Amid violence, students in the Bronx gain empowerment
Speaking in New York to 14 high school students standing shoulder to shoulder, World Vision's Lina Thompson asks anyone to step forward if he or she agrees with this statement: "When I wake up in the morning and walk through my neighborhood, I feel safe."
Less than half of the group steps forward—none without hesitation.
The students are enrolled in BronxConnect, an alternative-to-detention program for youth who have charged with crimes in Bronx Family Court. The program is part of the nonprofit Urban Youth Alliance International (UYAI), a multicultural, faith-based community organization dedicated to developing urban youth into leaders and productive members of their communities in the Bronx.
Twice a week, students learn elements from World Vision's Youth Empowerment Program. On this day, Thompson, national director of capacity development, is in town to lead the YEP training.
Outside, an urban cacophony pulses from the vibrant corner of 149th Street and Brook Avenue. Many of these students are familiar with the activity that goes on at such street corners in the South Bronx—for better or for worse.
According to the New York Police Department, nearly 4,500 robberies and 5,500 felony assaults occurred in the Bronx in 2013. Many more incidents go unreported. Although those numbers have steadily decreased since the early 1990s, the crime rate of the South Bronx in particular exceeds the New York City crime rate by 35 percent.
Through BronxConnect, the staff and volunteers at UYAI provide a safe place for young people to reflect and move toward self-transformation and community well-being.
"I had to come here, so I didn't expect all fun and games," says Rohan, 15. "But when I got here, I was treated with respect, like a member of a family."
The first step toward the youths' empowerment is creating a safe space.
"When our kids come here, they lay it all down," says Tara Brown, alternative-to-detention director at BronxConnect. "We provide them with a sense of normalcy and steadiness in the midst of all that goes on in their family lives."
For the past 40 years, UYAI has worked to mend the brokenness of families and communities in New York City through the empowerment of the city's youth. In 1970, after a decade rife with social injustice and outspoken leaders in New York's poorest neighborhoods, young people congregated in their high schools and colleges and founded the alliance.
In BronxConnect, students participate in various sessions geared toward their individual development, including reading comprehension practice, aggression-replacement training, food and nutrition classes, and seminars relating to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
"You don’t come here just for yourselves," Thompson tells students. "You come here to make a difference for your community and your family."
During Youth Empowerment Program sessions at BronxConnect, the students openly discuss which street corners are dangerous, where they can feel safe, and who they can call on for help. Most importantly, they discuss how they can be a voice of change in their environment.
"We show them some of the needs and the problems of the community," Brown says. "Then we ask them how we can solve these problems."
Thompson offers the group another prompt, asking students to take a step forward if they agree with this statement: "I feel that I can make a difference in my community."
Many in the group move forward. When asked to speak out, the students express dreams to become doctors, nurses, counselors, athletes, and artists.
"I feel like I can turn my life around," says 15-year-old Amara, emphasizing each word, as if making his dream unmistakable. "I will become a doctor one day, to save lives."