Sistas and Brothas United

SBUIn a narrow, red, four-story house next to a grocery store on a busy Bronx corner, seven young people crowd into a small conference room. They look and dress like any other teenagers in this New York City neighborhood, and they joke around like friends that go way back. But something unusual is going on in this place. As Jacky, 15, says:
None of us fit the stereotype of a powerful political person -- we're young, we're minorities. Yet when the group around the table begins to talk about its work, anyone can feel the power it wields. These are the members of Sistas and Brothas United (SBU), and they have decided they can change their world. They have gathered this winter afternoon to tell the story of the new school they're trying to start.

First Step: Speak Up for Change

Now 17, Fernando and Jean [pronounced "John"] first met as freshmen in high school and discovered they lived across the street from each other. Fernando was already involved in the Northwest Bronx Coalition, a local community group trying to clean up the streets and fix up the schools. The group held a youth meeting to take action, and Fernando enlisted Jean to help. He tells the story:
We decided to go to the school and try to take pictures of all the things that was messed up -- the doors, broken hanging lights, how easily the handrails to the escalators came off, the broken fire alarms, broken steps. There was this big community meeting, and we got a chance to speak to the Schools Chancellor.

I was 15 years old, and it was my first public meeting. So many people came that they had to stand on the tables to see, and the tables broke. I found a hard hat, a yellow construction hat, and I wore it through the whole day and to the meeting. And when I spoke, I said, “I shouldn't have to go to school wearing a hard hat, with things falling from the ceiling.”

The Chancellor's office was pissed off, but the news reporters started asking me for interviews. And when they found that I was 15, it started bugging them out -- most kids my age were chilling in the park.

And that's when I realized it was something really cool. I didn't think of it at the moment, but I used to hang outside the office, and the next day in the neighborhood they started calling me the Channel 11 guy. It was like a joke at first, but then they were like, “Yo, how'd you do that?” And that's how I got Jean into it. Now I'm on the board of directors of the Coalition. As more young people from the Bronx started showing up, Sistas and Brothas United spun off as a separate youth action group within the larger Coalition.

Alex, 17, describes how getting involved affected him:
The whole point of SBU is to develop leadership, your full potential. I never thought I would open my mouth and be opinionated -- I was always more to myself. This helped me find out how intelligent I am, that I had rights too. I had to engage myself -- paying attention, being open-minded, doing trainings. At my first public meeting, I had to record the data of what the politicians were saying -- were they committing to our demands or were they opposing the demands?

Jacky, who says she has always been shy, was nervous at first about knocking on doors to get neighborhood people to come to a meeting on improving the nearby Mosholu Parkway. But the group coached her in how to do successful outreach:
You always have people who are negative, but you are supposed to find a common bond between them and yourself. If they have kids, you talk about kids. If you see they're elderly, they have trouble walking, you say, "The streets are really messed up, and we're working on getting them better." You want to fix something that would help them. For youth, we speak about schools, about how [at SBU] we get to speak on anything we want to speak on, and how you can be comfortable to do that here. That's a real help when you're trying to get youth to come here.

In addition, members of Sistas and Brothas United receive training in how to set agendas and priorities, plan and run meetings, speak at public events, testify at legislative hearings, and negotiate with school and other administrative officials. When they can draw public attention to things that matter, Alex says, the rewards are far-reaching and very personal:
We were in Albany in front of the Governor's Mansion, protesting for education. We had a hip hop rally in front of City Hall, where I spoke for about two minutes in front of 30,000 people. It went from coast to coast; I was in the L.A. Times! I wasn't scared -- it was my people, it was a bunch of youth. I had the future in front of me, so I talked to them. It's all about self-determination. You got to set goals for yourself, long term and short term. You always got to have a destination.

The group has achieved important victories. Jean talks about how their early work on the decaying facilities at his high school paid off:
In John F. Kennedy we got a lot of stuff fixed -- the lights, the escalators, we got the boys a new gym locker room, we got more books into the school. That gives me a sense of power. After that I started noticing, learning more about the chain of events that we have to go through to get things done. As an organization, a few youth together have enough power to speak to officials about problems in our schools. You know you're not just nobody in your schools -- you can do changes.

A Key Target: Improving Schools

Everyone at SBU works on a community issue, such as traffic, and also on an issue that centers on education. Cesar explains:
I'm on the teacher quality campaign. We made questionnaires for teachers and students, and we gave them out, trying to get information on how they think about teaching, how they could improve it. Then with the information from that, we have a meeting.

Alex worked on that campaign, too:

"The campaigns that we work for are not going to affect us so much. They are going to affect our future, the younger kids." -- Jean

We go into schools and go one-on-one with teachers, putting them to the test and helping them find better ways to talk to students. A lot of students don't understand what's going on -- sometimes only one student will get it in a class, and the teachers move on anyway. So we're trying to reach teachers -- to generate ways that youth and teachers can communicate and build some kinds of understanding.

Experiences like these got them thinking about how to make schools better, says Luz. Now a senior at Walton, a very large Bronx public high school, she remembers the campaign to rehab the largely vacant Kingsbridge Armory:
We proposed putting three small schools into the Armory and started thinking about what those schools would be like -- what they would teach. We're still working for that -- it's an ongoing project.

Jean recalls working with outside organizations on the same proposal:
We met constantly with them, we gave them our ideas about what we want to see in there -- like an ice skating rink, some space for a community center, an athletic facility.

High school students in the Bronx could not fail to notice the growing initiative to introduce new small schools into the local landscape. Most of the new schools started as ninth-grade "programs," then added a grade each year until eventually they occupied a portion of a large school's space, with an independent principal and staff. As Luz tells it:
Even though all of us were going to big schools, we were looking at how the new small schools affected our own schools. We noticed that in a smaller school you have more of a one-to-one with the teachers, and the school is like a community. You know the students, everyone knows each other, and there's less conflicts.

In the typical large, overcrowded high school, observes Helen, 17, teachers and students often don't communicate well:
We know that from experience; we all go to overcrowded schools. When we have problems in the classroom, we have to solve it ourselves. When they're giving you a lesson and you don't really understand, they don't have time to go up to you and show you one-on-one.

Alex agrees:
It's rough, it's real rough. She might be helping 45 other people out.

SBU at a Glance

Sistas and Brothas United (SBU) involves local teenagers in community action in the Northwest Bronx. Through leadership training, organizing campaigns, and direct action, it develops the capacity of youth in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and provides a compelling alternative to gang and drug cultures. A grassroots organization run by its membership, SBU grew from a local affiliate of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a multi-issue membership organization formed in 1974 that has tackled issues ranging from neighborhood arson to school overcrowding.

Some of SBU's recent initiatives:

* A school facilities campaign that brought about substantial improvements in facilities and resources at several neighborhood high schools.
* Teacher and student surveys and youth-initiated professional development aimed at improving teacher quality in area high schools.
* A campaign under way to demolish a dangerous vacant building at 194th Street and replace it with a community center.
* A campaign to address toxic air quality at an old school building, resulting in ventilation improvements and one small high school's move to new quarters.
* A campaign to rehabilitate the largely vacant Kingsbridge Armory for possible use by three new small high schools.
* Collaborative campaigns to improve safety conditions on Mosholu Parkway and to slow traffic conditions in University Heights.
* A proposal for a new small school called The Leadership Institute for Social Justice, partnering with Fordham University and with a community action theme.

Contact information:
Ginette Sosa
Sistas and Brothas United
Northwest Bronx Coalition
103 East 196th Street
Bronx NY 10468

Why Not Start One?

As they gained experience working on school problems, the young activists in Sistas and Brothas United started thinking about a school design of their own. Luz explains:
We figured it would be a great idea for us to start our own school and do things right. All of us came up with the idea together, like a brainstorm thing. We wanted a theme-based high school, about social justice and leadership, like SBU.

Seeking more educational expertise than their community organization could provide, they reached out to nearby Fordham University as a co-sponsor that would lend support and guidance to the new school. New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy offered the young planners technical assistance. Teachers from DeWitt Clinton High School joined the team, too, along with professors from two other local colleges.

Students came up with other ideas as the planning progressed:
We would like students to be able to talk to the teachers about their grades, participate in their own grades more. (Helen)

And we want students to be part of the planning of the curriculum. There should be one day when you have to do an actual project in the community. (Alex)

The incoming freshmen are going to have a project. It might be an abandoned building, or what to do with a vacant lot -- that might be their project, working out the math of that. One day a week they'd be out, either outreaching for that project, or doing research. That's when the community people, like from SBU, would come in and help them out to reach their targets. (Luz)

We're going to interview the teachers, because we want the teachers to agree with what we want to see in the school. (Helen)

If they have the same vision as us. (Luz)

If you're going to be a teacher or staff of our school, it would be mandatory that you go to a summer program, to decide the curriculum to teach. And the students have a little input into that, and there's a chance for the teachers to talk with the students and to know the community. Sometimes it's a very big problem that teachers don't come from the communities they're in. (Fernando)

Alex knows the power of a democratic school first hand, from attending one of the Bronx's other small public schools, the New School for Arts and Sciences. When air quality problems there made teachers and students sick, he helped organize a successful campaign to move the school to a new building. He describes his school's governance process:
We have a leadership team that involves students and parents in decision-making at the school -- we hire the teachers and principals, have evaluations, one-on-one talks with the principals about how they did.

Using a similarly collaborative process, the SBU planners produced document after document explaining their new school's mission, its design, its hopes and dreams. They decided to call it The Leadership Institute for Social Justice, with the motto "Education for Community Action." It would be more than just a school, according to the mission statement they wrote:
It teaches young adults to not only give to the community but to also get a better understanding of what changes need to be made to benefit the community, as well as to implement them... A focus on leadership will prepare youth to take charge of their lives and be active, engaged participants in their communities. An emphasis on community action will encourage youth to take action to bring about real change, and to do this collectively and cooperatively. A focus on social justice will help students clarify their values, understand their rights, and relate these to the broader world around them.

These beliefs are important because they will make learning real, challenging, and important ... It will be a place [students] want to attend every day, because it will be a school they helped create.

On this winter afternoon in early 2003, as the March day approaches when the students and their partners will go before the city and district authorities to present their proposal, the young people around the table at Sistas and Brothas United are worried, but optimistic. Helen says:
It would start with ninth graders, as a program in a big high school, and then as it got more grades it would become a school. We'd be going in from Sistas and Brothas as mentors.

A Stake in the Future

The student planners talk openly about how working to change their schools and communities has changed them. Jacky describes the new sense of power she feels:
You don't have to be scared when you voice your opinion about something at a meeting. Here, there's a lot of people to back you up.

Fernando speaks of the responsibilities of the activist's life:
To do this kind of work, you give up a lot of time. When you miss school it's for an important meeting -- it might be someone from the Board of Ed, or the Chancellor, or the high school superintendent. A group of us went up to Albany to fight for the funds for summer youth programs, having meetings with the politicians all day. It's kind of like in college, when you have to speak in class and do a report.

They have learned about effective communication, Helen says:
You have to communicate with adults, speak well in front of adults. You learn how to express your ideas and thoughts, how to take charge.

Jean offers an example:
That reminds me of the meeting where Fernando was wearing a hard hat. It was one of our first meetings, and we were really prepping each other to be in front of TV for the first time. Fernando has a paper with his notes on it, and he's shaking and the paper's shaking. And then he crumbles it up and starts saying it right from his head. And it came out way better.

And Alex tells of the confidence that comes with knowing what you want to say:
My second speech, it was my first meeting with the Alliance for Quality Education, dealing with the education budget, with Dr. Wolcott. He was talking to me, and I was trying to say my speech, but he wasn't paying attention.

I put down my paper, I picked up my chair and the mike, and I walked over to him and sat down right next to him. And he gave me the attention I needed. I told him what was on my mind, presented my hand, and when I left, he shook my hand. It took leadership. It built my determination.

These young activists well know that their work will not always pay off immediately. Jean and Fernando joined the organization as high school freshmen, and after three years they have a sense of perspective:
The campaigns that we work for are not going to affect us so much. They are going to affect our future, the younger kids. (Jean)

It's going to have a long-term effect -- everyone that comes after us is going to feel it. (Fernando)

But, as Luz and Cesar observe:
In the work we do, you can't be selfish. When you think about it, by the time the school is actually a school, we're probably out of it. It's not even our brothers and sisters, it's future generations. It's about us standing up for what we believe in and making a change for them. (Luz)

Our sons and daughters. (Cesar)

And when they think about their futures, they have confidence that they will make a difference:
We're all the future elected officials, teachers, lawyers, doctors. Most of us are going to become staff in SBU and make it bigger -- have it be all around the country. (Jean)

I want to be a politician in this community. (Luz)

And I'll run against her! (Fernando)

In speaking for himself, Alex seems to speak for all of the members of Sistas and Brothas United:
I can't say now that I'm going to keep up this work. But whatever I do in the future, I'm going to change the world. I'm going to affect it. With my history and background, I don't want to see today's youth grow up the way I did. I take everything in this organization personally because of that.


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