Transcript of the episode: “Mentors and passages: The power of teen-centric programs”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Al Kurland, longtime youth worker in Upper Manhattan and author of the forthcoming book, “The Soul of Adolescence Aligns With the Heart of Democracy: Orphans, Rebels, and Civic Lovers Unite.” Welcome, Al! 

[00:00:31] Al K: Thank you so much for having me and including me in your family of philosophers and social change agents.

[00:00:39] Jon M: You’re totally welcome. Thank you for joining us. You’ve worked with young people in Washington Heights for over 40 years. Tell us about the community and its youth. 

Okay. So when I first became invited or enrolled to work with young people, it was in December of 1984,and Washington Heights at that time was a very different place from what it is today. So in the 1980s, the Heights on the streets and even in people’s own buildings was a very intimidating environment. In our precinct alone, we had a hundred homicides a year. So people went from place to place, a child may go from home to school or a parent from home to work, but they did it with great trepidation because of the culture of the streets, which was perpetually dangerous. That was one factor that’s different from today.

And the second factor is, I initially was in working or volunteering with a community-based organization that was totally adult oriented. It was called the Riverside Heights Security Association. And we were basically formed to address the issue of violence and public safety at the time. And all of us were adults. In the course of our meetings, it came up that we were not addressing the needs of young people. Because people knew I had worked with youth before, but not at a community-based level. I had been at first, a teacher and then a supervisor in special education. I had done that for 22 years. They asked me to write a proposal, to create a new program in the Southern portion of the Heights, an area we called the Southern Heights. And that got funded and we opened as afterschool programs on a budget of $9,100 per year, which means staff didn’t get paid. I didn’t get paid. I retained my job at the school in Queens and then came to volunteer as an “executive director” for this organization.

And within a few months, our enrollment at the school, PS 1 28 in Northern Manhattan, was 140 young people, about 20 of whom were young teens and high school teens who attended the program and also doubled as volunteer staff. So in essence, according to the rules, the Office of Children and Family Services and the Department of Health, we were, without a doubt, the most illegal youth program functioning because nobody except for myself was over the age of 18, except for coach Dave, who could not join the program on board because he had his own program, but he actually trained the teenagers in what to do and told them to listen to me no matter what, no matter how experimental and clueless I appeared, because I had never done street programs before with youth. So that was the beginning. Today the Heights still is a challenged community. We have a large portion of the population that lives in poverty or near poverty levels, but we also have a new population coming from gentrified ranks. So whereas before a precinct had a hundred homicides a year, I think we had one homicide last year. And levels of violence, whether it’s street shootings, robberies, are significantly down. It’s still a concern, it’s always a concern, especially in these times of isolation, but nothing approaching the atmosphere that existed when the program began.

[00:04:50] Amy H-L: What did you do that made the program so successful?

[00:04:54] Al K: Okay, thank you for that question. So the first thing I did is, in addition to working in adult programs and serving on a community board and being a member of a small Democratic club, I reached out to the son of one of the executive members, Dave Crenshaw, who was the executive director of the Dreamers, at the bequest of his father, Richard Crenshaw, who had been serving as an executive member for the Democratic club. And he said, look, my son is barely out of high school, but he’s also running a program very successfully. He has no money, but he has vision. And he has the allegiance of a lot of young people that would follow him into the fire. And he has his own methodology in running the program. So I met with coach Dave and, we talked at several meetings, and he agreed to come on board as an outside advisor and be the person that makes sure that the volunteer staff receives these continuous training. He gets feedback from the teams, he gets feedback from me, and together we work out how to make a teen volunteer staff running it in the organization. 

The second approach I used is at the time the City had in place, people, they called “youth coordinators.” They were kind of a hybrid hire, 50% from the local community board and 50% for what was then called the Department of Youth Services, and their job was to function as technical assistants and liaisons from the community board and from the City, to make sure that newly founded youth organizations are finding their way. And the first thing he told me after he had served my program a couple of times, he told me, I really like what you’re doing, but two things. You were operating in an atmosphere of what he called controlled chaos. There’s a lot of creative energy, but you need outside partners to help you create structure and stability for what you’re doing. You need to have partners come in to run components within the program. So that’s what I did. Initially, I went to the Washington Heights- Inwood Development Corporation. They had a training component where they would have not only lectures, but videotape experiences for the teenagers on how to define themselves through resumes and doing interviews. I also partnered with St. Catherine’s Church, which had its own teen pregnancy and personal responsibility component. And they had well-experienced trainers. So they would come in once a week. 

And then the third initial partner I had was something called the Explorer Program. That’s where you see the reference to Explorer Post 280, which is our community service/ sports program for teenagers. It’s a co-ed program. And with that program, we were able to afford teenage leadership training on how to run groups with children, some of whom are oppositional and some of whom are cooperative, but also how to expand upon a young person’s experience with a camping program. And the camping program was really an essential component for bonding with adults who volunteered for the program and youth volunteers, because we would be out in the middle of the woods with a roaring fire and flashlights and dependent on making sure we collected firewood in order to stay warm and cooking our own food. So interdependently, we became capable of supporting each other. 

[00:09:05] Amy H-L: So it sounds as though you are really utilizing all the resources in the community and creating almost a hub so that these kids could benefit. You mentioned the word “Dreamers,” and perhaps you could differentiate between what dreamers means to us now and the dreamers you’re talking about.

[00:09:27] Al K: When Coach Dave founded the Dreamers, he based the operation of the program partially on his own personal experience of moving from what he called “tunnel vision” and negative expectations to having a broadened perspective and changing the story he tells himself about himself and the story he sees in others from one of being negative to being positive. Part of his personal experience is when he was getting ready to go to high school, he was accepted into the Hunter High School. He was among the first males in a co-ed class at Hunter High School. It had been all girls up until the year he was accepted. And initially he was a little bit apprehensive. You had to have people encourage him to go because he was going to experience a culture totally different from everything he knew. And after he got down there, it was the staff at Hunter High, but also his classmates that changed his opinion not only about who they are but also in Dave’s approach to who he is. He wasn’t a successful student just operating in a trying culture in the Heights, but he was exposed to people that expanded his horizons. One example is at the time, Hunter College High School had clubs and a few students wanted to form a club for gays and lesbians. So he became an ardent supporter of that club being formed and worked closely with one of the students, who happened to be Cynthia Nixon, who, I think, is a star of “Sex and the City.” Cynthia still occasionally comes back to the community to speak on behalf of Coach Dave and the Dreamer program because she still appreciates his initial efforts from their high school days. 

So Dave, in putting together the program, understood that young people have tunnel vision. Beause they kind of see life through the lens of what they experience in their families, on the streets, and whatever experiences they have in the school, and that they need to be exposed to experiences that expand their viewpoint and also help them to change the stories about themselves. So for instance, a typical phrase, I would hear from a lot of young men in the community is, “I don’t think I’ll live to see the age of 30”. So why should I, should I invest myself in a future that doesn’t exist. And I was really stunned by hearing that, stunned and disturbed, and it took a lot of dialogue and a lot of programming where young people saw there was an alternative way of living to get them to change the story about themselves.

And a lot of these young people actually became peer leaders for other young people in helping them to change their stories, also.

[00:12:48] Jon M: What was that process? How does somebody who, in their teens, thinks they’re not going to make it to 30, come to see that they not only can and will, but then go on to be successful at what they want to be doing? 

[00:13:01] Al K: The process was, now to begin with, in order to participate in the Dreamers program and also the PAL program in the early days, young people did not have to pay anything to be part of the program, but in the various components of the program, whether it was going to play in a basketball game or going on a camping trip, young people had to write essays about their experiences on the campaign trip. So some of the young people, we had a program, which was kind of on the borderline of young people that were growing up in Dominican American communities and African-American and Caribbean- American communities that didn’t know each other. And they had formed negative stereotypes about each other. So when they came together and had to play on the same team or cook the same meal around the campfire, they got to learn through personal experience that these people that they formerly had reservations about were actually good friends and teammates. And that’s kind of the motto of the Dreamer program. 

And what PAL adopted up in the Heights is “first be a friend to yourself and also be a friend to others.” This is how a lot of young people came up through the program, kind of living that motto, sharing with their elders, Coach Dave and myself, what they were writing about in their essays, which reflected their experiences in the program and their “aha” moments about how life was not fatalistic, but actually they could change the course of their life destination through participation. 

[00:14:51] Amy H-L: That sounds very Deweyan. John Dewey famously said, “we don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” 

[00:15:00] Al K: Absolutely. And I came to learn about Dewey some years after I did the program, and reading his writings became affirmation with myself. Oh yeah, thank God, I may not be perfect, but I’m on the right path. 

[00:15:15] Jon M: And it sounds as though, from everything you’ve been saying, that it wasn’t adult-centric, that even though you and Coach Dave may have been adult figures, that a lot of this had to be going on among the young people themselves and that they must’ve been investing a lot of energy in building these relationships and not just sort of falling back into, “well, this is my group or that’s your group.”

[00:15:39] Al K: Yes, it was, it was absolutely a teen-centric program. And again, it was their experience of participating in the program, but also in the community, that helps them build their allegiance to the adult leaders, such as myself and Coach Dave, in the program. And to give you two short examples, which I described in the book, one of the participants was a young teen named Miriam Payne, who was a member of a family that had emigrated from Liberia, which at the time was embroiled in a pretty dangerous civil war. And even though her family were doctors and nurses and they weren’t specifically impacted, they were a little bit insulated, they still chose to come to America to start a new life. And where do they wind up? Living on the corner of 165th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, in the heart of the drug trade and the shooting. So Miriam, who volunteered for the program, was tireless and energetic, a volunteer who would sit in the homework room and help younger elementary school students with their homework. And she would come every day. I made up a rule where you can’t go to the gym to play basketball until you go to the homework room first. In the early days, nobody was listening to me or taking me seriously, or maybe following a bit grudgingly, but when Miriam, who at the time was about 15 or Jerry Reno, who at the time was 16, and was the “supervisor” for the floor, told them, oh yeah, you’re going to the homework room first, off they went, and there were no questions because it was one of their older peers that was giving the directive. So that’s better [inaudible] of the young people, but it also empowered the teenagers for themselves to feel like they were effective at getting things done. 

[00:17:47] Jon M: You’ve said that teens are more isolated in America and other modern societies than in more traditional society. Why is this? 

[00:17:57] Al K: What I call “traditional,” Native or Indigenous societies, for hundreds of years, probably thousands of years, part of the process of growing up was being incorporated into the lifetime activities of the adult world. So young people were expected, even though they were youth participants, to be participants in adult society. And when they reached an age of transition, which these societies typically considered to be about the age of 13, they went through ceremonies, rites of passage, where young people were encouraged to go on an adventure to help them to discover things about themselves internally, but also discover skills that made them more effective leaders or potential leaders, tribal leaders or Indigenous leaders in their own societies. 

In modern society, these rituals kind of faded into the background on the part of families and leaders at the local level and became institutionalized. Some positive ways in schools, where the rites of passage became school graduations, or if they were after high school, it might be ROTC and becoming inducted into the military. So these rites of passage did not necessarily serve the positive internal assets of young people, but they were kind of used as tokens to serve the larger interests, whether it was the military or financed by business corporations, to look to these outside agencies as determinant of what it meant to be an adult. I think that these represented social emotional challenges.

 They still do for young people in this transition of becoming an adult. I see this as four kind of meta choices. The first is, are they to remain invisible to adults for who they really are with their own life purpose and the reason they have for moving forward, or are they going to gradually become visible to adults? And the way they do that is by choosing not to stay silent, but to become heard. And I’ll give one brief example again, with Miriam. She was by nature a very quiet teen. But when the organization decided to embark on a campaign to address the community board, to get better services for the local park at Edgecombe and 165th Street that we called “the pit,” so because the pit was a very neglected public space. Other parts of the neighborhood had flower beds and elaborately developed ecological, pleasing schemes. In the pit, there was broken asphalt, [inaudible], and hundreds of needles scattered throughout the grounds. And it was also used as a spot in the evening for people to shoot up and have a illicit sex. So it was not a place at night that people went to at all. And even during the day, people were very apprehensive. So Miriam volunteered when we went to the community board to be one of the public speakers. They gave public speakers like three minutes and she astounded not only the community board, but astounded Coach Dave and myself. Yeah, she sounded like Mrs. Al Sharpton, these powerful intonations and talked about her personal experience as a young person of having to go to a public space where she felt it was safe to go, but that she also had responsibility to improve as a member of a team, the Explorer Post 280. At the end of that three minutes, I mean, the community members were standing up applauding and cheering and we were just so proud of what she did. And she also got responses from the commander of the local precinct and the director of parks and recreation. So it wasn’t perfect. But whereas before there was largely total neglect, you began to see some intervention on the part of the City. By the way, today you will not recognize that space because we’ve got the the Olympic rings and perfect asphalt and a modern playground. And it’s heavily utilized as our space, by the community.

[00:23:01] Amy H-L: What would be the components of a meaningful rite of passage and also what happens afterwards to give it some legs? So for example, Jewish kids have a bar mitzvah and it’s a kind of a running joke. Today you are a man, but Monday you’re going back to seventh grade. 

[00:23:22] Al K: When I speak of the rites of passage our organizations were engaged in, I’m speaking about civics learning rites of passage. An organization I collaborate closely with, Generation Citizen. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they work closely with social studies teachers to create what they call an Action Civics Experience. It’s a semester long experience. And the key components are that the adult in charge allows the students to determine or express what their classroom, school-based, community, and larger issues of concern are in their own lives. 

Young people tend to formulate issues a lot, because we’re working in underserved schools, about not having the proper resources or even necessarily the teachers that are certified in subject areas such as math and science areas, lack of access to advanced progress courses in high school, but also having experiences as young and as elementary school in doing community service and effecting change, even in their own schools. So it’s listening to the youth agenda and, as importantly, allowing youth to formulate, lead, and direct the response to the needs of that agenda. It begins with conceptualizing what the campaign is to be, which includes student voice, and it’s also managing the campaign and assessing the campaign for its successes and its obstacles so they can effect adaptation in the future. And if I could, I’ll give one brief example of this approach that was used in Florida, and it’s talked about in a book called “Join the Club,” by Tina Rosenberg, and it had to do with the issue of teen smoking. The state of Florida, through the early nineties, had had adult led campaigns, which basically utilized informational approaches and scare tactics. And the attempt to reduce the rates of teen smoking and it wasn’t working. The levels were staying plateaued. But someone who had been exposed to a youth centered approach to problem solving said that our problem is, is we’re considering teens to be the problem when they need to be the problem solvers. So we have to enlist teenagers to design a campaign, do the outreach, and do the assessment of how the campaign works. So they went to all the high schools and even middle schools in Florida and created clubs, which they called Get the Smoke Out of Your Eyes campaigns, where they approach adults to change their opinion of the advocacy of young people. And they also approached institutions that supported smoking habits, local bodegas, and to the tobacco industry itself. And two years later, they began to see declines in the incidents of teen smoking, which lasted for about five years. And then unfortunately, because it was adults that determined the continuous funding for this campaign, they decided that because the problem was solved, they cut the funding. So no understanding that, that a whole new generation of young people growing up that didn’t have this leadership to guide them. But this is why we’re pushing so hard to become teen led initiatives, supported by adults who work on the horizontal plane of decision-making, that allow the teenagers to take us forward because it’s their futures in addition to present circumstances.

[00:27:38] Jon M: So, as you’re talking, the idea of young people. You talked about how Miriam talked about her own experience and then used it as a platform for insisting that the community make changes and improve the park. What do you see as the relationship between certain young people and teenagers and younger and younger children being able to tell their stories and also tying this to what they want to see in their futures? 

Well, I think that the relationship, the connection, is made by adults, whom I call civic co-mentors, who assess young people and seeing the transition of in their own perceptions and expectations about themselves for very personal issues, being connected in a varieties of ways to other people who faced the same challenge and the same process. And when joined together could work on campaigns that help young people to change expectations about themselves. So I’ll give one example. Anya, who’s also addressed in the book, who had been the child, single parent family, mother having substantial challenges and expressing very negative expectations about Anya, which led her to make choices, which many people in the field called self-sabotaging choices, establishing friendships with all the negative people who validated her self-sabotaging behaviors. She joined a program that was called Youth Link. It was sponsored by the PAL. Young people became engaged in conversations with other young people who had changed their stories. And this made it safer. And for Anya to begin to explore changing her own story because she had the comfort of validation from other young people. And then she also had adult mentors the civic–They were more than civic mentors. They were social emotional intelligence changing co-mentors, who really encouraged her when she took those very courageous steps and changing her opinion of herself and taking initial steps. Now she’s, I think she’s in her final year of a four year college in Vermont. And she also, with the assistance of other peers in college, created programs for young people in those communities to become engaged in projects, to help transform themselves. So it’s kind of like the oak helping to create many acorns. 

[00:30:31] Amy H-L: You’ve spoken about mentorship and what I guess we’d call a big sister, little sister or big brother relationship among the youth themselves. Could you address that a little more specifically? What kind of work do you do to to nurture these relationships? 

[00:30:53] Al K: We [inaudible]. The program still exist with the 280 Dreamers, which is where I have my most active participation. We established one-on-one and small group mentoring experiences between students, many of whom come from similar backgrounds. The students that we’re serving today, but who have become successful in the educational realm. So we’re talking about college students, but we’re also talking about graduate students who work for Dr. Robert Fullilove, who does a program in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. And these graduate students work side by side with students who are high school age and younger on projects that they agree on. In the course of doing those projects, they also get to exchange personal stories. The graduate students may talk about some of the challenges they faced and openly express some of the fears they had about being able to become successful, some of the urges sometimes to walk away or give up and being encouraged to move forward, and despite the decline in our energies, and this gives young people an experiential reference point and a trusted ally, because it’s all about developing trust. And in order to get young people to feel safe and listening, for young people to move forward and make the decision to change their story. And also to share that changed story with the larger community. So I call it a process of navigation, where the co-mentor appreciates that they themselves are still in a lifelong learning process where they’re keeping their inner adolescent alive but at the same time, sharing their adult wisdom in ways that are not threatening to young people themselves or intimidating, I should say. 

[00:33:06] Jon M: How can schools enhance adolescents’ sense of efficacy?

[00:33:14] Al K: I think that schools have come a long way from where they were only a few years ago. Schools are, to a much larger extent, encouraging experiences where young people become involved in active civics programs, such as the one operated by Generation Citizen, where they get to spend a whole semester in the process, not only of identifying issues but doing academic and experiential research about the issue, developing a program on a very, very specific agenda. For instance, you have organizations like Teens for Food Justice that work in middle schools, have complaints about the school menu, and actually changed the choices that school administrations make into making menus more healthful, less high saturated fat, less sugar, et cetera, at cetera, and having those menus adopted by the school. And this happens because the youth organization with this team leadership not only partners with adult led organizations that have an agenda for food justice and eliminating food deserts in the community, but they also help them create training programs that are incorporated into the school agenda. So what used to be called a “hygiene course” is now expanded into a civics course that incorporates best habits for young people to not only adopt but have the opportunity to become enrolled in in their own school experience. 

[00:35:03] Amy H-L: I suspect that there are many educators and community members who are listening to this who are wondering how they can start programs in their own communities. You’ve been incredibly successful. What would you suggest for someone who is interested in putting together their own program? 

[00:35:23] Al K: Well, I would suggest as a self-serving a starting point, read my book. The way the book is constructed, the book does four things. The first thing it does is it gives a peek at how three life experiences, which could have been a source of paralysis or a negative expectations, became transformed into positive ones. 

So the first experience I had with the high school teacher that I deeply trusted, who asked us to change the narrative of a short story. The anthology she used had all militaristic stories about soldiers and war stories and how this shaped the future of the country. And this particular story focused on a group of Japanese soldiers that are captured by American soldiers and then they’re put in temporary jails, and then they’re transported to camps once the countries are “liberated.” And I changed the ending to this story where I said there was a huge typhoon that hit that destroyed all the camps, destroyed the food supplies, and made it necessary for Japanese soldiers and Americans to cooperate, A, just staying alive with all these winds and pouring rain and B, finding alternative food sources until the ships arrive. So obviously the Japanese soldiers was still under guard, at gunpoint, but in the minds of American soldiers, they got to perceive the Japanese in a different way. And everybody survived because they cooperated. What happened is when I read that changed excerpt to the class, the teacher stood up in a rage and told me my story was communist junk, now this is like 1960, and reduced my semester grade from 90 to 75. My parents tried to fight this and couldn’t, so I use that in two ways, right. A, to remind people that this was still a trusted teacher that exposed me to a lot of positive experiences that had one really serious snafu for me. But what needed to be understood was that today teachers and students are developing the ability to challenge inappropriate censorship. And they should use these channels to challenge censorship where it’s not appropriate and change the expectations of institutions and also adults about what their right is to express themselves. So I’ll stop there ’cause otherwise I’ll talk forever. I’ll just talk, stop with that one story. 

Second point is I have a lot of references to other youth organizations in the book, from Generation Citizen to Teens for Food Justice and Teens Take Charge to the youth groups that started in the Parkland High School in Florida. 

And as I’ve discovered only this morning, I am rediscovering what you people are doing with their young ethicists. No, who are exploring and determining paths forward for addressing issues that are important to them. My hope would be to connect not only through the book, but through developing a webpage, connecting people that want to find out how do I start a program. So connect them to Generation Citizen, which already has successfully changed hundreds of middle schools and high school classrooms in eight cities in the United States, including Oklahoma and Texas. Visit the resource page. 

[00:39:35] Jon M: Thank you so much, Al Kurland. And we will include, if it’s okay with you, on our website, a way that people can contact you. This has been really very, very interesting.

[00:39:46] Al K: Thank you. 

[00:39:47] Amy H-L: And thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or a review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website at for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly email. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week!

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