In early summer, as the spread of COVID-19 began to slow in New York City, frontline team members in CASES’ Assertive Community Engagement and Success (ACES) were knocking on doors in East Harlem to engage participants in this new program. ACES works with East Harlem young people (16-24 years old) who may be at risk of becoming incarcerated or becoming involved in violence in the community. Many ACES participants are involved in gangs, and all have experienced challenges when attempting to engage in more traditional, less flexible youth development programs.
“ACES is exciting because it’s very hands on. There’s definitely no middle ground with this program,” Donnell Parks, Youth Mentor, explained. “We get straight to the point—literally arriving at people’s doors and asking these guys to give the program a try.”
The ACES model begins with a focus on outreach, a process that may take months. Mentors show up again and again to attempt to engage young people in this multiyear program. ACES’ initial, assertive outreach forges the foundation for the mentor-participant relationship, out of which young people will gradually strengthen their socioemotional skills and begin to identify and work toward goals.
CASES based aspects of the ACES program design on a proven intervention model developed by Roca, a nonprofit organization offering specialized mentoring programs in Massachusetts and Maryland. CASES staff consulted Roca leadership during the initial planning phase and, after securing funding from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to pilot the program, traveled to Boston to see firsthand how Roca staff engage young people who have a history of struggling to engage in traditional programming.
The key to Roca’s and ACES’ success is consistent, persistent engagement. Rather than expecting young people to come to the program, ACES mentors take the program to participants. It can take months, but ACES mentors keep coming back, knocking on doors, and connecting with young people and their families until a relationship can develop.
“You can’t just give this beautiful pitch about what ACES is,” Jason Gordon, Youth Mentor, said. “You have to show it. Sometimes you go the first time and they slam the door because they don’t want to hear it. But we just keep coming. And this isn’t a mandated program—I make that clear to the kids and the families. Everyone on my caseload wants to do this.”
For both Jason and Donnell, opening up about their own experiences is key to establishing rapport with a new participant.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Donnell said. “A lot of the things they’re going through, the pressures. . . I felt the same growing up. If I can speak on that experience that you’re going through, then we can build on that and eventually build a connection.”
Jason starts by sharing his own story to build trust with a young person. “I give before I start taking. I let them know who I am, and how I got to this point, and why I 100% care.”
As a teenager, Jason was mandated to his fair share of more traditional programs. He remembers how often people in those programs would jump right into asking him to share personal and sensitive details about his life.
“They would come in and talk to me and ask me all these personal questions,” he recounted, “and I would just sit there and ‘yeah’ them to death. I was never disrespectful, but I also knew I was never coming back. I would think: you’re asking me all these serious questions, and I don’t even know you? That’s not right.”
When he was only 19 years old, Jason was sentenced to 15 years in prison. While incarcerated, he committed himself to his education and considered how he could make a positive impact when he got home. He earned his Associate’s Degree from Bard College and was awarded a scholarship to study sociology at Lehman College. Today, he’s studying for his Master’s in Social Work at Columbia University.
“I tell these young people: if you want it, you can do it,” Jason said. “I did it, so you can do it too.”
“I feel like a motivator, first and foremost,” Jason said. “My role is to build the quality of life of these young men. I’m here to sell them on the opportunity to do better than what’s going on out in the streets and show them a way out when no one else necessarily is.”
“I just want to see these guys win,” he concluded. “The world has turned its back on a lot of these guys—and when the world turns its back, that’s when we show up.”
ACES works with young people who are making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Many participants are as young as 16 or 17 years old.
“The human brain isn’t even fully developed until a person is 24 years old,” Jason said. “These guys are 16 or 17 years old and seeking guidance from big homies [in the gang] who are 35, 40 years old.”
“When they do something wrong, who is really at fault here?” Jason asked. “Their mentor. Because they’re already in a mentoring program! Just not the one we would prefer for them to be in. They got mentors who are showing them how to sell drugs, rob, all this nonsense. The big homies are giving them the total opposite of what I’m telling them. I got to install a whole different energy from what they’re accustomed to receiving.”
ACES youth workers utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help young people change their thinking and to counteract some of the negative messaging they may be receiving outside of the program.
“That’s my goal,” Jason said, “to get them to think differently. Because once you get them to think differently, you get them to act differently. I’m trying to get them to value their own lives. If you don’t care about your own life, I know you don’t care about others’ lives.”
For Donnell, the impact on the community is one of the most important aspects of the program.
“We’re making a connection with the participant, but then it turns into a web of connections with the people around them,” he said. “At some point, this touches the whole community. We’ve had parents of participants ask if we can work with their younger kids too. It’s really been amazing.”
CASES operates the ACES program with support from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.