Brooklyn might not look the same as it did back in the 1970s, when Robert DeSana started teaching at John Dewey High School in Bensonhurst. But underneath the coffee shops, loft spaces and trendy restaurants lies some of the same problems that plagued the area decades ago. Gangs are still the way of life for far too many youths born and raised in New York communities. Racial tensions still run high. And drug dealers still stake their claim to street corners. To DeSana, this is no way to live, so for almost 40 years, he’s been showing youths and adults alike that there is another way through the Council for Unity.
The CFU is a nonprofit that empowers youth to take ownership of the problems of bias and violence that exist in their schools and communities. The program, which includes a specific curriculum developed by DeSana and approved by the NYC Board of education in the 1980s, is centered on “Four Pillars”: family, unity, self-esteem and empowerment. The idea is to build a culture of acceptance, in which students from varying backgrounds can grow to understand and support each other to eradicate violence. So far, the program been a success. CFU reaches more than 100,000 kids a year, ranging from 8 to 20 years old, throughout 30 schools in the New York City area and beyond. More than 93 percent of attendees eventually graduate from the program. “If 93 percent of them are graduating, that tells you one thing: The street is not winning, we are,” DeSana told TruthAtlas.
When DeSana started the Council in 1975, he designed it as a way to unite opposing groups to prevent violence in school. That sense of peace ended up expanding into the surrounding community, and he was eventually asked to replicate the group at schools that faced similar challenges. From there, CFU just continued to grow. “It started as a club. Then, it became a program, then a course, then a culture,” DeSana said. “Now, it has become a movement.” In addition to New York schools, the Council has taken up residency in various prisons in the area, including Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security institution in Ossining, New York, and the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead. Here, prisoners from rival gangs can find a common ground and a safe haven. “The founders of CFU in the Suffolk County jail were members and leaders of the Crips, the Bloods, MS-13, the Latin Kings, and the Aryan Brotherhood,” DeSana said. “That is an impossibility. That had never occurred before.” DeSana hopes he can prevent at-risk youths from becoming criminals in by offering them a community where they feel safe and secure, without the violence.