Growing Grown-Ups In Harlem

Photo by: Marc Fader
At Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a Harlem youth program, Jimmy Rogers, 19, a summer intern (second from left), helps (from left) Damian Rosso, 10, Jane Nurse, 4, Chris Bond, 8, and Chauncey Henderson, 9, plant jalapenos.

In the quest for "What works?", one Manhattan youth organization is showing results by getting kids to care about larger struggles.

By: Helen Zelon

Broccoli, cucumber, bell peppers, collard greens. Strawberries, blueberries, grapes and tomatoes; runner beans and basil, four big beds of jalapeno peppers. Worms and compost. Hip hop and capoiera. A cheeseburger cookout with all the trimmings: "We have enough food for everyone to eat here, and more," says Nando Rodriguez as kids grab burgers, sliced pineapple and macaroni. "We have enough for seconds and thirds."

Welcome to Annual Planting No. 4 at the garden of Brotherhood/SisterSol, a West Harlem nonprofit that guides kids through the gauntlet of urban adolescence.

A wraparound resource that provides teen education via afterschool, summer and weekend programs, Brotherhood/Sister Sol (BroSis for short) aims "to operate like a well-constructed family," one child at a time, says co-founder Khary Lazare-White. Founded in 1994, when Lazare-White and co-founder Jason Warvin were seniors at Brown University, the fledgling program moved to Harlem in 1995. It has grown to serve 250 young people in a West 143d Street brownstone where the front door is rarely locked.

The organization takes kids at the age many other programs shun—adolescence and high school. Year-round programs develop high-school community activists, and a structured afterschool curriculum leads young teens into young adulthood in annual, calibrated blocks, via BroSis "chapters" of 10 to 19 youth, led by two adult leaders.

The chapters are single-sex, so conversation’s not encumbered—and subjects aren’t restricted to what’s safe in mixed company. Workshops focus initially on building awareness of the wider community, developing critical thinking and social skills essential to navigating a dynamic urban environment and building youth leadership. Each group crafts its own oaths of dedication and participates in formal Rites of Passage that help to define the growth from adolescence to young adulthood. The organization’s International Study Program even takes groups of students overseas every summer—to Africa, to Brazil—for a month of study, adventure and cultural history.

The garden, carved from vacant lots, is Nando's baby. Its designer and keeper, Rodriguez began with BroSis as a high-school student and serves now as a group leader and coordinator of the organization's environmental programs.

Raphael Santiago, 30, called Ralphie, is a founding youth member of BroSis who now serves as the organization's arts coordinator. He and Nando met in eighth grade, in a community garden on the Lower East Side but, Ralphie says he's been gardening since fourth grade. In fact, he adds, "I got Nando into it."

Santiago grew up on the Lower East Side with four sisters and one brother. "Growing up was very hard. I had no role models," he said, as kids jumped rope and dug worms in the garden. "No one in my neighborhood went to school, finished high school, and went to college." Raphael did; he graduated from Wesleyan in 2003, with a degree in American Studies. BroSis taught him "how to be a man," he says, "and how my being a man affects women. I can be an agent of change or an agent of oppression."

To date, 88 percent of Bro/Sis alumni have graduated from high school—in a neighborhood where only 42 percent of kids, and one in three black males, reach that milestone. Ninety-five percent of those graduates are either in college or work full-time; none are incarcerated (compared with one in three black men aged 20 to 29). Few have become young parents and all of the young BroSis fathers are connected to their kids, living with their children's mothers or with primary custody or visitation rights.

"They keep you in a straight line," says Enmanuel Diaz, 15, a 10th grader at Mott Hall High School. "I like being with my friends. I like being in a place where I can say what I feel. You don't normally get to do that."

Enmanuel's group leader is also named Enmanuel. (Enmanuel Candelario, 24, came into BroSis during high school himself, and now—after graduating from Fordham University with a double major in political science and urban studies—leads a boys' teen group.) The shared name was a good sign, Diaz says. But actions matter most. "I have a smart mouth," Diaz says, "I get in trouble sometimes." Like, he explains, when he nearly got suspended for not wearing his school uniform. Candelario "went and spoke to the deans, and got me out of trouble."

Says Diaz: "I like being around people who care about you, who have your back no matter what."

The Harlem community needs someone to get its back, too, and the language of BroSis knits together individual achievement with collective activism. That's its take on how to address the problem that so many organizations in Harlem—the Harlem Children's Zone, dozens of charter schools—have approached from such different angles. Many have claimed success, and maybe there's more than one path to it. BroSis's approach is to place each teen's struggle for personal identity within a greater-good context, aimed at empowering a whole segment of the city.

"Education is about power," says co-director and BroSis curriculum author Susan Wilcox. "Not just, 'How do I uplift myself?' but 'How do I do for those around me?' "

Along with the garden, Nando heads the "United Warriors" youth chapter, which counts Isaac Garcia, 16 years old, as a member. Isaac's in 10th grade at the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem; he's been there since middle school, when he lived in the Bronx. In the four years he's been part of BroSis, he's moved to 143rd Street, then to 104th and Broadway, and now lives in East New York, Brooklyn. He likes to keep his look sharp—his shoes are wrapped in white garbage bags, to keep the dirt off—but "I came today to help out," and hang out with Nando and his friends.

"This here is a constant amid lots of changes," Isaac said.

Jaulil Lawson, 18, Kaseem Hill, 17, and Royce Paris, 16, shoot hoops in the packed-dirt quarter-court next to a student-built gazebo, after hauling away sections of a tree stump from the planting beds. All three boys live on 143rd Street and have summer jobs at BroSis. Royce has spent nearly half his life with the group; he came to summer camp when he was nine. "It's consistent," he says, by way of explanation. "It's always here for us. It's a job and something to do in the summer … "

"… instead of just being on the corner," adds Jaulil.

Nando and Ralphie cultivate kids, as well as plants: On his haunches in the dirt, Nando talks to Chris Bond, 8, Damian Rosso, 10, and Chauncey Henderson, 9 (and-a-half), about planting rows of jalapeno peppers in a square-framed raised bed.

"Listen, listen," Nando tells the boys, all in pale-blue school uniform shirts. "This is your row. You take a trowel, make a hole. Keep your soil in your trowel, put the plant in, make a little hill with your hands, and you're done." Damian, his shirt buttoned to the collar, is skeptical; he doesn't want to get dirty. Nando shows the boys how to use the trowel to measure the distance between seedlings, then steps back to watch.

"Let me see if you figured it out," Nando coaches. Chris plants a seedling, which tips over into the soil. "Dig real deep, get a little deeper, then, with your hands …" he says, and molds the earth.