything but solutions and rarely what works to positively nurture black and brown youth. No organization or person has THE magical answers, but groups such as Bro/Sis offer not only hope but also a step in the right direction. I am convinced of what is possible having witnessed the results our work has created since 1995.
Our curriculum focuses on 10 areas: Mind, Body and Spirit; Leadership Development; Pan-African and Latina/o History; Sexism and Misogyny; Sexual Education and Responsibility; Drug and Substance Abuse; Conflict Resolution and Bias Reduction; Political Education and Social Justice; Educational Achievement, and Community Service and Responsibility. We provide multi-layered support, education and love to our members while we teach them to have self-discipline and form order so they can exert their own power and live successful lives. We believe our children matter. We charge them with using the skills they already posses and new knowledge learned to be the change that is wanted and needed in the world. The love and guidance that surround our youth comes from a passionate and knowledgeable staff that is relentless in lifting up our members. Half of our staff has themselves come through Bro/Sis programs; they mirror our members’ experiences.
Over the years, Bro/Sis has formed strong partnerships with schools and community institutions that have a youth-centered vision. These partners help form a net for our members to receive academic support, wellness care, legal advice and other services. Through the Rites of Passage programs, youth develop bonds with other teens during a four-to-six year journey to define and embody what it means to be sisters, brothers and leaders.
Whether they are elementary aged or teens, they learn about their history and culture as topics worthy of study and exploration. Uncovering themes in visual art or creating their own original artwork, they showcase their images and collaborate with professional artists. They hone their creative voice through poetry, spoken word and beats. They organize for social change on issues of fair policing – sharing their personal experiences and demanding policy changes, and environmental justice – stewarding the community garden and facilitating a 20-week farmer’s market. In the process, they tap into their imaginations and become life-long learners.
They develop critical thinking, team building and research skills as community organizers, workshop facilitators and landscapers. They spend six months studying countries such as Ghana, Brazil, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and then have a month-long immersion experience. They complete ethnographic reports, facilitate service projects and connect with youth and communities, acknowledging the ties that bind and the distinctions between cultures and experiences.
Bro/Sis creates a safe space so our young people see themselves in each other, lift each other up, and work toward lifting up their communities.
Whether they struggle to pass Regents or are bound for Hostos, Hampton or Harvard, they are honored and respected. Black and brown youth do not need empty instructions to stop twerking, pull up their pants or speak Standard English. Giving such directives are evidence of the disconnect from the realities of today’s youth (and amnesia about our rebellious, creative and tumultuous back-in-the-days). Black and brown youth should be able to be themselves, make mistakes and take responsibility, speak truth to power, and create new possibilities.
The work that must be done is complicated and long-term but it is work worth doing. If we do it right, we will have a continuous wave of change agents creating transformation that is measurable. We cannot take a hands-off approach or move forward excluding these young people from creating solutions. We need all hands on deck. And to achieve that goal, young people must be exposed to what is worth fighting for and the tools to fight effectively.
(Cidra M. Sebastien is the Associate Executive Director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a mentor, an auntie, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.)