Step inside a library and you expect to check out novels, mysteries and maybe a DVD or two. But at the New York Public Library, you can leave with a briefcase, tie and handbag. Michelle Lee, a young adult librarian, was helping individuals work on resumes, cover letters and job applications when she noticed that many of them also needed access to professional interview attire. “Some teens were surprised by the idea that they had to wear professional attire,” Lee told NationSwell. So she proposed an idea for a ‘fashion library’ and started NYPL’s Grow Up program, where cardholders — who owe less than $15 in fines — can check out professional accessories, like ties and bags, at the Riverside Library branch. NYPL isn’t alone in its efforts to provide sartorial support to job seekers. A handful of other libraries, like the Queens Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia, have launched similar programs for cardholders to check out professional attire. Watch to learn more. More:Looking for Housing or Affordable Healthcare? Your Local Library Is Here to Help
Though San Jose, California, sits directly in the heart of Silicon Valley, many of the city’s residents don’t have access to the internet. In one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S., more than 100,000 people — including 50% of residents with incomes under $35,000 — are unable to get online. Finding a solution to that stark disparity was what San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and his chief innovation officer, Shireen Santosam, had in mind when they hired Dolan Beckel, an executive fellow with the nonprofit FUSE, in 2016. Now, as the director of the Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy, Beckel is working to create a sustainable model that expands connectivity and digital services across San Jose. As internet access increasingly becomes a universal need, Beckel hopes to see cities shift to models like that in Finland — reportedly the first country in the world to declare broadband access a legal right for every citizen. “I want to live in a world where the internet is considered a utility just like water and electricity,” Beckel said. “In 2019, it’s just as important for our well-being.” Over the last three years, Beckel and his team have worked with the mayor’s office to understand the systemic changes necessary for tackling such a complex issue. Here are four lessons they’ve learned.
1. THINK LIKE AN ENTREPRENEUR
Beckel and the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation knew that in order to create sustainable programs for addressing the digital divide the city needed money. So Beckel did what any smart Silicon Valley entrepreneur would — he identified a need and crafted a deal to fill it. To implement 5G, which provides faster and better digital connectivity, telecommunications companies have been installing compact antennas called “small cells.” But to work, small cells must be situated at high levels with access to electrical power, and the more cells there are, the more consistent the service they provide. The solution? City light poles, the ideal spot to hold small cells. San Jose’s existing workhorse utilities instantly became the most valuable asset the city had to offer telecom companies. Beckel’s team took the idea to local telecoms and negotiated an agreement to generate income from the city’s existing infrastructure, offering to lease the light poles at a market-based rate in return for guaranteed fast and consistent service. To speed up the process, San Jose used the fees to put in place a team dedicated to installation. The remainder of the expected income, estimated at $24 million over the next 10 years, will go into what San Jose calls its Digital Inclusion Fund. Created by Mayor Liccardo, the fund will be used to bring connectivity, devices and digital literacy to 50,000 underserved households, effectively closing the digital divide for these residents. Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness believes the efficiency of the process will potentially save the telecoms millions. “Rather than these companies having to go through thousands of negotiations on each small cell they installed, our offer allowed them to negotiate all at once,” he said. These deals have also led to what the city says is the largest small-cell implementation in the country. In 2017, before the project had taken off, San Jose had only managed to create permits for five small cells across the city. These days, Harkness said the city permits around 30 small cells a week.
2. COMMIT EVERY PENNY TO THE STATED GOALS
While most cities place revenue from private deals into a general fund, every penny of the estimated $24 million from the telecom agreements will go into the Digital Inclusion Fund to support citywide programming that addresses the digital divide. San Jose claims it’s the first city in the country to specifically restrict revenue for these purposes. “In other cities, that revenue goes into a general citywide fund and then kind of disappears,” Beckel said. “Residents hope that city leaders do good things with it, but there’s no data-driven plan with accountability of ensuring those funds go toward a specific initiative. The Digital Inclusion Fund radically transformed that.”
3. LISTEN TO — AND WORK WITH — THE COMMUNITY
After approving the fund, the city began to consider how it might spend the monies. But when Beckel’s team surveyed residents about their opinions on citywide digital-inclusion initiatives, many expressed concerns about government involvement. With a large immigrant population — almost 40% of San Jose’s residents were born in other countries — people reported feeling afraid that the government would look into their immigration status. Others expressed what Beckel referred to as a “Big Brother” fear that anything related to technology and the government would lead to increased surveillance and an overall loss in privacy. Listening to their concerns, the city decided to take a different approach to offering new services. Rather than providing those services itself, San Jose is partnering with nonprofits and other organizations that already have a track record of community trust, giving them funds but letting them determine community needs and handle operations. This February, for example, the San Jose City Council approved a partnership with California Emerging Technology Fund, a statewide nonprofit with a singular mission of closing the digital divide. Some of the initiatives that CETF is developing include expanding library programs that allow people to borrow digital devices such as iPads; increasing the number of free community courses on how to use various technologies; offering more Wi-Fi hotspots near public schools that lack connectivity; and adding after-school coding classes. Programs are slated to begin this fall. “I think the city was good at acknowledging what we didn’t know and admitting that it wasn’t our core competency to run a social justice program,” Beckel said. “And we realized that from a trust perspective, it’s sometimes better for the city to fund the programs but not be the face of them.”
4. GET READY FOR A LONG HAUL
Though Beckel’s team has made crucial steps toward improving digital inclusion, Beckel worries that future federal and state legislation will constrain the city’s initiatives. Just this May, the Federal Communications Commission issued a ruling that threatens city authority over 5G infrastructure deployment. Mayor Liccardo has partnered with other civic leaders to endorse federal legislation that would overturn it. “I think there is an overreach of the FCC, which is focusing on the needs of the private sector instead of the needs of the public,” Beckel said. As legislation keeps changing, it’s unclear whether the city’s Digital Inclusion Fund and the steady stream of funding it created will survive. But when Beckel began this work, he knew that it would require a long-term commitment. “Digital inclusion cannot be achieved with just one program that we implement in a year and then be done,” he said. “We knew that this was going to require more systemic change.”
This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.
For nearly a century, Winston-Salem, N.C. was a major hub of tobacco manufacturing. It was home to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which employed nearly 30,000 of the city’s residents at the height of its operations in the late 1950s. But as the decades wore on, Winston-Salem’s economy began to falter. Years of medical research about the dangers of smoking had taken its toll on the tobacco industry, and the city’s traditional manufacturing base began to dissipate. By the end of the 1980s, Winston-Salem had lost close to 10,000 jobs across multiple sectors, while R.J. Reynolds downsized the majority of its local workforce by 1989. “Everything had been going so well,” says Gayle Anderson, former president and CEO of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. “We really didn’t feel the need to import any businesses or import talent.” But they don’t call Winston-Salem the City of Arts and Innovation for nothing. Since the late ’80s, Winston-Salem has revolutionized its stagnant economy with support from local business, educational institutions and emerging artists. In 1992, the Chamber of Commerce teamed up with nearby Wake Forest University to begin renovating the abandoned R.J. Reynolds factories in its downtown district, now a thriving research and business park. Dubbed the Innovation Quarter, it is a 330-acre space that employs 3,700 people and houses 170 companies and five academic institutions. There’s been a rebirth of the city’s arts community, too. Spearheaded by local developers like John Bryan, the city’s once-vacant downtown transformed into a cornucopia of artisan shops, restaurants, breweries and even a Muay Thai studio. Despite these positive developments, Winston-Salem isn’t without its troubles. A 2017 study by Winston-Salem State University found the city and surrounding Forsyth County ranked third-to-last out of a total of 2,478 U.S. counties in terms of economic mobility, and many of the residents most directly impacted by a lack of economic opportunity are African-American. This inspired Goler Community Development Corporation, a local urban real-estate nonprofit, to get involved, helping ensure all residents enjoy a share of the city’s recent success. “When you concentrate poverty on a particular part of town, you’re not going to have great outcomes,” says Michael Suggs, president of Goler CDC. “In order to have a sustainable community, you need these different incomes together.” Watch the full documentary above to see how Winston-Salem rallied its citizens to shape the future of its economy.
Michelle Lee was in the middle of a job-hunting workshop when the subject of wardrobe came up. “I was talking about work fashion, and one teen said that he didn’t have any clothing [suitable] for job interviews,” Lee told NationSwell. “And some teens were surprised by the idea that they had to wear professional attire” when interviewing for jobs. Lee was taken aback by their comments. As the young adult librarian at the Riverside branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), Lee coaches local students on how to write resumes, practice for interviews and learn the skills they’ll need to join the workforce. But this was the first time Lee had thought about their attire and the importance of dressing for success. It sparked an idea: What if the library could be a place where job seekers of any age could borrow the accessories they might need in order to impress a potential future boss?
As libraries expand beyond books and become hubs for arts, technology and social services, they are now providing sartorial support. NYPL’s Grand Central branch gives referrals for organizations that provide professional clothing for work or a job interview, as part of a program run by the economic empowerment nonprofit Single Stop. And the Queens Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia both have tie-lending programs. So Lee submitted a proposal for a “fashion library” to NYPL’s Innovation Project, which provides funding and support for library staffers to pitch ideas for creative programs and solutions services for clientele. Lee ended up winning a grant to launch NYPL Grow Up as a pilot program at Riverside. Grow Up combines an attire rental service with a new series of “adulting” workshops that cover workplace fashion as well as budgeting, healthy living and other life skills. Grow Up’s library features a range of neckties, briefcases and handbags that patrons can rent for up to three weeks. All they need is a library card (with less than $15 in fines attached to it). Grow Up even offers bow ties if interviewees are in need of something formal. “They can use it for a school performance or prom if they want,” Lee told the Washington Post. Grow Up has already seen some success, particularly among female job seekers who report that the handbags are not only stylish and useful, but also practical: “You can put a lot of stuff in there,” one renter said. If you would like to contribute to the program, the Riverside Library accepts donations of work-appropriate handbags, briefcases and ties during normal business hours.
When Carmen Rodriguez was two years old, his grandmother would put him in a makeshift baby carrier and take him into the fields as she picked produce. Growing up, he traveled from Chicago to Texas, North Dakota and California with his migrant farmworker family, picking melons, potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and corn. The first meal he ever cooked was bean and cheese burritos, strapped to the radiator of the family car to keep them warm.
His home base was a rough neighborhood in Chicago, and as the only boy in the family, there was no one to protect him from the gangs. When he was eight years old, a l4-year-old boy was being forced to jump into a Latin gang and, as a rite of passage, “had to beat the crap out of the first kid he saw. I was that kid,” Rodriguez says. His survival instincts kicked in, and instead he beat up the older kid. The gang recruited him that day. He ran away from home at 13 and lived on the streets of Chicago. He ran packages for the gang, broke into homes for the gang, robbed people on the street and sold drugs for the gang. But after a dressing-down by the local police, he decided to get a job. He started washing dishes at an Italian restaurant, lying about his age. One day, one of the line cooks didn’t show for his shift. Rodriguez decided to help the line and “when the chef came into the kitchen and saw that I was on his line cooking his food, he grabbed the dish that I had just cooked, shrimp scampi, and launched the dish, bowl and all, against the furthest wall in the kitchen. Chef then grabbed me by the back of my neck and screamed in my face, ‘I pay you to wash fucking dishes, not fuck up my food!’ “When I told this to my gang friends, they wanted to burn down his restaurant. I think this is when it hit me that what I was doing with the gang was not going to get me anywhere, so I convinced them that it wasn’t worth our time. I returned to work the next day, and started cleaning and washing dishes. Chef got there and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Guess you’re not a punk.’ He took me under his wing and taught me all about the business of restaurants. Chef passed away five years ago, and I learned that he had tasted my shrimp scampi, and that’s how he knew that I was not a punk.” Rodriguez worked his way up from line cook to kitchen manager to sous chef to executive chef. His credits include some of the top restaurants in Santa Barbara, Tampa, Palm Springs, and Santa Fe, where he now lives. In 2012, he was named the New Mexico Chef of the Year, awarded by the New Mexico Restaurant Association. Two years ago, Rodriguez was contacted by Labor Of Love, which promotes and celebrates the 50,000 largely invisible and unrecognized migrant farmworkers in Yuma, Arizona, by performing “random acts of kindness” like delivering boxes with Thanksgiving dinner and supplying them with blankets and cushions. As Rodriguez delivered 500 gourmet meals to the farmworkers, “the memories of when I was a young boy working in the fields started to creep back into my mind,” he says. “I saw my grandparents sitting around on their breaks and talking about the food we were picking, and how one day we’d be out of work. Then I heard my grandfather say eso nunca va pasar: “Our people will always be in the fields.” The past suddenly slammed into the present and the future, and I knew that I had to give back, to help kids who were lost and troubled and in survival mode like I had been.”
Back in Santa Fe, he and his wife, Penny, had worked tangentially with YouthWorks, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit for at-risk kids. Last year, Rodriguez sat down with Melynn Schuyler, YouthWorks’ executive director, to discuss a brewing crisis: 1,500 young people turn l9 in Santa Fe every year, and over 40 percent of them never graduate from high school, making it difficult for them to land regular employment. Because of the high price of rentals, thousands of them are effectively homeless. Schuyler had a dream for the future of the YouthWorks Culinary Program, and Rodriguez was the dream person to run it. Rodriguez immediately agreed to the job, knowing how education and positive encouragement can improve young lives. “I have seen immediate satisfaction in my customers,” Rodriguez says. “But to see a young person who has had so many problems in his or her life, be able to look you in the eye and speak to you with confidence and respect, is more satisfying that any comment I have received about my food from a guest.” The Culinary Program has launched a wildly successful food truck. With Rodriguez and his wife at the helm, they serve up affordable and delicious dishes like charred brussels sprouts tossed in spicy Korean barbecue sauce ($7), with a $2 add-on of achiote pineapple chicken. For sweets, customers love the Pig Newtons –– two graham cracker biscuits filled with spicy pork-belly candy, bacon and fig jam ($6). And the YouthWorks Catering Service is cooking at public and private events for high-profile clients like the American Institute of Architects, the Mayor of Santa Fe, the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum and the Nation of Makers Conference. It isn’t always easy when kids are having problems and don’t show up for work. “My job is wrangling sabertooth kittens!” Penny jokes. But the satisfaction outweighs the tough stuff. Kids who are successful in the program are getting placed in local restaurants.
Erin, one of Culinary Program’s young apprentices, says it’s the most fun job she has ever had. “Everyone wants to be bettering their personal situation, and I’m working with some of the hardest-working people I know.” she says. And Jackie, a former student who is now a sous chef at YouthWorks, says, “Working with YouthWorks and chef Carmen in the kitchen has brought a new purpose to my life. Teaching and learning how to cook and put on events has opened my eyes to the bigger need of food and food service in my community. When I watch the crew in action, it makes me proud and you can see them also being proud of themselves.” Rodriguez recently placed another YouthWorks alum, Joe, in a friend’s restaurant as a pantry cook. A month later, Joe called him to say that the owner was so impressed with his skills that he was promoting him to the hot line. “In my toughest chef voice that I could muster, I told Joe, ‘Don’t fuck this up,’ and he answered ‘Yes, chef.’ I had to pull over and wipe tears of pride from my eyes. I knew how the Italian chef had felt when he tasted my shrimp scampi.”
Dabriah Alston knows her home is at risk of flooding. As a resident of Red Hook, a waterfront Brooklyn community, she saw firsthand the devastation wrought when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012. The public-housing resident was inside her apartment when she and her family noticed how quickly the water was flooding into the street. “I remember that the water started lapping on the windows of the first floor of the building, and that’s about five feet off the ground,” she says. She saw cars floating down the street. The lights began to flicker until they eventually went out. They wouldn’t turn back on for another 13 days. All in all, it took the neighborhood over a month before things started to feel normal again. But there was something invisible that saved her, along with hundreds of other Red Hook residents, the majority of whom live in public housing: the neighborhood’s open Wi-Fi network. Unlike personal networks that most people access in their homes via a single router, residents can connect — for free — to the area’s mesh network, which uses a system of nodes, or hot spots, strategically placed throughout the neighborhood. The nodes are accessed via cell phones and laptops and, in the case of an emergency, allow people to communicate with each other even when the internet is down. For the people living in Red Hook, an area that is already remote by New York standards, that access was crucial. After Superstorm Sandy, the area had no power or cell service, much less reliable internet. It was, more than ever, off the grid. Luckily, the neighborhood’s mesh network — set up by volunteers with Red Hook WiFi in 2012 before the storm — gave first responders and residents online access to exchange crucial information, such as official evacuation routes and where to go for food and first-aid supplies. “When the [mesh was installed] we didn’t know it was something we would need, something that would become pivotal during the recovery,” Alston says. “At one point FEMA was using that Wi-Fi as well. It made it easier to find people who could volunteer, and it supported [Red Hook’s] recovery.” The area’s mesh network is an offshoot of the Red Hook Initiative, a nonprofit that works in part to empower youth in Brooklyn through tech training, among other academic and job-prep programs. Mesh networks had already proven successful in Detroit, where a Digital Stewardship program had been set up by the Open Technology Institute that allowed neighbors to connect with each other wirelessly, even in the event of an internet outage.
“That’s our hope, that the network is used as a source of communication throughout the neighborhood,” Robert Smith, a digital steward in Red Hook, told the New York Times in 2014. “We want to have both, that second layer, so if the Internet goes down we can still connect with each other through the mesh.” The success of Red Hook’s mesh during and after Superstorm Sandy has led community organizers in other areas with similar characteristics — remote, largely low-income, and at risk of flooding or other climate change–related disasters — to follow in the coastal community’s footsteps. It’s also a handy solve for the city’s “digital divide,” the term used to describe the lack of access to internet in poor neighborhoods, such as Red Hook and parts of Harlem and the Lower East Side in Manhattan. According to a report released last year, over 1.6 million households in New York City lack basic broadband internet. The only costs for accessing the internet via a mesh network is the equipment — a rooftop router ranges from $60 to $100 — and upkeep, which is done by volunteers in some cases. And organizations that install a mesh oftentimes only ask for monthly donations — sometimes as little as $20, a pretty nice price-tag considering that service from a conventional ISP can cost hundreds of dollars a year. “The big companies would have you think that there’s no option than them, especially in New York City,” Jason Howard, a volunteer programmer with NYC Mesh, told the CBC. “It’s so refreshing to come across this ability to do something else as an alternative.” The network that NYC Mesh operates, which includes dozens of nodes in low-income neighborhoods mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, gives users internet speeds close to 100 megabytes per second (for perspective, Netflix requires 5 mbps for high-definition streaming). In the Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx — one of the country’s poorest, with 14 percent of its 52,200 residents unemployed — The Point Community Development Corporation is working on a mesh network of its own. Besides providing free internet to those unable to pay for at-home Wi-Fi, the nonprofit sees it as insurance against future disasters Mother Nature might throw its way. “During Sandy, [the Red Hook Wi-Fi] network helped people communicate with their neighbors,” says Angela A. Tovar, director of community development at The Point CDC. “Hunts Point is by the water too, so it’s important to plan for the next storm.” Similar to Red Hook’s initiative, The Point CDC’s program, launched last September, hires residents at minimum wage to work as digital stewards. They are taught tech skills, such as coding, and help set up the mesh network, which includes the harrowing task of accessing rooftops and climbing towers to install the nodes and routers. Citi Foundation has invested more than $500,000 into the ongoing project, which will eventually include nodes on 10 local businesses and three high-rises in the area. Superstorm Sandy crashed into Red Hook more than five years ago, but the destruction it brought remains fresh in the minds of residents. “I still think about the storm a lot,” says Alston, who sees a silver lining. “It’s brought the community together and it gives us a feeling of empowerment [that] we don’t have to be caught unaware anymore.”
For the past few years, states have been slowly making progress on reforming their criminal justice laws, including throwing out past marijuana infractions, ending solitary confinement for juveniles and recommending significantly less jail time for nonviolent crimes. Now, bail reform is getting its time in the spotlight — or in the hot seat, depending — as New Jersey marks its one-year anniversary of ending the practice that requires defendants to pay their way out of jail before a trial. (Currently, the state releases low-level offenders to their homes, while others are held for 48 hours; during that time, prosecutors put together a criminal profile that determines if a person will be kept in prison.) Many lawmakers are taking up similar reform strategies, as overhauling the nation’s bail system also makes for smart across-the-aisle politics in a time of heightened partisanship. Senators Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., last year introduced a bill that would incentivize states to end or reform their money-bail programs. Bail was originally intended to motivate defendants to show up for all of their hearings; if they do so, their money is given back to them once their trial is over. But studies have found that posting bail — which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the crime — is no guarantee that someone will return to the courtroom. In the meantime, defendants arrested for a low-level offense and can’t afford bail often sit in jail for days or weeks, costing them time away from family and their jobs, and costing taxpayers an average of $38 million every day. Data from a 2016 study conducted in Pennsylvania by Columbia University researchers found that there was no correlation between being released on bail and returning to court. What the researchers did find, however, is that those who couldn’t afford their bail and thus remained in jail were more likely to commit future crimes by almost 10 percent. The study also found “significant evidence of a correlation between pretrial detention and both conviction and recidivism.” In other words, our current money-bail system is one in which a minor offense often leads to more offenses, entrapping low-income people in a cycle of incarceration simply because they’re unable to pay. What’s more, the Bronx Freedom Fund in New York City, which bails out people without requiring reimbursement, has found that nearly all of the defendants they sponsor do return to court, despite not having a financial incentive for doing so. “We know that bail does not make people return to court in greater percentages,” says Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge for the New York Court of Appeals and current chair of theIndependent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. In fact, he says, “The people who return to court are absolutely at the percentages of those [who weren’t required to post] bail at all.” Lippman, among others, has been a supporter of using algorithms, or risk-assessment models, to decide whether bail should be mandated for a defendant. Judges in more than half of the nation rely on these models in some way. Inputting data, such as whether a defendant has a criminal record and the zip code where they live, is used to determine how likely it is that the person will later show up in court. But risk-assessment tools aren’t a perfect panacea, say critics, and their widespread use can still lead to racial or economic biases. A recent class-action lawsuit filed in Harris County, Texas, concluded that those with money are given preferential treatment when calculating data; for example, the risk-assessment tool used to determine whether or not someone would return for trial gave the same weight to being poor as it did to having a prior offense. “Under the County’s risk-assessment point system … poverty indicators (such as not owning a car) receive the same point value as prior criminal violations or prior failures to appear in court,” a federal appeals court decided. “Thus, an arrestee’s impoverishment increased the likelihood he or she would need to pay to be released.” Richard Berk, who created the algorithm currently used in Pennsylvania’s risk-assessment tool, says that it’s a fool’s errand to think that algorithms would create a perfect environment. “The question is not whether the algorithms are accurate and fair, but whether they are more accurate and more fair than current practice,” Berk said in an email. “So we can reduce errors and reduce bias, which does not mean that the accuracy is perfect and that all possible bias is gone. As they say, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” But as more states take on reforming their bail practices, a uniquely American institution is at risk: the commercial bail-bond industry. Bail-bond offices put up money for a defendant while typically keeping 10 percent. If defendants don’t show up to court, the bond office gets fined, and a bounty hunter is dispatched to find the missing person. Though the bail-bond services industry grew by almost 3 percent between 2011 and 2016 and brought in $2 billion in revenue, it’s now facing increasing pressure as some jurisdictions have done away with the need for bail bondsmen altogether by eliminating cash bail. In New Jersey, for example, bail-bond shops have seen a dramatic reduction in business and are operating under threat of closing. Last summer, reality TV star Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman stood outside a New Jersey courthouse and claimed that the elimination of bail bonds were “killing people.” But for bail-reform advocates, Chapman’s argument is stale. And like it or not, that reform is coming, as New York, Delaware and California are all looking to eliminate — or at least reconsider — their money-bail practices. “You have a lot of research to show that bail is harmful. Those points need to be disseminated,” says Zoë Towns, the director of criminal justice programs at the bipartisan advocacy group FWD.us, in response to how reform might affect bail-bond business owners. “Our position on bail reform and justice is looking at how we can drive down incarceration rates, and that may mean that structures within and outside the system need to be changed.”
An earlier version of this story identified FWD.us as a left-leaning organization, not a bipartisan one. We regret the error.
At every stop during a drive through the Greenville section of Jersey City, N.J., John “Jay” Gilmore recounts exactly what happened and who was involved — including the name of the person who pulled the trigger. That’s something unique about all the murders in Jersey City: Everyone knows who killed whom. In some instances, the murderer lives right next door to the victim, but no one will talk. “Nobody’s gonna tell the police because nobody’s gonna snitch,” Gilmore, a former member of the local East Coast Bloods gang Sex, Money, Murda, tells NationSwell. “You snitch and you could get killed.” So instead of snitching, Gilmore’s one of many Jersey City residents trying to fix the problem from within.
Life on the Hill
Power players in government (including Florida Man’s son-in-law Jared Kushner) and finance have turned once-barren Jersey City into a metropolis of 264,000 people living in the shadow of Manhattan, just across the Hudson River. But as of October this year, there have been 16 homicides and 98 total shootings in Jersey City. Most have occurred around the Greenville neighborhood, an area referred to locally as “The Hill.” Almost all of the deaths were caused by guns, according to an independent analysis conducted by NationSwell. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop says that additional law enforcement patrols and proactive policing in high-crime areas are addressing the problem, but NationSwell’s analysis — which only includes reported shootings published in local papers and cross referenced with reported shootings via the Gun Violence Archive — reveals that Jersey City has seen a 200 percent increase in the number of shootings in the past three years. The total number of homicides recorded by Jersey City police in monthly CompStat reports — the system that logs city crimes — does not specify the number of murders by gun deaths, nor does it record number of shootings without injury. Multiple requests for more accurate records to the Jersey City Police Department on shooting data were not made available to NationSwell. With gunshots being heard almost every night, a neighborhood resident says the area is tantamount to a war zone. “It’s kill or be killed in Greenville,” says Hessie Williams, a Jersey City mother whose 17-year-old son was murdered in 2016. When there’s a shooting, more kids take up guns to protect themselves, an issue that the Mayor’s office has said is part of the problem. “I get why they carry [guns]. When you’re running from bullets almost every week, it makes sense,” Williams says.
Fulop, a Democrat that recently won re-election, has consistently made gun violence part of his campaign, but even he’s admitted that the problem can’t be solved through changes to policing or legislation alone. “These situations did not develop overnight and we know it will take time, dedication and long-term efforts to bring lasting change…There are many factors that impact public safety and violence,” says Fulop. “While we have hired more police and increased walking tours and community policing — and have found that to be positive — we have also more than doubled the number of recreation programs, created a partnership with the [Board of Education] for more youth activities after school and have hired over 4,000 youth over the past four summers.” Additionally, 8,000 jobs have also been created and other community programs have been launched during Fulop’s administration. But families of gun violence victims don’t feel that City Hall’s actions are sufficient. “If the kids being killed were white kids, the city would be doing everything in their power to stop this. Nobody cares about my son. They think my son isn’t important,” says Theresa Franklin, a Jersey City mother whose child was killed in May 2016. To stop the shooting, regular citizens are borrowing a technique from the gangs ravaging their streets. They’re taking matters into their own hands.
A Cure for Jersey City
Jersey City’s Booker T. Washington Apartments, just one mile north of Greenville, have a long-standing reputation for being lethal. For the better part of the 1990s, the housing project was known for its gun violence and drug trade. In the past five years, crime has decreased, shootings are rare (though they still happen) and residents are starting to feel safe in their own homes. Though the city has deployed a significant number of uniformed police officers to the area, the drop in crime has much more to do with a cultural change brought about by a group of young men who live there. One of those residents, Courtney Hemingway, 30, sits in the project’s recreation center every Thursday with at least 15 of his peers and a motley crew of career professionals, including a volunteer lawyer, a jobs mentor, a social service counselor and a motivational speaker. Dwayne Baskerville, a longtime Booker T. Washington resident, is also there. “One thing that Courtney probably won’t tell you is that he put a hit out on me,” says the 55-year-old Baskerville. “So I went to him and told him my life’s story and at the end of it, I said, ‘So do you wanna do this? Or do you wanna play some basketball?’” They ended up shooting hoops. (Today, both guys refer to the incident as “a misunderstanding.”)
That was back in 2006. Their initial interaction inspired Hemingway to form a de facto peace treaty between rivaling groups in the Booker T. Apartments and nearby Marion Gardens houses that resulted in 104 days of no shootings. Ever since, Baskerville has been leading a program that’s unofficially replicating the Cure Violence model, which takes a public-health approach by identifying those that have personally committed violent crimes and using their influence within their community to cool tensions. His group encourages youth to shed their lives of violence and crime by holding weekly sessions to talk about frustrations (they want to be less policed) and troubles they’re facing (they want careers, not just jobs). As a result, a handful have been able to hold down steady career jobs or go to school. Cure Violence has proven successful in some of America’s most economically- and socially-depressed neighborhoods, including Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, where gun injury rates declined by 50 percent, and the South Bronx, which experienced a 63 percent reduction in shootings, according to a study by CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. Last year, Camden, N.J., one of America’s100 most dangerous cities, adopted the model. Maalik Jackson, an outreach supervisor for the local chapter Cure4Camden, says that homicides, shootings, and stabbings have significantly decreased in the four neighborhoods they’re focusing on. Jackson recently visited Jersey City to learn why Baskerville’s group is so successful. “The thing that I noticed from the beginning was that there were a lot of similarities in what they want to do to what we’re doing, but they lack the backing,” he says, referring to the fact that Cure models are typically set up through government channels and are heavily financed. “They were able to apply our model within this one area — with no funding, with no help — and [are] still achieving a high level of success.”
“Put down your guns, y’all.”
The Booker T. group empathizes with residents in Greenville. They know people from the neighborhood who have been murdered, or at least hear the stories. But they’re far removed from it. “We don’t have the same kind of issues that the people up on The Hill have. Not anymore,” Hemingway says. “They’re shooting at each other like crazy up there.”
Gilmore, the former gang member, has first-hand knowledge of the struggles faced by Greenville youth. Convicted of drug possession, he served a six-year-long prison stint before making his way back to his hometown in 2017 to find that many of the people he raised in the gang had been killed. Upon his return, Gilmore began talking to kids who may have beef with others, using his connections on the street and “working the chirp,” — listening in on a gang communication network — in an effort to mitigate gun violence. His efforts are similar to the work being done at the Booker T. Apartments. “Sometimes these kids listen, but they really only listen to people their age or those they look up to,” Gilmore says. “They’re not gonna be listening to the police or their elders. So I talk with them because they know me.” He’s also involved with A Mother’s Pain, a group of dogged mothers of fallen children that was started by Williams. In August 2016, her son, Leander “Nunie” Williams, was killed, shot twice in the back of the head at a school event.
Williams was devastated — but not shocked — by Nunie’s death, who she says was “no angel.” He had been running around with troubled neighborhood kids and a year prior, had been expelled from school for carrying a gun, which he had bought illegally. Williams and A Mother’s Pain have been working Greenville’s streets at least once a month, carrying posters plastered with the pictures of local kids who have been killed. They meet with city council members and the mayor’s office in hopes of elevating their profile and highlighting their work. They lead caravans where dozens of cars block traffic and have sit-ins with gun-toting gang members. On the one-year anniversary of Nunie’s death, NationSwell participated in one of those caravans, which visited seven locations where mothers in the group had lost loved ones and Nunie’s gravesite. A handful of his friends had gathered to show their respect. “Come on, y’all,” Williams pleaded with the group of six boys. “If you really loved Nunie, you’d stop shooting. Put down your guns, y’all. Put ’em down.” Just a week later, she’d be doing the same thing after another teenager was murdered. A Mother’s Pain also counts the rebellious religious leader Dr. Rev. Herbert Daughtry among its ranks. Daughtry, 86, has mastered the art of protesting against neighborhood violence within black communities. He’s been using his experience and connections to a national network of black leaders to help the mothers in Williams’s group, whom he refers to as “wounded healers.” Growing up in Jersey City and nearby Brooklyn, N.Y., Daughtry used to run with local gangs and the mafia before he was incarcerated for armed robbery and assault — a crime that led him to becoming a fourth-generation preacher. Since then, Daughtry (dubbed “The People’s Preacher”) has been successful at elevating human rights alongside Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Mayor David Dinkins. He was also Tupac Shakur’s spiritual advisor, according to Jet Magazine. The action that A Mother’s Pain is taking now, Daughtry did 30 years ago in the notoriously violent neighborhoods of Brooklyn. “We’re taking to the streets, kinda like how we did in the radical days. That’s how we raise awareness and try to stop these kids from shooting [each other].”
Killed Over a Dice Game
But gangs and the problems within their communities have changed since the 1980s, as social media has made people excitable and even tiny issues get out of hand. “Every other day we hear about another kid getting shot,” says Dennis Febo, an advisor at the Booker T. Apartments’ weekly meetings, in reference to a two-month period this past summer when two people were killed by gunfire and another 26 people were shot. One of those shootings erupted from a dice game. “I mean, how do you even address that?”
The problem is particularly vexing in Jersey City. Dozens of residents from The Hill point to the demolition Montgomery Gardens, a public housing project just a block away from the Booker T. Apartments that was once home to 434 families, as stirring up long-standing geographic boundaries between feuding rivals, some of whom were kicked out of their apartments and forced to relocate to areas that weren’t necessarily welcoming. “The people who lived in the Montgomery houses may have had issues with people up on The Hill,” says Pamela Johnson, executive director of the New Jersey Anti-Violence Coalition Movement. “That beef between families has been transferred down from generation to generation. Now with the displacement, they live next door to an arch enemy they had their entire life.” Public Safety Director James Shea tells NationSwell in an email that preventing these crimes is much more than just mitigating generational rivalries and requires smarter policing practices. “Eye-for-an-eye justice is a definite problem and the cause of many instances where one incident sparks a series of retaliatory actions,” he says. “While there are definitely long-standing differences between groups related to specific public housing locations, and that is part of the investigation strategy, it is not the sole cause.” In January of this year, Mayor Fulop vowed to reduce gun violence by hiring more police, increasing the Jersey City force from under 800 to 922 officers in the past two years, the largest it’s been in 20 years. The city has also put into place new procedures when a shooting occurs, including swarming the area with plainclothes officers who build relationships with community members that can lead to arrests. It’s believed that a larger, and more visible police force, helps deter crimes. An overnight solution isn’t possible, Fulop and Shea say, because the issues facing Jersey City are so deeply rooted. Even policing won’t solve it, completely. “Any number of shooting deaths is too many but these issues aren’t issues that are unique to jersey city [sic] and the reality is they are issues that no city can only police their way to a solution on,” Fulop wrote in a Facebook post in June 2015. “Many of the issues have taken decades to get here and they won’t be solved by pure police.” Many residents and volunteer advocates praise the mayor’s work, but stop short of saying the administration has helped reduce violence or shootings on their streets.
A Community, Together
A Mother’s Pain has yet to see the significant drop in violence that’s been achieved by the group in the Booker T. apartments. The mothers, however, do take credit for a two-week period of no shootings in Greenville — a significant moment considering residents complain about gun violence virtually every day. Mayor Fulop says that conversations with the group have helped inform the city’s newest anti-violence strategies. As for Gilmore, he’s taken kids off the street to teach them boxing in Williams’s backyard. “I do it as a way to keep them from being bored. Keep ’em busy,” he says. “I’d much rather these kids — if they’re gonna beef — learn to use their fists than some guns.” Back in August, Gilmore noticed a boy, no older than 12 years old, carrying a gun in his waistband. Gilmore demanded that he hand it over. The tween argued back, claiming that he needed it for protection from guys outside his school, waiting for him. “From now on, I’m walking you to and from school,” Gilmore told the boy. The situation, Gilmore acknowledges, is complicated for black communities, where more policing might reduce crime but increases distrust among the community it serves. He is confident, though, that one thing will work: Getting the entire community to come together to take a stand for a better quality of life. Visit Joseph Darius Jaafari’s GitHub page to learn how the data in this article was captured and analyzed.
Update: Since the reporting of this article, Courtney Hemingway pled guilty to several counts, including aggravated assault on a police officer. Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Hessie Williams’s son was killed at age 19. He was 17. NationSwell apologizes for the error.
As a social worker accustomed to prodding the minds of adjudicated youth in the juvenile justice system, Noran Sanford has long been an inquisitive kind of guy. So when he discovered that six prisons had closed within a 50-mile radius of his home in rural Laurinburg, N.C., including one in the nearby town of Wagram, he began asking questions. Lots of them. “It was in that moment that I began putting together the idea that somebody should do something with these large sites,” Sanford says.
Enter the concept behind GrowingChange. The organization launched in 2011 to help reform and empower young ex-offenders, some barely into their teens, as they work to turn the abandoned prison in Wagram into a community farm and education center. The first group of 12 participants recruited by Sanford had all been arrested, expelled from school and kicked out of their homes — a combination of risk factors that Sanford calls the “unholy trinity,” especially when living in one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.
The Wagram site, which partially opened to the public for tours in October, has worked with 18 formerly incarcerated youth since its inception, with seven active participants today. The group was able to secure the property from the state’s Department of Public Safety, who agreed to donate the land after Sanford and two of his youth leaders pitched the idea. Sanford hopes they will eventually be able to sell the soil amendments and organic produce they’ve cultivated. So far, participants have grown food for needy local families, and are working to repurpose jail cells into aquaponics tanks and guard towers into climbing walls, among other initiatives. GrowingChange also provides intensive group therapy for its youth leaders.
Analyzed over a three-year period, the prison-to-farm program was 92 percent effective in preventing recidivism among participants, Sanford says.
As the program has matured, so has its group of original participants, some of whom have stayed on to act as mentors to new recruits. Other young ex-offenders have been working to expand GrowingChange’s reach with a graphic-novel series, called Prison Flip Comics, that chronicles their troubled past; the goal is to use the comics as a learning tool distributed throughout North Carolina’s system of juvenile justice offices.
There are also teens who have embraced a more public-facing role, speaking at outside events and otherwise “sharing their stories about a personal experience of change,” says Simon Stumpf of Ashoka, which awarded Sanford a fellowship last year for his social entrepreneurship. Ashoka also provided funds to help scale GrowingChange. Sanford’s long-term goals include flipping 25 former prisons by 2025; currently, he estimates around 300 prisons sit empty across the U.S.
Despite GrowingChange’s small number of participants, other organizations have taken notice, reaching out from places as far away as the Netherlands, where Sanford traveled to present his model. And students from schools including the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technologyhave helped in areas like designing site plans and mapping the area with 3-D technology to share with the public what the site — which will eventually include housing for veterans and a counseling center — will look like once fully completed.
Sanford hopes to inspire prison authorities, government leaders, nonprofits, universities, foundations and others to think differently about unused prisons, taking an open-sourced approach by sharing what has, and hasn’t, worked at the Wagram facility. And that has him dreaming big.
“Our hope is to create a federated system of independent sites,” he says.
The class and financial borders in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, are prominent. Within a 10-minute drive, the landscape in any which way can go from tidy, two-story homes with picket fences to burned-out buildings and blighted neighborhoods. It’s this divide that has ranked Connecticut — and specifically Fairfield County — as one of the best (or worst, rather) examples of America’s wealth gap. It’s also home to more than 83,000 people who are uninsured — the leftovers from Obamacare who are either undocumented or can’t afford private health insurance. And it’s those residents who Dr. Ken Grossman thinks about when he volunteers once a month at the Fred Weisman Americares Free Clinic in Bridgeport, about 30 minutes south of his main practice. “There’s this paradox where we’re the richest and the poorest county in the nation,” Grossman tells NationSwell. “The population I see, they are some of the hardest working people. Some of the poorest too, but it’s because of that they take nothing for granted.” Grossman is one of thousands of doctors that volunteer their time at free clinics, of which there are about 1,200 across the nation serving 6 million people, according to the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. Their mission is simple: provide free healthcare to those who can’t afford it. These medical facilities were the lifeblood for the uninsured before the Affordable Care Act. But as Medicaid expanded in 31 states, including the District of Columbia, following the law’s passage, more people were able to get coverage, leaving free clinics fighting for survival. Now, with national healthcare on unsteady ground, there could be more people relying on these clinics again, but there’s a dearth of skilled and well-practiced physicians willing to volunteer. “If you ask me what I need, I’ll always tell you dollars and docs,” says Karen Gottlieb, executive director of Americares’ four free clinics in Fairfield County. “And we desperately need docs.”
DOCTORS’ DISAPPEARING ACT
Volunteering among professionals has seen a gradual decline over the past six years, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of volunteers with advanced education, including doctoral degrees, dropped from 42.4 percent in 2011 to 38.8 percent in 2015. And though more than 90 percent of physicians emphasize that volunteering or community outreach is paramount for their jobs — specifically helping the poorest patients — only 39 percent have volunteered their time, according to a 2008 survey. “Pro bono work in law is mandated, but you don’t have that in medicine,” says Yasmin Meah, founder and program director for Mount Sinai’s East Harlem Health Outreach Program, a free clinic in New York City. “A few years ago we were really struggling as far as recruiting and maintaining volunteers. We’d have to close about four to five times per year because there were no volunteer physicians.” The decrease in volunteers has forced clinics like Meah’s to get creative in attracting doctors to donate their services. One way they’ve done so is by offering malpractice insurance for physicians, which can cost thousands of dollars a year. Americares’ clinics, for example, provides liability coverage to its volunteer doctors — an incentive that convinced Grossman to get on board. Still, covering malpractice isn’t the answer in every case. Free clinics affiliated with hospitals, like Mount Sinai’s for example, often prefer to work with doctors who currently practice at the hospital, because their insurance is already covered. This in turn can lead clinics to pass up the services of older, retired physicians, who otherwise have the time, experience and desire to volunteer. It’s a conundrum that’s only become more pronounced as clinics, most of which rely on a shoestring budget and bare-bones volunteer staff, struggle to stay open. After the rollout of the ACA, many had to convince donors to keep funding their operations, says Sasha Bianchi, executive director of Volunteers in Medicine. “The challenge was the perception more than the reality of the situation,” says Bianchi. “Everybody was thinking, ‘Oh, society solved [the uninsured] problem, so I’ll send my money somewhere else.’”
DIAGNOSIS: MORE TROUBLE AHEAD
Despite the uninsured rate dipping to 9.1 percent in 2015, a record low in the U.S., there has been a slow trend upward that has many clinic leaders worried — and fighting for funding. According to the Gallup Health Index, the uninsured population saw an increase to 11.7 percent in the second quarter of 2017. The reasons behind the uptick are numerous: insurers leaving the ACA, higher premiums and an uncertainty of where the law will go under the current administration. But that could all change, for the worse, as higher premiums proposed next year push more people back into the uninsured ranks. In June of this year, the two companies in Connecticut selling individual plans through the ACA — Anthem and ConnectiCare — have both proposed rate increases for 2018, ranging from 17.5 to 33.8 percent. And Americares’ clinics won’t be able to treat everyone, says Gottlieb. “We’re only taking care of 3,200 of them, and there are a lot more people out there who don’t have insurance,” says Gottlieb. “We could see more patients if we had more resources, but we are resource-constrained.”
‘I’M GOING TO HELP THEM’
For those clinics that didn’t close their doors, they became de facto medical homes or navigation facilities. And many were able to rise to the challenge as demand fell and patients were able to be seen faster and more frequently. Which is all good news, as free clinics also provide a training ground for medical students. At the East Harlem Health Outreach Program, any given Saturday will see 35 volunteer med students working, all of whom get to see the troubles facing a beleaguered population whose health is sometimes made critical by lack of consistent or quality healthcare. It’s that same population, about a quarter of which are immigrants, that Grossman, the Americares volunteer, loves to help, despite the political arguments against the undocumented and their use of the healthcare system. “I became a physician to take care of people,” he says. “These are people. They have hearts, arms, brains and medical issues, just like everyone else. And I’m going to help them.”