New York Community Foundations Mobilizing Around Raise the Age

On March 31, 2015 the New York State budget was passed without the Raise the Age legislation proposed by the Governor’s Committee for Youth, Public Safety and Justice. These legislative proposals will have to be approved in the regular legislative session in June. The final budget, which passed in the Senate did approve the funding needed for Raise the Age. It states that “the budget acknowledges the importance of raising the age of criminal responsibility by including funding that will be immediately available to local governments to ensure readiness, as well as other funding that will be available upon enactment of legislation to Raise the Age that is expected this legislative session.”

An expectation is not an assurance. We need fierce and dedicated advocates to pick up the reins and continue to apply pressure on our local legislators to fight for this legislation. New York community foundations are providing the push necessary to get this important legislation passed. Cali Brooks, the Executive Director of the Adirondack Foundation and Tynesha McHarris, the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Director of Community Leadership, are two women leading this movement and who provided information for this article.

The Adirondack Foundation is one of 24 community foundations across the state of New York. They support life in the geographic region of the Adirondacks, specifically in the areas of environmental health and the health of families. The Adirondack Foundation is not a justice organization but they are mobilizing other community trusts to say that the just treatment of young people involved in the legal system is important for our state.

These community foundations have collaborated to educate one another, as well as the public to apply collective pressure on the capital. Ten community foundations wrote letters to various newspaper editors in support of ‘Raise the Age’, which can be found in the Resources section of this blog. The letter brought attention at the local county level in Northern NY to the issue of unfair treatment of young people in the criminal justice system, as well as garnered the attention of local attorneys. Social media is also a tool the Adirondack Foundation is using to keep their community aware of the Raise the Age campaign.

The unfair treatment of young people in the criminal justice system is inextricable from issues related to racial equality. The Adirondack Foundation acknowledges this and to bring attention, they recently started the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council. ADAC’s mission “is to develop and promote strategies to help the Adirondack Park become more welcoming and inclusive of all New Yorkers, both visitors and permanent residents.” While New York is a white minority state, many rural areas of New York are still predominately white. Recognizing that Northern NY is not as racially diverse as other parts of the state, this council will offer advice and support, as well as engage and participate in initiatives to be more inclusive.

By supporting ‘Raise the Age’ the Adirondack Foundation is aligning their goals with organizations that represent more racially diverse communities. Cali Brooks stated that this is “just the beginning for upstate-downstate mobilization.” She continued to say that since we are a state with an economy that is so interlinked, particularly to urban areas like Rochester and Buffalo, it is important to have a movement that connects both regions of our state.

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Brooklyn Community Foundation is taking the lead in the city to organize other community foundations across the state to be responsible to local needs. They organized a briefing with the Adirondack Foundation and Rochester Community Foundation to show common interests particularly in how we treat our children. Brooklyn Community Foundation is starting to focus resources more in youth justice in light of ‘Raise the Age’, whereas in the past they focused more broadly on youth development and leadership.

Starting in January 2014, the Brooklyn Community Foundation launched Brooklyn Insights, a six-month project that brought the residents and leaders of Brooklyn together to discuss “the pressing needs of their communities, opportunities for change and strategies for collective action.” For the next ten years, this foundation will use what they have learned during this process to address the gross disparities in opportunity, and to improve the equity of outcomes for the residents of Brooklyn.

To gain a sense of people’s perceptions of Brooklyn, their sense of the challenges and opportunities facing the borough, and their wishes for concrete and sustainable community change, Brooklyn Community Foundation organized sector-based roundtables and neighborhood dialogues with over 300 people in one-on-one discussions, group conversations and town hall meetings in Coney Island, East New York and Sunset Park. The BrooklynInsights.org website and Community Engagement Fellows (seven high school students who ensured the voices of young people were integrated into the process by leading meetings and contributing their own analysis and recommendations) were used to inform Brooklyn communities throughout the process.

In all of these different conversations, five major themes arose repeatedly and the Foundation will use them as anchors for future work. They are neighborhood cohesion and the consequences of gentrification; opportunities for young people; the criminal justice system; immigrant communities; and racial justice. As it relates to the youth, poverty, education and unemployment are their most serious obstacles. For example, Brooklyn Community Foundation found that while the percentage of Brooklyn’s young people ages 16-24 who are neither in school nor working has declined since 2000 in low-income neighborhoods like Brownsville, still close to 30% of youth are not in school or employed. Racial disparities in youth incarceration is another issue of concern. Black and Latino young people comprise 57% of Brooklyn’s youth population but represent 95% of the young people admitted to juvenile detention facilities.

Like the Adirondack Foundation, Brooklyn Community Foundation acknowledges the role of institutional racism in youth justice. Ms. McHarris described Brooklyn Community Foundation’s approach as a move from a charity model to a justice model. She said, “philanthropy doesn’t always talk about racism beyond interpersonal relationships” which fails to acknowledge the important role and history of institutional racism. Brooklyn Community Foundation launches their Racial Justice Advisory Council within the next month. They would like to advance racial justice in Brooklyn by using their influence to leverage change. NYJJI and other foundations who are interested can bring funders together to coinvest and educate one another on strategies to improve outcomes for youth and racial justice.

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