(L-R) Malika Harris, Program Coordinator; Neals Chitan, Presenter; Jade Elias, Program Director
By Neals Chitan
My introduction to Red Hook Public Housing Community on the west side of Brooklyn, New York, six weeks ago was not one of fear and intimidation as friends who live outside of this “Projects” and really don’t know anything about it, had suggested to me.
Upon driving into Henry Street and making the right turn onto Mill St, I felt at home. Yes, apartment buildings, parents sitting around chatting and socializing, boys playing ball on the basketball court that Red Hook-born NBA star Carmelo Anthony had totally upgraded for the community, while teenage girls are on their hand-held devices texting. I was at home!
This sight just convinced me even more of my conviction, which of course I had to publicly defend, that public housing communities have the social ingredients that can produce great citizens. The Red Hook atmosphere of interaction and socialization that I saw was relaxing, and had me a bit nostalgic as I reminisced about my childhood days in Grenville on the east side of Grenada, where all mothers were everyone’s mom, where we played care-free and where every dad watched out for your safety.
However, the prejudicial profile was planted in my mind, and I too was unduly very cautious as I walked around and said “Hi.” As we drove around the block my eyes captured a sign that read “Red Hook Initiative.” I jumped out and entered the front doors to the welcoming smile of Sherrie Harden, the receptionist.
I quickly introduced myself and handed her my business card as she gave me quick snapshots of the objectives of this community initiative. Being an international crime reduction specialist and past social skill contractor for Toronto Community Housing Corporation who worked in dozens of their neighbourhoods, I saw myself in this centre, motivating, inspiring and challenging the youth of this community to greatness, despite the bad rap this so-called “Projects” had taken.
As soon as I returned to Toronto, I was again scheduled back to New York in four weeks and I was prepared to do everything possible to engage the high impact sessions of “Project Stop ‘n’ Think” at Red Hook. So, I made contact with the Initiative’s program director Jade Elias who welcomed the idea and scheduled me as keynote speaker for the opening ceremony of a powerful youth leadership training program on Friday September 20, 2013.
This time I wanted to be part of the Red Hook experience. So I arranged with Raulda Courtney, the single mother of three boys and a relative of my wife, who lived there, to accommodate me. She was very excited and, upon arrival on Thursday night, I was given keys to my Red Hook three bedroom “condo” with a breath-taking panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline from my bedroom window.
I turned in for the night in an extremely comfortable bedroom while gazing at the lights emanating from the 1,775 feet top of the One World Trade Center and thinking of the politeness of Raulda’s sons, 17-year-old Rolland and 13-year-old Storm.
On Friday, after a very pleasant seven-minute walk I arrived at the Red Hook Initiative Centre to meet with Program Co-ordinator Malika Harris. Along the way, I was frequently greeted with friendly “hello, good day and hi” from adults, youth and children alike, setting the stage for a warm initial meeting with Ms Harris.
“Game time” was 4.30 pm, and, as I entered the meeting room and started setting up my equipment, I met six teenagers: Diamond, Frank, Nytae, Marcus, Alex and later Dontae who despite manipulating the screens of their touch phones displayed a very high level of respect and socially clean language as we introduced ourselves.
After my formal introduction by Ms Elias, I took to the stage, powerfully engaging “Real Talks -- Believing the Lie” a high impact session meant to help youth understand and side-step the systemic traps meant to keep them in a downward spiral of failure and disaster. The room was quiet as I delivered. No one disturbed, and the only other sound beside my voice were that of feet walking into the room, as more and more youth joined.
“What a lie!” I thought. Just weeks before, someone had told me that if I go to Red Hook, don’t expect anyone to listen to me. They told me to be very careful because of the rampant drugs, crime and violence. And by the way, I imagine that just like any other public housing community I have worked in across North America, Red Hook too has its fair share of these societal dysfunctions, but my goodness, talking about judging a book by the cover.
These teenagers were inspired, challenged and receptive, and responded to that session by standing and giving me “Hi 5s” as they pledged to soar to excellence so as to redeem the good name of their community.
But that wasn’t the end! After hearing about the success and impact of the session, Raulda, my host, who is a student of psychology decided single handed to plan a session in her apartment on Sunday September 22 so that her neighbours and friends would get the opportunity to hear it.
With the help of her mother Valerie, they cleaned, cooked and rearranged to fit the mothers, children and teens who showed up to listen the concepts that they too accepted and committed to.
Laytoya, a young mother whose eight-year-old son was also present remarked, “The speaker was very good and relevant. It was uplifting, inspiring, life changing and the issues addressed are real.” She further expressed that she thinks this information can change the community.
Later, 21-year-old Van, who just dropped by and could only stay for five minutes, but who remained the complete 90 minutes, remarked, “I liked it because it is real. I worked in security and it motivated me. I cannot change the world, but I can change myself. It is hard because in New York we all feed from the same material, and we all react alike, but I realize I can be a leader and I will.”
Red Hook, you did not let the negative judgemental stigmas of public opinion dictate your behaviour. I saw the real Red Hook myself, I lived there unannounced and I experienced your warmth and care. Keep your commitment to community empowerment and success and as I promised you, very soon your youth will make you proud.
In the meantime I warn my readers: “Never judge a book by the cover.”
Neals J. Chitan is the Grenadian-born president of Motiv-8 For Change International -- a Toronto based High Impact Social Skill Agency that is specially dedicated to the social empowerment of individuals, families and communities