Transcription of the episode “Creating a safe haven: Changing lives after school”

Jon M.: 00:15 I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H.: 00:17 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Jason Garcia. Jason is Assistant Vice President of Youth and Workforce Programs at SoBro, a multifaceted community development organization in the South Bronx. Jason designs and runs a range of out of school time programs for youth, including career exploration, leadership building, community service, and the arts. Welcome, Jason.

Jason G.: 00:43 Thank you for having me.

Jon M.: 00:45 Jason, our organization, Ethics in Education Network, has been providing training to SoBro staff on social emotional learning, or SEL and ethical decision-making. There’s been a lot of discussion in the workshops about the impact of adverse childhood experiences, or ACES on young people and their actions. In the absence of sufficient mental health professionals in the schools community. how can staff members best be supportive of youth who are experiencing the effects of trauma?

Jason G.: 01:17 Just mostly about listening to them, right. And being able not so much to understand a young person, but in a concept where being able to relate to them and, and, and letting them know that this is a part of life. And that trauma is something that, you know, we all go through as humans and as we get older. But it also, it really speaks to the social emotional learning where it says a part of our emotional growth, but being able to socialize about it and really address whatever issues and any trauma that you have on hand and identifying those issues and trauma of, and coming up with a solution. That’s something we focus on at afterschool programs because we deal with that on a day to day basis, especially working with our young people who are in our supportive housing facilities or our transition to supportive housing facilities, or our, just in, you know, who are adopted or in temporary housing, so that that’s just a monster in itself that they have to, you know, just wake up and come to school and not knowing either or they’re homeless, not knowing where the next meal is gonna come from.

Jon M.: 02:29 Can you talk some more about that? I mean, what does that look like in practice? What are some examples of, of how in fact staff can help when kids are in, you know, tremendously stressful situations like that?

Jason G.: 02:43 So one great way is, what we’ve designed is a safe haven for all students and participants when they attend our programs. And we build that trust with them and that level of pretty much confidentiality where they can speak to us. And like I said, we reiterate that we build the safe haven so they can come and speak with us and let us know what they’re going through so that we can turnkey it and assist with these types of resources that may need, that the Department of Education cannot provide a, whether it’d be a meal after school hours or clothing. So it’s just more so about the students and reaching out towards them. Even the families, right? Letting us know what they’re going through so we can go on and identify resources we have internally here in the agency that can benefit them. Whether it’s affordable housing, whether it’s through a food pantry. What a clothing drive or just be able to apply some sort of employment assistance for them to go on and really better themselves and better their life, so to speak.

Amy H. : 03:44 Jason, what about kids who have experienced ACEs or adverse childhood experiences and who you see later on in middle school or high school, for example? These experiences can have longterm impacts. How do you deal with that?

Jason G.: 04:02 It goes back to just like I said, listening to the young people and strategizing with them and identifying the resources we have internally. Kind of hard to narrow it down where we say, we take this group of kids and we would place them in crisis intervention and we take this group of kids and we put them, we place them in LGTBQ awareness. So it’s really a case by case basis where each of our group leaders need to ask staff members who have a specific caseload, where they do an assessment. And we as, as leaders, do assessments as well, not only of the students, but of the families as well. So we take more of a holistic approach enough, we try to [inaudible] that we can figure out or try to identify the root of the problem so we can go on and like I said, identify those needs that the families are in need of, whether it’s affordable housing, whether it’s a meals program, clothing, helping with employment, helping with. furthering education, whether it’s to have the high school equivalency or post secondary education, right. So it’s just a wide array of resources that we try our absolute hardest to bring to the schools and bring to the families we service.

Jon M.: 05:17 One of the things that I was really struck by in some of the workshops that we’ve been doing with the staff is that the staff members seemed very conscious in, in thinking about how they’re supporting kids who’ve been through trauma. I was excited by the sense of people being very self analytical of, okay, how does the way that I respond in a situation impact the young person I’m working with, which is sort of like we talk in Deweyan terms about figuring out what’s ethical by looking at the impact on other people. And what I was hearing was that staff members were saying, okay, so a kid is acting out in the group, and my first reaction might be sort of snap at them. Get in line or act right or whatever. But then by thinking about how, just putting themselves in the situation, thinking about, okay, what might have been going on in his or her day that’s making them act like this, that that was shaping how they, as a staff person, were reacting. Have you seen this? I mean, I just saw this in the workshop situation, but have you’ve seen this in practice. Have you seen staff members talk to you about that?

Jason G.: 06:41 So that’s something I just wanted to bring that up because that’s something I implemented back in about 2009 Iin all of our school based after school programs where it’s not so much of how the child is acting. at that moment as what is causing the child to behave in this manner. Because we don’t wake up angry, right. And, and even as adults, we deal with our own demons and our own issues. Again, it’s most about understanding the child and finding out what is the core issue. And the students feed off energy. Kids feed off energy. Adults feed off energy, right. So if we approach a situation aggressively, we’re just going to get that behavior and those emotions reciprocated back to us. So it’s more so about letting the child vent, because clearly they are sending off a message, maybe a nonverbal message, just by acting a certain manner to let us know, hey, I need help. So how do … you know, we figure out a way of how to identify that. We try to find the root of the problem because kids, when kids, if they’re in the program, it’s because they want to be in the program. All the middle school and high school programs are choice programs so that they’re not obligated to attend. So if they’re acting out in a program, that tells us 1: you wanted to come to the program but 2: you want us to identify and you want us to, you want us to recognize that you’re having a hard time and you want this one on one and you want us to figure out what the issue is or have a conversation with you to find out what the issue is so that we can help you find a solution. So it’s more so about, like I said, just feeding off energy and just giving off that energy to the young people. It’s a cognitive approach that we try to take so that they understand like, well, you know, Mr Jason is going to hear me out and Mr. Jason is going, he’s going to be the first one to recognize that I’m having a hard day because I haven’t eaten in two weeks, I haven’t bathed in two days or because in ninth grade I’m reading at a fourth grade reading level or I have no one at home because I live with a a second generation relative because my immediate family is overseas. And these are just all the examples that I’ve dealt with it and that we ‘ve dealt with here in the agency, in the school, so it’s, it ranges and it’s traumatic and it’s, it’s sad, but you know, we can’t approach it in a sad and, what’s the word I’m looking for, in a sorrowful manner. It’s just more so about in a positive and resourceful and say, hey, well, you know, we’ll get through this together. And I think that’s what we do best here, is we let the participants know that, you know, when you’re here, you’re home and you’re family and we’ll, you know, we’ll take care of you.

Amy H.: 09:22 You said it’s not just kids, but many of your staff members have also experienced extensive trauma in their lives and now may experience secondary trauma in their work. How do you support staff members in dealing with the effects of their own trauma and secondary trauma?

Jason G.: 09:38 So one of our great partners are an agency called Ethics in Education Network. I’m not sure if you guys heard of them. You’ve done great work for us and are really helping the staff. And so, and Jon, you and I spoke about this some time ago, that some staff may not know that they’re going through trauma, or they may not realize that they’re living a traumatic experience until they really take an out of body experience and say, wait a minute, this is not the norm for me, right. This is not, why am I accepting being abused or being verbally abused at home, or, you know, living in certain conditions. And so when they come to work, we build a relationship here and we build a culture here in the agency that the staff, you can, you know, they, they don’t only look at us as an employer, but they look at us as a resource and, and as a wealth of knowledge. And a stepping stool to life where, you know, they’ll say, hey, can SoBro help me with affordable housing or can SoBro help me find a second job at another program or in another department that would help me financially. And, you know, one thing leads to another. So just even getting a job at a different department will, of course, you know, their income is increasing. They can afford the so called affordable housing here that isn’t even so affordable, right. But again, it’s about being a resource and being human. At the end of the day, it’s really about being human and understanding the staff. We have an investment. We have a, I have a huge investment in the staff and we have a huge investment here, and staff need to see somewhere what do we give, what are we putting into the staff members and what are we giving out and how’s it all gonna pay off in the long run, whether they remain with us or we just mold these individuals to be better, to become better professionals in the near future and go on, carry on and be leaders in their own agencies or when they go off and, and really, you know, take the things they learn here and enhance them and continue to develop their acquired skills and, you know, become better people, better parents, better citizens.

Jon M.: 11:40 Wow. That was amazing. That was what I was gonna say. Um, so ethics is about relationships. What are the relationships like among the young people in the programs? And do you see changes in these relationships over time, and how does the staff try to nurture these relationships, positive relationships?

Jason G.: 12:11 The relationships are actually great in the programs, especially for our middle school programs, because we are able to pair individuals up with classmates or schoolmates that they may not be in the same classr during the day, so they get to meet new people and they learn from one another and really broaden their circle or network, right. If that makes sense. And not only by that, but just either, whether it’s through basketball, whether it’s through art, through dance, through robotics, hydroponics, fashion, right. These are just a few programs that we have here to offer, but they, they attend these programs with other participants by choice, because it’s just, we built the independence into the young people in decision making. So they all share that commonality of, of wanting to be in a sport, wanting to be in fashion and wanting to be in hydroponics. So off the bat, they have something to talk about. And again, they get to, you know, they meet one another, so, and they build the relationships, so that in the school day they can say, hey, he goes, you know, Jason goes to SoBro and Jon goes to SoBro and Amy goes to SoBro. So, you know, we’re talking in a lunch room or we’re talking at breakfast, or we’ve been talking in the corner store because we have those, we have that in common, in that relevant interest that we all have. And you know, for all we know we all take the same bus together or we live in the same neighborhood, and we didn’t know it until we all went to SoBro, or we walk in the same direction. And we encourage it and we support it holistically so that the students are learning from one another and even learning different cultures, right. We have students from, from France, we have students from Africa, we have students from Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Iran, students from Brazil, students from, I mean, the list goes on. The list goes on and on, right. So and then we also implement cultural awareness and culture day where students can bring it, you know, coming in to bring in a piece of their homeland, whether it’s a recipe, whether it’s a piece of art, so they can present and talk about it. And you know that we tie that into relationship building and learning from one another.

Amy H.: 14:19 At Ethical Schools, we talk a lot about educating young people, not just to live ethical lives themselves, but also to help develop a more ethical society and ethical institutions. Do students in your programs engage in advocacy and activism for social change? .

Jason G.: 14:37 Wow. Funny that you bring that up because this morning we were talking about our homelessness awareness [inaudible}. One of our programs at our Archimedes Academy and Emolior Academy where area students, they volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter to, um, provide meals to those individuals who are either in supportive housing or who just to come in for meals. So we do advocacy around homelessness, veteran awareness. And that’s over at our Pier Three site that they they do clothing drives or can drives for veterans or the school and what we, part of the school where they do a dollar for a vet. So in order for a participant to come to school in jeans, they have to pay a dollar. That’s all proceeds go to a veteran’s charity. So is it’s just, it ranges from, you know, every year we do different awareness activities and projects where the students are learning about a certain type of advocacy and content behind it.

Amy H.: 15:38 That’s wonderful. Is there any political or campaign involvement?

Jason G.: 15:44 Right now, not yet. Um, students are aware of the political battles that’s going on and I want to put this lightly. And surprisingly, this year, I think a lot more students are in tune with the politics and the debates and who’s Joe Biden and who’s, and Andrew Yang and, you know, who’s Bernie Sanders, who’s Kamala Harris, right. So it’s, it’s great to hear young people say these names and really associate and correlate these individuals with their political beliefs and what they bring to the table. It’s impressive. It’s impressive to hear a 12 year old to know who Joe Biden is, to, to hear a 14 year old talking about Kamala Harris’s belief, and to hear a 12 year old, so he’s going to vote for Bernie Sanders, knowing, well he can’t vote, right? But it’s that they’re having these type of conversations and then it’s, they’re in tune with this. I think that that’s important. You know, whatever political belief or whatever, red or blue party we want to side with, that’s okay. But it’s just more so about who do you feel is going to represent your country. .

Jon M.: 16:46 So do you, I have a question about the followup on that, because obviously, you know, as a nonprofit, you’re nonpartisan and everything, but do you get a sense that those students who are eligible to vote are maybe more likely to vote than in the past? And students who aren’t old enough to vote, but who are saying, I’m going to vote for this one or that one, that they are channeling that at all into a sense of, okay, I can talk to my parents or I can talk to friends or I can do whatever. I mean, you see it moving in any kind of very concrete, practical ways of having an effect?

Jason G.: 17:23 Yes. Be with our YouthBuild and our high school equivalency programs, students are more in tune about what would benefit them in, in the near future, whether it’s through public assistance or whether it’s through postsecondary education, HSE. So you know, what just was tied around that and what support that they will receive in the near future. So I think you know, it, it’s, it’s good to see them having those conversations and. really talk and you know, the conversation surrounding those topics. Like I said, it’s impressive and it’s heartwarming to see our 12 and 13 year olds have conversations like this because you know that they are encouraging their parents to go on and vote for their political interest in who they want them to vote for as a 12 year old, right. So when you see, oh, I’m going to vote for such and such is just them saying, I’m going to encourage my parents, I’m going to encourage my mom or my dad, or my uncle or my caregiver to vote for this particular person.

Jon M.: 18:24 Right. So many of your students are defining their sexuality or questioning their sexual identities. How does the program support them in this process when it’s needed? Like for example, if say families aren’t supportive or whatever.

Jason G.: 18:39 First and foremost, we, we support our students again by listening to them and just encouraging them to make the right decision. And again, they make a sound decision on how they choose to live their life. And we respect it wholeheartedly, but more so honestly, you know, they understand that you know, this, this is a part of their life and a decision that they make. One thing that we deal with commonly is parents that are not properly informed or not well versed with the decision that the young person makes. So they, there’ll be comfortable coming out to us and saying, you know, I’m part of the LGTBQ community. However, when I go home, I have to carry on a certain way because my parents don’t accept it. So we find ourselves trying to educate parents on healthy relationships and in understanding that, you know, your child is your child, no matter what he or she chooses to be in life. And just the young person is going to be the young person. They’re living their life. They can’t live the life that you want them to live, right, and this is the decision that they made. And just more so about the young people understanding that it’s a learning curve, not only for them, but for their parents and really getting through so all the time. So we become a therapist, we become a social worker, right, we become a guidance counselor. We just have to wear different hats so that we’re doing as much as we can, right, from from this side of the house, if that makes sense.

Amy H.: 20:12 A lot of times we’re told that some Black and Brown young people who focus on academic success get peer pressure, that they are quote unquote acting white. Is this an issue? And if so, how do you support these students?

Jason G.: 20:26 One thing I’ve, it’s funny that you mentioned that because it’s, what does that mean “acting white?” How do you act a color or ethnicity, right, so what I tell the kids is the moment you say that, you are putting yourself, you’re already going against the grain if you’re putting yourself at a lower benchmark because you feel just because you are a certain color or a certain ethnicity or culture that you are automatically educated, that’s not always the case, you know. So just by you saying I’m acting white, well, why do you feel like acting white means you’re getting educated? Why can’t you just say is you’re just acting overly educated, right? So it’s just teaching the students that there’s no reason why you can’t speak like that, or there’s no reason why you shouldn’t carry yourself in an educated manner so that you’re not looked upon as a stereotype or you’re not looked upon as just the poor, ghetto Black or Brown child, and just really, it’s, it’s an uphill battle for our young kids in, in Black and Brown communities. But, you know, we’ve been blessed that we’ve have individuals like ourselves to encourage and really guide the young people, our young people, our Black and Brown young people, in the right direction and provide as much guidance as we can and kids feel because they’re from a certain neighborhood, they have to carry that out. Speak for myself. I was born in the South Bronx where, you know, being educated, having a career, really goes against the grain. It goes against what we were supposed to do because we were from a certain neighborhood and understanding that, well, you know, I’m from this neighborhood, so I have to stay in this neighborhood and not, you know, I want to better myself. And that’s what I tried to instill to young people that just because you’re born here doesn’t mean your entire life is these four walls or the concrete jungle, what they call the projects, right. You can better yourself and you could go on to college and really meet other people of different ethnicities and different cultures. I encourage all of our high school students to go on and go to different colleges, different states, so you can meet other people and you can see what Louisiana is like. You can see what St. Louis Is like. You can see what Florida is like. You can see what Washington is like. If you want to go to Idaho, go to Idaho, right. You don’t have to stay locked into New York City. You’ll stay locked into just all four corners of the neighborhood you walk in because it’s just the thing to do. So it was just more so educating the young people about, it’s not acting white, it’s being educated and being properly informed. That is nothing wrong with that. You should be proud that, you know, you have a vocabulary that’s more than 20 words, right. So it’s, I mean, it’s an uphill battle and it goes against the grain. Cause I’m from that neighborhood. I’m from that era and just growing up poor, it was, we had no choice but to go to school with, you know, my mom worked two jobs. She worked at a, at a Caldor department store, when it was many, you know, many, many years ago. And she worked at a bus depot over in Hunts Point. So we just, we had a fend for ourselves and, and you know, school was the way out because that’s where everything happened, in school. That’s where we learned, that’s where we played, that’s where we ate. And that’s what we made our mistakes.

Jon M.: 23:46 So speaking of success after graduation, whether academic or workforce or whatever, what are some of the ways that you are able to support students after they graduate from your program?

Jason G.: 23:58 I think we do a great job with that in terms of having an alumni network where students come back and either work with us in some youth or they come and volunteer with us. O they just come back and visit just to say, hey Mr Jason, I’m in Ohio University or I’m in Syracuse University. I’m moving to Florida cause I got a four year scholarship. So let’s just, I’ll stay in tune with them and providing at least, whether it’s an employment internship or volunteer opportunity for them. I have one young person, that he’s been with kind of, I’ve been his mentor since he was in third grade. And he’s over in college in Vermont, he plays basketball. And he comes every year, he comes around around this time, around April, he’ll be coming here soon, saying Mr. Jason, I need a job, or, Mr Jason, can I get $20. But he will come everyday to volunteer, to help out, to do free tutoring with the kids. He’ll do basketball training. And if I have an intern, a paid internship, he’ll be more than happy to take it. And if I don’t, he still comes back, you know, so the love is there and the connections there, because we’ve build that bond. And again, like I mentioned earlier, we have a safe haven for them, so they know when they come back here, it’s like coming back home. So it’s just about outeach and retention and making sure we stay in tune and in touch with the young people. One thing also is important to continuity and that’s just the retention we have here of staff, and that when they come back, they see the same staff, whether the staff is a group leader two years ago, now they’re an assistant director, because we’ve invested in our staff members and they come say, oh wow, you know, you’re a program director now, you used to be my basketball coach. Cause when I started at SoBro 15 years ago, and, and a great friend of mine, Eva Lopez, she kind of brought me over in 2005 if I’m not mistaken, or 2004, she brought me over as a basketball coach because she needed someone to coach basketball. And 15 years later, I’m the Assistant Vice President of Youth and Workforce Programs.

Jon M.: 25:52 So speaking of being the assistant vice president, when we were talking earlier today, you were just talking a little bit about what your day has been like today. And so I just have to ask you, because we’re in the middle of the coronavirus, how do you deal with this? How are you dealing with it? What are some of the concrete things that you’re able to do in terms, for example, of continuing the service to the kids who are, you know, in the homeless program or the other kids? What kinds of things are you trying to figure out at this point?

Jason G.: 26:21 I’m really figuring out how do we support our families in need, how do we support our employees and really how do we continue to offer the great services we’ve been offering from limited standpoint. Most of our strategic planning and really making a right decision and it’s hard to not answer a question or be that sense of comfort in and heartwarming to our individuals when we don’t know what’s happening and this kind of, sometimes we, you know, we’re left in the dark. And people usually come to us for answers and when we don’t have those answers, it’s heartbreaking not to be able to see a smile on someone’s face when they walk away or that sense of relief and trust that they know that everything was going to be okay because SoBro’s got my back, right. So we just continue to just move like that and carry that manner and, and really support not only us, our clients and people that we serve, but our employees. Um, so that’s something we’re dealing with now when we’re still in decision making stages and trying to figure out what our next move forward, um, and what’s best for us, the agency, the community, and an employees and the client and the city overall.

Amy H. : 27:34 Yeah. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?

Jason G.: 27:40 No, not really. I mean, I think this was great. You guys are just a great partner to us and we’ve done great work together, and I just, you guys are amazing. Again, thank you so much for the trainings that you guys provide to us cause early today, it’s, Sonia and some of the other staff members were saying, wow, you know, this is some stuff that Jon was talking about and that really Ethics in Education came in. We didn’t know when we were going to need it. And you know, we need it now when we implement that training and, and execute. The social emotional crisis and trauma that go into this is how we address those needs. So it just, God works in mysterious ways, that I had that conversation this morning and we’re having this podcast.

Jon M.: 28:21 Thank you so much, Jason Garcia of SoBro.

Jason G.: 28:25 No problem. You guys have a great night.

Amy H.: 28:27 Thank you listeners for joining us. Check out our website for episodes and articles. We’ve begun to post annotated transcripts of our interviews. We offer professional development on social emotional learning with a focus on ethics in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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