Union Settlement: CJII Featured Grantee

Posted in: Blog

Posted on December 19, 2017

Union Settlement, a Youth Opportunity HubYouth Opportunity Hub grantee Union Settlement’s programs provide education, wellness and community-building to East Harlem residents of all ages. Its offerings—from youth and adult education classes, to Meals-on-Wheels, mental health services and programs for senior citizens—span more than a dozen locations across the neighborhood. Its programs equip residents with connected programs that provide opportunities, tools, and support for the whole family, at every stage of life. We spoke with David Nocenti, executive director, about some of the challenges facing youth and how CJII is supporting their work to address those challenges.

This article is the part of our series highlighting CJII grantees and the work they’re doing to meet CJII goals of improving public safety and enhancing fairness and efficiency in NYC’s criminal justice system. Programs that support families and that prevent risky behavior in young people can encourage and support positive development and reduce the likelihood of involvement in the justice system. Through its Youth Opportunity Hubs initiative, CJII is focusing on building skills and supports among young people, families, and communities to help prevent crime because investing in efforts that prevent criminality is key to achieving public safety in the long term.

Q: How do you see the role of partnerships and coordinating services in achieving impact? In your experience, and as you develop the Youth Opportunity Hub at Union Settlement, how are you building partnerships to ensure sustainability?

A: Partnerships are absolutely key to the Youth Opportunity Hub here in East Harlem.  Indeed, our Hub is unique because we have many more partnerships than the other Manhattan Hubs – more than 25 in total.  When we were putting together our proposal, we intentionally reached out to a lot of community partners, for several reasons.  First, Union Settlement had many existing relationships with other neighborhood CBOs, and we knew that many of them would be interested in participating in the Hub.  Second, we believe firmly in the power of collaborations and knew that we would have a broader impact on local youth if we worked in tandem with other local nonprofits.  Finally, we knew that the only way to build a sustainable program would be to include multiple partners and have them involved in the planning, pilot, and implementation stages, and have them all fully invested in the success of the Hub.  Moreover, we are continuing to build partnerships beyond the organizations currently involved in the East Harlem Hub, to allow for a broader range of holistic wraparound services, and to further enhance and sustain our impact.

Q: What are some of the potential solutions you aim to provide with the CJII funding to support young people and help them succeed

A: As noted above, we know what works with the population we serve.  We utilize a holistic, trauma-informed, positive youth development approach, which starts by listening to those we are serving and focusing on their strengths, goals and objectives.  We hear directly from them what areas impact them the most in their community and how we can best support them.  Every individual is different, with different strengths and desires, and so there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.  For that reason, it is essential to offer a broad array of activities and services, to expose youth to new ideas and opportunities, to provide positive role models, and to constantly listen to their feedback and respond accordingly.  There will be lots of different activities – sports, music, dance, academic enrichment, workshops, counseling, mentoring, career advice, job training, etc. – but those are simply different tools that will be used to help youth recognize and utilize their own inner strengths and passions.

Q: What are some of the opportunities that young people are looking for, and what are some of the obstacles or challenges in trying to access those opportunities?

A: East Harlem youth and families face many obstacles, and while there are many common elements, Union Settlement’s approach is to view each individual and each family we encounter without any assumptions or preconceptions. Every individual and every family is different, and we bring a holistic approach that starts by asking what they think their strengths and needs are, and listening carefully to their responses.

While we never assume that any individual or family has a particular issue that needs to be addressed, there are certain issues that we do hear with great frequency.  For younger children, they often involve unstable home situations and/or conflicts in the household, challenges in school (including academic issues, bullying, etc.), the need for tutors, mentors and positive role models, a lack of self-esteem, the impact of prior traumas, etc.  For teens and young adults, there are additional challenges such as gang involvement, the need for employment to help support their family, a lack of opportunities for job training or career advice, etc.  And then for families as a whole, there are issues relating to finding affordable housing, finding employment, accessing health care, caring for children or elderly relatives, dealing with immigration authorities, and a host of other issues.

Q: What are some of the real challenges in trying to remove or overcome those obstacles?

A: Frankly, the main obstacle is a lack of funding.  We know how to help address many of these issues, but the social service sector as a whole is severely underfunded, which limits both the amount of assistance we can provide, as well as the number of individuals we can reach.  The youth and families we serve are striving to improve themselves and their lives, they have already overcome many obstacles to be where they are, and they often are both resilient and resourceful.  But the challenges they face are great, and we want to offer the education, skills and opportunities they need to thrive, but we lack the resources to do so.

Q: Taking a step back, when you consider the Youth Opportunity Hub in the long term—the individuals you’re working with, their needs, community needs, long term outcomes, etc.—how would you say that the work of Union Settlement is reaching toward larger system change? What does that system change look like? What else is needed to achieve larger system change?

A: Needless to say, that is the most important question of all – and requires a strong vision, hard work, and collaborative partnerships far beyond the Hubs themselves.  One key aspect, of course, involves public advocacy – trying to achieve the legal, regulatory, and policy changes necessary to address problems with the system.  This includes everything from more funding for our under-resourced East Harlem public schools, to reducing obstacles to high school graduation and college enrollment, to creating more opportunities for recreational, academic and artistic activities, to providing job training and career pathway advice.

Criminal justice reforms also play a huge role in this.  For example, it has taken years of advocacy efforts to get policymakers to understand the tremendous hardships caused by our existing bail system, as well as the adverse impacts from the large number of old outstanding warrants.  District Attorney Vance has been a true leader on these issues, with his strong support for bail system reforms and his “Clean Slate” initiative.  The Mayor also deserves a lot of credit, by reforming the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices, and reducing stops by 90% with no adverse impact on the crime rate.

But the real key is creating programs that help support the hard-working families in low-income communities.  Affordable housing, job opportunities, affordable and accessible health care, and a strong education system – from early childhood through adult learners – are essential to giving individuals the opportunities they need to thrive and to build better lives for themselves and their families.  When families and neighborhoods are strong, so are the children in those families and neighborhoods, and we need to have everyone working towards that goal.

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