Brooklyn-based mentoring program for at-risk youth ends due to budget cuts

The community-based Next STEPS aimed to promote education, employment, health services, family engagement and civic participation.

Youth from the Next STEPS program.

Youth from the Next STEPS program. (Image courtesy of Next STEPS)

New York City budget cuts last month abruptly ended the Next STEPS program, a community based effort that provided mentoring services and workshops for at-risk youth aged 16 to 24 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. 

Next STEPS - short for Striving Toward Engagement and Peaceful Solutions - had aimed to promote education, employment, health services, family engagement and civic participation. Participants engaged in one-on-one mentoring, open group discussions, resume/job interviewing workshops as well as field trips, film screenings, sports activities and more. Next STEPS aimed to help young adults build stronger and safer communities by working with and fostering positive change in their decision making and behavior while expanding opportunities to allow them to move out of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. “It gives youth something to do and a feeling of being part of something with someone that cares while giving them access to free meals and stipends,” said Luis James, program coordinator at RiseBoro Community Partnerships, the organization which ran the Next STEPS program.

Each program had a lead mentor program coordinator and two to three part time members who are all qualified as credible mentors, meaning they were members of the community or people who have had interaction with or experience with the criminal-legal system. The program followed an interactive journaling curriculum and essentially went through a series of social emotional learning topics that were developed and targeted for the youth members through a trauma lens. “We offer mentorship with the goal of diverting young people from criminal legal involvement,” Joscelyn Pruitt, vice president of empowerment at RiseBoro Community Partnerships, told New York Nonprofit Media. 

The abrupt closure of the program was perceived by some as short sighted. “I didn’t even receive information on why,” said James. “I received information that it was being cut short on a Thursday and it was done next Friday. They didn’t even give us any time to prepare really.” 

The Department of Probation determined that Next STEPS did not have a high enough impact as far as the number of participants served for the amount of money that it was costing. The program also did not capture enough data or outcome metrics around job training, education, credential attainment and other outcomes that would support the positive impact of the work.

However, “we were never asked to officially gather other types of data. A lot of our anecdotal and qualitative data is captured in the monthly reports that we submit to the (department), but certainly the impact of the program is reverberating,” Pruitt told NYN. “Yes, we work with a small number of people but if you think about how much it costs to detain and imprison somebody in New York state, the program pays for itself and we’re able to keep people away from jail and prison.”

Program Coordinator Luis James expressed confusion and indignation when asked about the closure. “We’re fighting. We try to go to as many city council meetings and city hall speeches to reach out to the mayor and try to reach out to the (department) and see what’s going on. And it’s all the same thing, they’re just saying that they don’t see the data that shows that the program is providing any help. I don’t understand what they’re looking for to show that because if you come to the community, the kids that want help are getting help. I don’t know what they’re looking for.” he told NYN. Additionally, Next STEPS doesn’t just work with the young people in the program, they also work with their families and other people in the community regardless of if they are specifically enrolled in the program. For the amount of money that it required, Pruitt emphasized that Next STEPS was not an expensive program, but it has had long lasting impacts on a large group of people. 

Young people who were enrolled in the program said they felt abandoned when it was closed, leaving them saddened and angry without a safe space to come to twice a week. “It’s just another program that the government has taken away from them,” James told NYN Media. “That makes them feel like they don’t care about them. They feel like it’s just another thing that the city promised them and then was taken away.” Young people who were in the program who spoke to NYN expressed disappointment and a lack of understanding over why the program would be considered relatively small in comparison to other funded programs that would be shut down. One of the reasons that the department said it was redundant was  because there are other mentorship programs for young adults. However, what they did not take into account was that these programs are not easily accessible to all youth at risk. Young people often are constrained by where they live and not having access to certain neighborhoods or houses. “To just assume that we can cut this program and send a young person to a mentoring program, like three blocks over, is a really callous assumption because we just don’t know the circumstances of each of these young people in there,” said Pruitt. It’s important that there are considerations taken into account regarding some of the violence that happens within the neighborhoods that the at risk youth are in and how that affects their participation in different programs. There are other department funded programs that are open to use and not in probation. 

Next STEPS certainly wasn’t the only program out there, however there were a variety of aspects that made it especially unique. Some of those aspects are the houses that they specifically targeted and the credible messengers model. Furthermore, a lot of the young people that they worked with applied for and some even obtained positions working for RiseBoro and some of their agencies as mentors. RiseBoro was able to offer intern employment to some graduates of this program who qualify as credible messengers. Next STEPS also offered financial support to participants. “We were able to pay people for their attendance and although it wasn’t a significant amount of money, it was something that helps a lot of people get a bank account started or afford to get their driver’s license or even pay for their books or attend college classes or higher education programs” Pruitt told NYN. There were specific benefits to the program that they were able to stretch very far for the amount of funding that they had access to. A lot of the staff that worked in these programs also worked extra hours because they were dealing with whole communities so they were more involved in their everyday lives than they were paid for. 

Moving forward, RiseBoro’s most pressing concern was preventing other programs from being shut down in a similar manner. “We were really excited to begin our partnership with the Department of Probation when all of these prevention programs aimed at working with at- risk youth were funded in the last administration, so I really hope that Next STEPS is as far as it goes. I really hope that the cuts won’t continue to impact some of our other programs.” said Pruitt. “I’m worried that the focus on numbers and aggregate data doesn’t all the way capture the essence of these programs which are offering people in communities who want to work with this population and people in the community who are at risk of incarceration opportunities for self exploration, recreation, and access to workforce and higher education.”

A Department of Probation spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.