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Building Community Capacity to Support Justice-Involved Youth: An Interview with Belinda Ramos

This interview is part of Shared Justice’s Transformative Justice series running throughout January and February. The series explores one of the most urgent areas for reform within the juvenile justice system: juvenile probation. Focusing on promising practices in diversion and prevention, including Credible Messenger Mentoring, the series will highlight opportunities for government and civil society to create a juvenile justice system that is more equitable, effective, and restorative.

KT: Can you share a little more about the journey which has led you to your current role and work at Community Connections for Youth? Why is your work something that you’re passionate about?

BR: I was working at a church for a number of years as the worship arts director working with young adults. Before that, I was working on a research service project that was related to parents of children with special needs. So I kind of broke in at that level around advocacy, getting exposed to the role that the community plays, and peer mentoring. Then I took a break, but I was still doing curriculum development and things like training peers to step in to be supportive players. My background is in mental health, and my Master’s is in psychology. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with that. I really wasn’t too crazy about therapy models. I personally extracted a lot from it, but I always found that the most pivotal people in my life were grandmothers and people who had been through things like me, and offered insight. I really started to see that given the right tools, you can really expand [these relationships] into something. Why shouldn’t people get paid to do that [through credible messenger mentoring]? So with all that background I landed at Community Connections for Youth (CCFY). 

I have a brother who has been in the system since he was 14. And I had done ministry in juvenile detention centers, and I had all this motivation to say, ‘I wasn’t able to help my brother, I was the younger sister, but I can meet my younger brother out there.’ It was the melding of these worlds. 

As I got into CCFY, I was learning more and more intimately about justice issues. I knew them on the periphery, I knew it intuitively, I knew it from experience, I knew it just because social justice matters to me. But as I got closer, that fire got ignited. The scripture that says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” I’ve always believed that idea that the marginalized, the least of these, those whom you don’t see a future for, are truly who the Lord loves. And they are mighty. That is truly my belief. Jesus came from Bethlehem, he might as well have come from the Bronx, it’s viewed as the same kind of place. And what good can come out of there? It’s really about showing what true redemption is about, and being able to push that forward and see something beautiful and reach our young people. And compounding that with a lot of the issues that we’re facing, and these alternatives that are needed: they’re there, they just need to be resourced. So the more I’ve come to understand how that’s done, the more passionate I’ve become about it.

Would you be willing to share a bit about Community Connections for Youth’s mission and work?  

Our work is around building the community’s capacity to be the alternative to incarceration. That’s our bottom line. Our work is to show young people who are in the throes of a justice system that is hard to get out of, that there are resources and hope within the community. Really the only thing that stands in the way is how they’re not resourced to do that kind of work. Their approach to their work is this idea of keeping young people home within their communities where they can be best supported. But as we know, mass incarceration and many of the issues compound, and that community suffers and is often broken apart.  Our work is around building the community’s capacity, through grassroots organizations and neighborhood commitments, to support young people and guide them on a better path, and, with that, overturn the current ineffective system. So it’s about leveraging those things. We can train, we can host gatherings.

At first, our dream was to aid grassroots organizations … But it’s morphed, and we’ve taken a front row in the credible messenger work. But it’s still really tethered to community capacity building and leveraging that. We did that right in the South Bronx, and now our work has taken us to spreading the method and the philosophy to others so that they can creatively figure out a solution to build capacity, rearrange government budgets, and then the community can say we got this, we can do this. 

The Center for Public Justice has been focused in recent years on juvenile probation reform, with a specific focus recently on Credible Messenger Mentoring. How does CCFY define a Credible Messenger, and why do you view CMM as such an important part of the organization’s work?  

It’s really around who’s credible to the one receiving the support or the help. It’s about who has the influence and the ability to reach others best. And so, by definition, when you’re talking about our case justice issues, or a young person facing a justice system, or a parent that has a child facing the justice system, a credible messenger would be somebody who has experienced this, lived this, and has had to traverse everything that comes with that. It’s not always someone who was formerly incarcerated. That’s the most classic sense, given the work that we do. Being from certain communities, you don’t have to have landed in prison to know the oppressive forces of living in a neighborhood that is over-policed, or that is facing crime and delinquency and all these words that we put to what happens when you’re under-resourced. We believe a credible messenger is the person that can reach those, because they have first-hand knowledge of what it means to navigate that. 

“The gravitational aspect of a credible messenger is that young people say, ‘Okay, I can listen to this person.’

People have added the idea of transformational mentoring, which is the work of helping young people go through their own metamorphosis just as a credible messenger has themself, where they have done their own work. For some, their faith has led them there [into their transformation]. For others, it’s just their own sense of self-actualization. However they got there, they have their own personal story to pull from to say, “I thought this way at one time, but I’m going through healing and I now move differently.” That levels the playing field, because who doesn’t need to do that inner work? Whether it’s one person dealing with their biases, prejudices, racism, whatever. That person used to think one way, that the life was selling drugs, or living a gang life, or what have you. How do you turn that into positive things? For us, a credible messenger is somebody who has gone through that, and is able to impart wisdom. But the certification comes from whoever’s receiving the mentoring. The gravitational aspect of a credible messenger is that young people say, ‘Okay, I can listen to this person.’ 

CCFY has several training programs, one of which is focused on training Credible Messengers. Can you tell us more about Credible Messenger Boot Camp, and why is a training like this so valuable? 

One of our big contracts that really put us forward with more credible messenger training was the Arches contract in New York City. We worked in tandem with them as they developed this idea, under the New York City’s Probation Department’s Deputy Commissioner Mr. Clinton Lacey, of formally engaging communities and hiring credible messengers to support young people. We began doing mentor orientation, training people on how to work with young people, things based on positive youth development, principles of restorative justice, how to support credible messengers themselves as they deal with their own trauma and healing from justice-involvement, also using the curriculum that the Department of Probation wanted to use with the youth. Fast forward, Clinton Lacey goes over to Washington, DC, and as Director of Washington D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), he wanted us to put together a five day intensive, compiling everything we knew, to help get this initiative in D.C. off the ground. We realized more and more that credible messengers need support, they need healing time. There’s trauma that’s related to their own experiences, trauma related to being incarcerated, and we really feel like the young people will only do as well as the wellness of the person supporting them. So we addressed that, and included a focus on positive youth development and restorative justice. 

Restorative justice really transformed how we started to do things, and it’s a more holistic and culturally competent approach to support group models. Half of our training is spending time in circles and building community. The learning is more than just intellectual ascent. We spend time doing didactic training, and doing some soft skills training, or training around philosophies, and talking. And one of our most important pieces is around healing and doing that self work. The bootcamp, over the five days, is really helping credible messengers feel a part of the long game, the bigger picture. We start there, and really get them to think about this time and place and where we are in terms of justice and the needs of young people, and how we’re on the shoulders of folks who really believed in this. 

The model comes from Eddie Ellis. He coined this idea of credible messengers, that young people are where they are because their fathers and male role models are incarcerated for 25 years and so these communities are completely abandoned. And when they come home, they go to the youth that don’t have anybody to guide them or to steer them. This idea is that we [returning citizens] need to be the ones to mentor these young people. We try to make sure that folks are connected to that story and connected to that idea. Our goal is to not just teach it but to create an experience that they would want to mimic for young people. So we always hold circle, and we always check in, and we always learn something, and we always ask questions. 

“Can we leverage, can we create partnerships, can we start to have conversations around the issue that’s happening with kids in the justice system? 

Day one is about the movement. Day two is about keeping it healthy with yourself, keeping it healthy with young people around boundaries, keeping your own self care. Then we go into positive youth development. We teach that and try to change a little bit of the framework around youth support, youth leadership, getting them involved, what works, and cognitive behavioral techniques. It’s really revolved around being able to meet somebody where they are, not creating more resistance. It’s built around asking questions and helping folks build that relationship. There’s a relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and how you express that and what you do, not just to others, but to yourself. And we do a little crash course on restorative justice. 

By the end of the week, we teach them how to put workshops together. So it’s taking everything they’ve learned, and materializing that into something that you would like when you’re going to hold space for young people. What are some topics that you would cover? How would you set up and get creative? And so they finish the process by doing group presentations of their workshops. Oftentimes what happens is people share their workshops, and they walk away with a starter kit and framework for implementing what they’ve learned in their communities.

A central part of CCFY’s work is Community Capacity Building. What is this, and can you share what role the faith-community (whether nonprofits, houses of worship, etc.) can/should have in supporting young people touched by the justice system and their families?

When I first started at CCFY, it felt like there were more churches involved in some of these initiatives. A lot of times it takes ministers who are already passionate about justice work. If you do that already, then you already know what’s going on. But the majority, especially in New York where there’s a church on every corner, are disconnected from any of this. And so when it comes to capacity building, our idea is to be hyperlocal to the young person that’s there. What is in their habitat. That includes all kinds of service providers, including churches; there are people with big money that come in and have all kinds of services, and then there’s the homegrown stuff that happens. So part of that is, what is part of the hyperlocal community? Can we leverage, can we create partnerships, can we start to have conversations around the issue that’s happening with kids in the justice system? And so first it’s leveraging that, and then also partnering with a system to say ‘How can you begin to resource this work?’ Now, systems are looking to do that, so it’s a lot easier. There are folks looking to immediately incorporate this. So our capacity building is first around financial resources and second around equipping, of ‘How can we support you in getting your organization to be the alternative to the juvenile justice system?’ Some of them are already there. 

There’s a tendency to work in silos and we’re addressing that. The South Bronx Community Connections is our flagship program. We need these partnerships where young people can come to us, and we can hook them up with what might be a best-suited program. There are a lot of programs out there, but many haven’t worked with justice-involved youth. For example, we had a program that does art. They’re not set specifically to work with a young person in the justice system, but they’re set to work with young people in the community. So we come in and train that program on becoming an alternative to an incarceration site, training the program on how to support and engage youth. They’re already passionate about youth work, or doing parent work, but maybe they haven’t done it under the umbrella of this field. That’s where we come in, to build the network around who can support young people facing the justice system. So when it comes to the faith community, to me, it’s siloed off from this community based activity, in a sense because that’s just what churches do. But they’re a resource in the community. Kids go to these churches or their parents go to these churches. We feel that they can be leveraged if they’re interested in doing that. 

What next steps can people of faith, and especially young people, take to advocate for a more just and equitable juvenile justice system?

The simplest thing you can do is figure out who you can show up for. Go to the court with someone and just be there. Be someone willing to listen. Involve youth voice. With young people who have been a part of our programs, we were taking them to conferences. We were taking them and they were hearing this stuff that has to do with them. And they have a lot to say. I feel like there’s room for a lot of exposure and room for young people who are itching to be a part of something bigger than themselves. I think for young people who are of faith who are interested in these things, we need to involve them and ask them what they think, ask them who they know that has been impacted, ask them to share the questions that they have. I really think oftentimes it’s as simple as that for the faith community.

Belinda Ramos joined CCFY’s Training Department in August 2014 and over the years her place in the organization expanded into various leadership positions. Most recently, her role has shifted into being the Strategic Advisor to the Executive Director where she uses her giftings to help bring guidance and structure to CCFY’s outward facing capacity building efforts. She comes with a long history of experience in training and curriculum development in the academic research sector. With a Masters degree in Psychology, she has put her education to use in Children’s Mental Health Research aimed at affecting public policy at statewide and national levels. She was the director and lead trainer of the Parent Empowerment Program, a Columbia University/National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) grant funded initiative designed to strengthen the efficacy of family peer advocates in the work that they do with parents of children with special needs. Drawing from her experience, she has continued consulting in curriculum adaptations geared at promoting community engagement and family empowerment within clinical settings, the NYC Department of Education, and citywide Parent Resource Centers. Her work has been published with Oxford University Press and various scientific journals.

Katie Thompson is the Program Director of Shared Justice, the Center for Public Justice’s program for Christian college students and young adults. In 2015 Thompson co-authored Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice with Michael Gerson and Stephanie Summers. She also serves on behalf of CPJ as a steering committee member of Faith for Just Lending, a coalition dedicated to ending predatory payday lending. Thompson holds a Master’s of Public Policy from The Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at The George Washington University.

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