Transcription of the episode “Cultivating layups, confidence, and community”

[00:00:15] Jon M: I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:16] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are Coach Dave Crenshaw, Dr. Robert Fullilove, and Blanca Battino. Coach Dave is founder, president, and head coach of Team Dreamers New York in Washington Heights. Dr. Fullilove, or Dr. Bob, is Associate Dean for Community and Minority Affairs, Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences, and co-director of the Cities Research Group at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Blanca Bettino retired as Principal of PS 128 in Washington Heights and continues to advise principals, teachers, and certain podcasters. Welcome, Coach Dave, Dr. Bob, and Blanca. 

[00:01:01] Bob F : Thank you for having us. 

[00:01:02] Blanca B: Thank you for having us.

[00:01:04] Amy H-L: Coach Dave, what is Team Dreamers?

[00:01:06] Dave C: That’s a good question because every few months, Team Dreamers changes, because we’re always adjusting to the needs of the community, the resources we have, and what our students and families need. But basically what I will tell you is Team Dreamers is a community building program that works through sports, workshops, and special events. We do community building for those that most often get left out, including seniors, including the hard to handle children, and definitely, most assuredly, the girls, because we are a Title IX program.

[00:01:39] Jon M: How are the activities structured?

[00:01:40] Dave C: Well, our biggest piece is always the sports drills. So we work in the gym, and what we do in the gym is we train kids how to be coaches. In other places, you’re training children how to beat other teams. We’re not doing that. We’re showing kids how to improve on themselves. So first they’ve got to learn to coach themselves and then they’ve got to learn how to help someone else. So the way you get credit in the Dreamers is not for who you beat, but for whom you help. So that’s how the sports drills are structured. 

Then we do workshops. We have workshops for the families and the seniors where we help them out. We have a group called The Classics. They come on Family Fridays. They get tech lessons and they practice their singing. All right. So they sing the Black National Anthem around Washington Heights and Harlem.

But our favorite group, our favorite group is the public health interns. Cause one of the things our program’s become is we become a place where folks can learn how to grow. If you want to do something positive for the community, you’ve got to have a sanctuary. You got to have a site set up where you can just deliver your work and you don’t got to worry about drama. So we have public health interns coming in, we have volunteers coming in, and at PS 128, it’s a safe haven for them to come in, deliver their gifts, deliver their magic, and help the community grow.

[00:02:54] Jon M: Blanca, how did you start working with Coach Dave?

[00:02:57] Blanca B: Well, I started working with Coach Dave in the 90s. I was fortunate enough to know the community board member, the late Gwen Crenshaw. She was a community activist and a school board member in our community. And she introduced me to Coach Dave, who would be working with our most hard to handle students after school. And he did it in various ways because as he’s mentioned, many of our students were struggling economically and socially and in many ways, and he provided the type of environment that was safe, that gave them the opportunity to grow and to build themselves, to build their families, and to understand the needs of the community and to work with them. So, it was an excellent program. It’s so good that I continue to support it as a volunteer. In fact, I always say, you know, I used to be his boss and now he’s my boss. And we’re basically volunteers, 

[00:03:57] Dave C: Colleagues, colleagues, no bosses. 

[00:03:59] Amy H-L: And Dr. Bob, how did you get involved with Coach Dave?

[00:04:03] Bob F : Interestingly enough, through my ex-wife. I have a long, 42-year, working relationship with Mindy Thompson Fullilove, probably the leading African American social psychiatrist in the United States, who has had a long interest, going back 30 years, of trying to understand how the built environment and neighborhoods Influence all the behaviors that, amongst other things, are so problematic for those of us who do medicine and public health. Coach Dave is someone who works with young people. As someone who has managed to bridge the gap between the Harlem community on the one hand, and the Washington Heights community on the other, he represented for Mindy, a fascinating way in which to understand how community building could occur. What Coach has done in his work is make almost seamless the capacity to bring Dominican and African American families and students together. And in public health, you couldn’t have a more lofty goal than to achieve that kind of community engagement. So she began immediately to involve him in her classes. And then, with the beginning of an Intervention that we put together that will celebrate 20 years of work this coming June, 2024, Hike the Heights, much of the relationship that I had with Coach Dave started to build around all of our efforts to bring members of the community together to think about the planning and the execution of Saturday afternoon, typically the first one in June, where we engage people in hiking, appreciating the wonders of New York City, public parks, but especially Highbridge Park, and where we not only get to engage folk around issues like being physically active and having families enjoy what is possible in a park setting, it was also an opportunity for us to link many community-based organizations that are interested in community development. We’re also interested in the parks to sort of work together on a one-day event that would have repercussions for what we do throughout the year. What we learn from each other by talking about what we’d like to do in June also has real impact for what we’d like to do throughout the year, when a community partner might be needed for some intervention that we’re putting together.

What it suggests is that all this began with my relationship with Coach. His ability to connect me with others in the community and my ability to make available students at the Mailman School of Public Health who were very much engaged in understanding from a public health standpoint, the dynamics of community life. It has been probably in a career that goes back 60 years, maybe the most important community partnership I’ve put together in a very, very long time.

[00:06:49] Jon M: Coach, as Blanca was saying, you’re the go-to person to work with young people whom many adults find challenging. What are some of the strategies that you use that you find are helpful? 

[00:07:02] Dave C: The number one strategy I have is some people like kids, some people care about kids, but me, I believe I need them to make the neighborhood grow. You understand? I count on them. You understand? I don’t do this stuff by myself. So the first thing is young people can tell I’m asking you to help. If you’re the hardest to handle kid in the school, the first thing I’m doing is putting you in charge. You understand? I’m always going to ask you for tasks. I’m always, I’m going to find your gift and then I’m going to help you share it with other people because everyone has a gift. And it’s up to us adults, instead of putting them down and throwing them away, let’s figure out how we can help them shine. 

So the techniques I use for them are number one, getting them around good people. Okay. And I remember one of my alumni said, yeah, Coach is hard and he ODs on you, but he has like the best friends. He said, he’s going to take you to places and you’re always going to meet good people. So people like Blanca, people like Dr. Bob, Al Kurland, Ruth Menden, and I can go on. They embrace my kids, so the kids want to be part of the Dreamers even more.

The biggest thing is people want to make a difference. People don’t want to get left out. You understand? So other folks are trying to win championships and I’m trying to get kids to be a friend to their future. I’m always talking about their future and how they got to be a friend to their future and how we need them to do something great. How we need them to be involved. And we don’t mean great in five or 10 years. We meet great next week, next month, the next event that we’re having. Right now, we’re planning for Hike the Heights. And the Dreamers got to be the one team that can jog from Edgecombe Park in the pit across the bridge to the Bronx and back. When you put challenges to them, they step up into it.

[00:08:43] Amy H-L: Coach Dave, as a Black man in a Dominican neighborhood, has it been difficult to build trust? 

[00:08:52] Dave C: That’s a great question. And, the hardest part of my life, the hardest battle I ever had, and I was just talking to him the other day, was on my block. We was at the bottom of the block and the top of the block was all the tough kids, all the Dominican kids, and they ran the neighborhood. The bottom of the block was me and a couple of dark-skinned Cubans and one pudgy Dominican who was like my brother. The hardest 50 feet I ever had to fight for in my life was to get up that block, to be accepted in the middle of the block. And the guy who hated me the most, we ended up becoming best friends because what they respect is hard work. Not how much trash you could talk, not how many friends you had, but hard work. So I learned as a teenager, if I worked hard and showed people who I was, I could get through to them. They don’t hate me. They hate the images their grandfathers told them about me. They hate the images that they read in books and stuff. They don’t hate me because they don’t know me. If they get to know me, they’re going to love me. And that’s what happened in this neighborhood. You understand? You know, people are always watching. So you got to carry yourself a certain way. 

The other tricks was to learn their holidays. So what I did was, even though I’m a Black man, I’m celebrating Three Kings Day. And once I started celebrating Three Kings Day, the grandmother said, that’s my type of guy. My own children don’t even celebrate Three Kings Day. I’m going to celebrate their days. I’m going to come to their Catholic services, even if it’s in Spanish, you understand.

The biggest way I convinced this Dominican community to stay on my side was the Dreamers’ Santa Claus, okay. On Christmas Day, the Dreamer Santa Claus takes you over. And on Christmas Day, we start at 6 00 AM in the morning and we’re knocking on people’s doors with gifts. Sometimes it’s a trophy, sometimes a uniform with your name on the back, but you can’t get the gift unless you sing a song. No one gets mad at you for showing up on Christmas Day. No one’s upset. You understand? So I would start at 6AM in the morning. And then my top coach says you right, you really here? And she would jump up and she’d come out. She said, I want to deliver to my team. So we’re going to people’s houses. We’re knocking on doors. We’re taking pictures with Christmas trees and families are singing and they can’t believe their teenagers even know a Christmas song because they don’t sing for the family anymore. So we make special day special so families want to come back. We want to build memories that you can’t forget about. 

[00:11:17] Jon M: Dr. Bob, you’ve talked about how your collaboration with Coach Dave changed and deepened during the pandemic. Can you talk some about that? What actually happened? 

[00:11:28] Bob F : The pandemic, I don’t have to remind anybody who’s tuning in, was a time when everybody was locked down. But from a public health standpoint, it was our greatest urgency. We needed to have people tested. When we had a vaccine that we were very clear was going to work very well, we had to make sure that vaccine distribution occurred. With everything shut down and with people really being fearful about going out, holding public events where you got people tested, where you got them vaccinated, really was calling for more than you typically get from volunteers. But having a cadre of public health students whose basic reason for existing is to understand epidemics and the problems that are created when a health crisis shows up in the community. This is an ideal time to see how community public health really operates because it wasn’t the hospitals, the doctors, or the nurses that went into the streets and invited people to do community-based testing and community-based vaccine events that would have a tremendous impact on the impact that the pandemic would have on the community. Having Coach Dave be the person who helped us organize opportunities for me to bring my crew and the resources they had into the community so that both could benefit. In a public health text on community public health, this would be a textbook case of how community partnerships are not only put together, how they are tested and how ultimately if they are to survive, if they are to work, how it is that they actually function when they’re at their best. Between the efforts on the part of my students who come from all over the world, they’re not just young people from New York, and with the knowledge that many of them bring a wide variety of disciplines and a wide variety of experiences, coupled with Coach Dave’s organizational understanding and knowledge about where best to go, who best to contact, how most efficiently one might get the word out that we’re doing something important.

We’re literally trying to write this up as a series of case studies because we think that what we did in Washington Heights with Coach is really something from which others in schools of public health could learn about the power of engaging the students in a community based activity at a time when it really counts. This has been a unique experience and we’re still continuing to learn from it. 

[00:13:50] Amy H-L: Dr. Bob, are there broader lessons you would draw from this work?

[00:13:54] Bob F : Everything imaginable because we in public health have a lot of money, a great deal in the way of resources invested in putting our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the community. But the way that typically comes about is by looking at changes in the rates of infection, changes in the rates of mortality, the number of people who are dying in the course of any given day, week, month, or year. The real changes in community life come before they start to show up as a health problem. I want to be really clear about that. By the time you show up with a raging case of COVID 19, we failed you. Because there was some point in the process of being exposed, where had there been an appropriate public health present, that might have been an exposure, that might have been an infection that didn’t happen.

Working with Coach Dave is about being at the place where the vibrant life of the community can be observed, it can be surveyed, and it can be used to provide on the spot, timely interventions at a moment when they can have the biggest impact on community health. I think what we’ve really demonstrated is that before folks get sick, maybe you want to talk to people about what’s happening in your life, what’s going, on what are you going through? What are the difficulties you’re having? Because if that narrative tells you about how, from a public health standpoint, you can do something to prevent the problems that are created when people are barred from getting access to needed resources, maybe that will be a moment when a lot of injury, a lot of illness, a lot of death will be prevented.

And I think we’re learning how to do that by working closely, not just with Coach to help us put together events and interventions that make a difference. The simple fact that we are regularly in the community talking to community members about what’s going on means that we have a real sense of an early warning system, if you will, that tells us about things we can work on that can become assets when it’s not just always about problems and things we can work on that can help us prevent further harm from happening. All this, I think, is part of what we’re doing to rethink how we connect students to community life and everything that we’ve learned working with Coach Dave, I think, has really enlarged the scope of possibilities that we have for really doing the job that we in public health say we’re committed to do.

[00:16:17] Jon M: What kind of impact have you seen on your public health students as a result of their involvement, both with Coach Dave and with the community?

[00:16:26] Bob F : I could go on for hours and hours about the difference between talking about community health from a textbook or an article or talking about community health when you’re actually there talking to people about their lives, their daily exposures, and the things that concern it that can ultimately have an impact on on health. I think it’s very useful for folk to see because this is a tendency we have in my field. You want to resist relying too much on data, on looking at changes, and looking at trends. Sometimes the things that you most want to know about are the things that come about when you ask somebody what’s going on here? What are people doing? By the time what people are doing gets translated to something I can measure statistically, I might be weeks behind a process that I should have been in front of. 

So, again, what are students seeing? That they don’t have to wait for the numbers in order to tell the story about what’s happening in the community. And I think they learned that, especially at the feet of Coach Dave, who is often a running narrative. “Here’s what you’re looking at. Here’s what you want to pay attention to. Here’s what you’re saying.” Trust me, I’ve gotten a lot of accolades as a teacher in a very long career, but none even remotely compares to the ways in which my students are absolutely ecstatic about what they’re learning simply because they’re more engaged with the world in real time than they are with the readings about the real world.

[00:17:50] Dave C: And I can add to that because that’s an important part of my mission is I’ve watched these young people come in and one of my main things is to make them feel comfortable with the community. You understand? Not just titles, not just credentials, not just the leaders, but be comfortable with the community. They literally come in and they’re so comfortable with research and clinical stuff, but they’re very uncomfortable going in the gym. They feel out of place. I don’t care if they got one degree or two degrees. When you mentioned going in the gym, they feel uncomfortable. So what we do is they help my kids with homework. My kids teach them how to make a layup. My kids teach them how to jump rope. So if you come to a community event, you’re not uncomfortable when you see people dancing. You’re not uncomfortable when sports comes out. And this past summer, three of his scholars who were very nervous about when the basketball went in their hand, they looked like they were 12 years old again. But by the end of summer, they was helping me run the gym. By the end of the summer, they realized “I could make a layup. I can do jump rope and I can do these different activities with the children.” We want them to be comfortable enough with the community and realize wherever you go, there are Coach Daves. That’s one of the biggest things I teach them. Wherever you go, there’s folks like Coach Dave. Your challenge is can you find them and figure out how you can help them and not just tell them what they should do. You understand this is very important in Bob’s philosophy is learning the community so you can figure out how to help us and not just try to fit us into something you read in a textbook someplace.

[00:19:19] Amy H-L: Is there some larger group that you’re a part of when you say that we try and find out what is lacking in these students’ lives, what could be helpful? There are the three of you, but is that attached to any larger network? 

[00:19:33] Dave C: Oh, yes. The network is called Uptown. Okay. What we do is we work with different agencies, schools. Thanks to Blanca Battino and my mother, any school in the neighborhood, I could walk right in and talk to the principal without an appointment, you understand? So we work with the schools, the local centers. I have so many alumni as directors. That’s how we survived during the pandemic. I went right down to the Polo Grounds and I had two centers, a Boys and Girls Club and a PAL center. Both of the directors came up through the Dreamers. So when you hear me say “we,” we don’t do this stuff alone. We’re not in just one school. We go to different schools. We go to different churches and we meet and greet each other and figure out how we can help each other. That’s how we got through the pandemic. It was never just Coach Dave. It was always like, “Blanca, you bring me five to this.” And St. John’s. “You bring me some over there.” Polo Grounds. “We need your site to do the vaccine outreach.” The network is what we call an alumni and teammate association of partners. We count on each other and we stay in touch with each other and we’re actually getting ready to formalize it tomorrow. 

[00:20:36] Jon M: How are you going to formalize it tomorrow?

[00:20:39] Dave C: We’ve been working together for so long that we’re going to build an Alumni and Teammate Association. It can never be just alumni association because then that would take Dr. Bob out. That would take Blanca out, but I got directors who are partners and they want to help out, you understand? So by calling the Alumni and Teammate Association, these are the folks who help Dave and the Dreamers get through things and tomorrow we’re going to formalize it by starting a list of the people who are in this association so that we can get ready for 2024. And what we’re looking for is people who want to build. That’s the key. We’re looking for people who want to build. And you cannot build if the space is not comfortable. See, if we don’t have comfortable spaces for the public health interns, for the volunteers, they’re going to go someplace else. You understand they’re not going to stay someplace where they’re uncomfortable. If you want to get good talent into your life, you have to have spaces where people are comfortable and feel appreciated.. So the Alumni and Teammate Association is going to start in PS 128, and then we’re going to show other schools how to do it also. 

[00:21:41] Jon M: Blanca, what did the superintendents, principals, and teachers learn from your experiences collaborating both with Coach Dave and Dr. Bob?. 

[00:21:52] Blanca B: Everything is about collaboration and the interconnectedness of all the institutions within our community. I believe that Coach Dave is, is formulating, as he mentioned, children for the future, but also for right now, you know, steering them in the right direction. Without having connections within the community, what we do in education is really just a short step into what needs to be done. We’ve seen the children that have been serviced through Coach Dave and also from the students and the interns. We’ve seen how they have progressed, not only in their attitudes about themselves, but in their ability to socialize with other children and the ability to begin to look at the community as part of them.

 One of the things that I hold so highly with Coach Dave is that he really knows his children. He knows their parents. He knows their guardians. He knows, and he relates with the teachers as well. So there is a collaboration within the school itself in order to be able to provide for the children, but in order to create a kind of environment that will help and assist the children to progress, but also to build on in the future in their communities. 

And some of our children that have been within the school as part of the Dreamers are now doing the same thing in their own communities, helping their own communities. And we’re very proud of that. I see them on Facebook, the things that they are doing, like Mona Lisa. Yeah, she’s number one. She’s number one, you know, how she’s actively involved in building her community, wherever she is in her state that she’s in. So this is, it’s more than just a program. It’s like a movement to better our community and to build it and to make our kids feel like they’re not losers. They’re winners. And for that reason, you know, I’ve been in education for 48 years. And I have seen many programs come and go, I said, but I’ve never seen a program that cares so much about the community in which the children live. And how they want them to succeed, not just to graduate from elementary school or middle school, but to succeed in life and to help their own families, because that’s also part of the knowledge that he instills in the children.

And I have to say those public health interns that come into the gym are amazing and the children look up to them. They see they’re brown and Black as well who interns who the kids look, “Oh, wow, you know, he’s going to be a doctor. I can be a doctor someday.”

But there are benefits to what they’re learning from them as well. Because even when they’re giving their short nutrition classes, Coach didn’t say, but they also participate by giving some of the interns little nutrition classes. They end up knowing what the kids are eating, how they feel about food itself and nutrition. And they go back and they tell their parents, “look, I learned about this and I learned about that.” So there’s a lot of educational facets to everything that’s happening, but it’s like Dr. Bob says, it’s real life. It’s what’s really happening and it makes a difference. And I admire Coach Dave and he really is an icon in our community. He is a very special individual. And he has created an army of individuals who feel the way he does in the community. So I’m very grateful for this opportunity to be able to speak slightly about him, not as much as I would like.

[00:25:46] Jon M: Is there anything that any of you would like to add to what we’ve already talked about? 

[00:25:50] Dave C: One of the things is, and that’s why I like these interviews because they keep helping me understand better and better what I do, is that one of the reasons why the community trusts the Dreamers is because of our trips. You understand? How can a child want to go to college if they’ve never seen one, if they’ve never visited one, if they don’t know what it’s like? We do a lot of road trips and we visit people at colleges. And I can remember we went to see all-city player Carmen Guzman down in Birmingham, Alabama. And two of the kids walked into the room and said, she’s not Dominican. Dominicans don’t have places like this. She can’t be Dominican. Okay. She cursed them out in Dominican. Okay. And they knew she was Dominican. Then you should have seen the look on another kid’s face who found out, wait a minute. I get a meal card and I get to eat as much as I want. You know, I says, “yes.” He said, “I’ll take this stuff to my room.” I said, “No, you don’t need to because you get to come back for lunch. You get to come back for dinner.” So a lot of the college trips are just amazing that we take people to see someone from their neighborhood graduating from college. You understand loving it because the idea is yes, sports count. Yes, dancing counts. But at the end of the day, education is the key to helping us grow and getting people to believe in education and embrace it, that it’s a tool and not a punishment is the way the public health interns help us because New York City is in bad shape because all they’re trying to train you for is to pass a test.

No one in Mailman got there cause they tried to pass a test. Everyone in Mailman is there cause they want to ace a test. So the Mailman students are willing to work with me because I say being a nerd is cool. Playing like one is not so I don’t mind if you get 95s and 98s, but we’re gonna teach you how to make a layup, okay. And that partnership has helped us grow together because they’re not used to the the athlete saying education is important.

So we take the kids to colleges and then during a pandemic, thanks to Word Up! and Scholastic, we’ve been giving out books, books, and more books because the libraries were closed, the schools were closed. So how were kids of color going to grow if they don’t have access to the books and they don’t understand a book should be your best friend. So we, wherever we go now, I’m always giving out books. I try not to go to an event without at least 25 books. And as Blanca told me, when you’re giving kids books, they gotta be new. You understand? Adults can look through titles and adults can figure out what subjects are, but kids deserve new books. And we work hard on getting them new books in great shape so they can understand that education is the key to us getting ahead.

[00:28:26] Jon M: Thank you, Coach Dave Crenshaw, Dr. Robert Fullilove, and Blanca Battino. And thank you, listeners. Check out our new video series, “What Would You Do?,” a collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click Videos. The goal of the series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints.

If you found this podcast worthwhile, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review ‘because this helps others to find the show. Check out our website for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes.

 Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Threads @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti.. Until next week.

Click here to listen to this episode.