Navigating Process and Place on Staten Island’s North Shore

by Liv Linn

The Staten Island Justice Center (SIJC), a project site of the Center for Court Innovation, offers alternatives to incarceration, preventive programming, and other supportive services to community members with the goal of reducing crime and incarceration. Guide to SIJC youth programming:

  • Advocate, Intervene, Mentor (AIM): an intensive mentorship program in which the Center’s three mentors, all from the North Shore, meet regularly with justice-involved youth out in the community
  • Justice Community Plus (JCP): a stipended job readiness program for ages 16-24
  • Youth Court: made up of eight high school-aged members who use restorative justice practices to resolve young people’s Family Court cases without further court involvement

When I board the Staten Island ferry for work, I make a beeline for the left deck of the ship (the side with no view of the Statue of Liberty and therefore no tourists, one of the quietest places I’ve found in this city). Most days, I drink my coffee and settle in to skim SILive, the local Staten Island paper that often reads less like breaking news and more like a homeowner’s association newsletter. In many ways, what’s covered and what isn’t in SILive reflects the larger mysteries of the “forgotten borough,” ones I’m working to unravel day by day: the stark disparity in demographics, resources, politics, and nearly everything else between the South Shore (largely white, largely wealthy) and the North Shore (largely non-white, largely low-income); the intensely territorial inter-neighborhood politics of the North Shore; and the ways police and politicians interact with these differences, to name a few.

This was where staff members at the Staten Island Justice Center (SIJC) told me to begin my Staten Island education. You can’t understand the young people we serve and the system they’re caught in without a working knowledge of the borough’s geography. One geographical insight I’m gaining by the day—young people on the North Shore are living in a maze, clearing any path they can through narrowing walls of gang or peer conflict on one side and violence at the hands of the justice system on the other. An AIM mentor told me that he met with his mentee on his front porch for every day of the 9-month program because “he couldn’t leave his neighborhood without getting jumped.” Another young person from New Brighton asked for permission to play basketball in Stapleton one afternoon; “That’s not wise,” his mentor responded. “Stapleton’s got beef with your hood right now.”

But that’s an incomplete portrait of the violence many kids on the North Shore—home of Eric Garner and still notoriously over-policed—face on a daily basis. At a Stapleton community organizing event, where I interviewed residents, the conversation quickly turned from building maintenance issues to police harassment. Officers present struggled to answer one young woman’s question, “What about people afraid of police officers, who don’t trust them to keep their neighborhoods safe?”

The young people in our programs are making conscious safety calculations at the intersection of peer and police violence every day, and this is where the work of the Staten Island Justice Center lives. Many of the young people in our programs have become justice-involved for charges related to peer violence. And once young people “catch a case,” it becomes incredibly difficult to get out of the system. Dominique, an AIM mentor, explained she views justice system involvement like addiction—relapse is part of the process. But for young people with open cases, “every little mistake gets magnified.”

If my first few months were a crash course in politics of place, the last few months have been full of lessons in documentary process. Throughout January and February, I worked with the Justice Community Plus (JCP) cohort to design, prepare for, and record a roundtable-style podcast. This project was a critical learning experience (in other words, the product—as of now, a somewhat meandering and relatively unsupported 15-minute discussion on criminal justice policy—is pretty distant from what I envisioned, and the process taught me a great deal).

A few things worked, namely allowing participants to select the topic and providing resources for deeper learning. Initially, the group’s facilitator and I conceived of the project as part of the cohort’s community benefit project on the theme of gun violence. After a pretty painfully disengaged session on the topic, I learned from the cohort that they’re just tired of talking about it: they sit through “guns down” presentations so regularly it would be almost comical, if those conversations weren’t so ineffective in responding to the dangerous reality of gun violence on the North Shore. When I asked what they’d prefer to talk about, participants had no shortage of big ideas (Unemployment! The border wall! Whitewashed history taught in schools!), and we settled on human rights within the prison system. We prepped for the discussion by screening part of Ava DuVernay’s 13th and analyzing graphs on youth incarceration. Much of our discussion related to Kalief Browder, the young man who killed himself after spending three years at Rikers Island awaiting the eventual dismissal of his case, which sparked some deeply emotionally engaged conversation.

The challenges of creating our podcast, in retrospect, were clear: irregular attendance made it difficult to plan, research for, and record all the necessary components; the resulting discussion was underbaked; and the recording setup led to lots of ambient noise and low-quality audio (an unfortunate reality of hosting a podcast in a crowded office). There are certainly procedural things I’d do differently if I could, but in my view the greatest lesson learned is that we were working with the wrong questions. Though the resulting conversation lacked a certain credibility and expertise that makes listening to a roundtable-style podcast engaging, I know the JCP participants are experts—just not on criminal justice policy. The product would have been more successful if the guiding questions explored their experience of the jail system, either personally or by way of friends and family, allowing their true expertise to shine.

These lessons are not learned in vain, as I’m thinking of this project as a prototype for a youth conversation series I’m planning with Josh, one of the AIM mentors. We plan to gather a group of young people, likely the AIM mentees, to have and record moderated discussions about topics of their choice grounded in personal experience. Themes may include over-policing and their experiences of success and failure in the education system.

The second project I’ve been working on has evolved much more successfully. For the past month, I’ve been working one-on-one with a young man, Bobby*, completing a couple programs at SIJC (both Youth Court and a series of sessions with a social worker as part of his Alternative to Incarceration program). Over three workshops, we developed a mini audio documentary constructed to encourage Bobby’s self-reflection on his justice involvement. I designed the process to consciously shift the narrative authority to Bobby at every step, from selecting the topic to arranging the script.

What resulted is a remarkably transparent and fairly unmediated interview, which I’m producing into a short personal narrative piece. In it, Bobby speaks eloquently about his experience selling drugs, on his own and as part of a gang. He guides listeners from his beginning as an eleven-year-old kid searching for mentorship through to the sixteen-year-old he is now, saddled with a criminal record, navigating serious safety concerns, and fighting against social and financial pressures to “stay retired” from an incredibly compelling business.

I think the most significant outcome of this project—and the key to such a poignant product—was its collaborative, iterative process. I’ve been grappling with my identity, outsider status, and privilege as it relates to the young folks I work with and the work itself since beginning at SIJC. This matter has both ethical and pragmatic implications for my work. In my position, I must ask not only: How can I ensure I’m using my platform to make space for young people to speak for themselves, and that I’m not exploiting their stories or crossing lines with my questions? but also: As an outsider, how will I discern what the “right” (most important, most necessary) stories and questions are? I’ve settled into what I think is a pretty elegant answer, if not a complete solution, in the way I worked with Bobby. He chose the theme himself (from a guided brainstorm of “self-reflective” topics); we developed the list of questions he thought would best allow him to tell his story together; and I posed them (with a few follow-ups) to him in a short but meaty interview.

I’m still working with Bobby and SIJC to decide how we’ll share his piece—he wants it to reach other young folks involved in selling and using drugs, but he has some significant safety concerns that prevent him from attaching his name to it. In the meantime, Bobby shared with me that the process offered him some relief. “It was weird,” he said. “I kind of had a gun to my head telling you that. I never talked about it before. … If you’re in the game, you can’t really talk about shit like that. But it felt good to get it off my chest.” Bobby, SIJC staff and I all found the process effective and powerful, and my supervisor and I intend to find opportunities to offer it to other young folks in Center programming in the coming months.

*His chosen pseudonym