New York City’s Wounded Healers: Findings from a Study of Credible Messenger Programs in New York City
A new study from the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) highlights the promise of credible messenger programming and the need to center lived experience in service delivery and policy making. Based on this positive assessment, it calls for increased support for the credible messenger field and for individuals working in it. Conducted by the Urban Institute, with additional support from the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), this participatory study used community-engaged participatory research strategies that included hiring and training credible messengers as part of the Urban Institute’s research team to amplify the voices of individuals and communities with lived experience.
Credible messengers are mentors who share lived experiences with the clients they serve, often including prior contact with the legal system. Having sustainably transformed their own lives, credible messengers leverage their background, expertise, and connections to be agents of change in their communities through helping others navigate many of the same institutions and challenges they themselves have experienced. The credible messenger movement is most directly traced to the work of Eddie Ellis, a formerly imprisoned Black Panther Party Member who, along with others returning from prison, wanted to give back to his beloved community.
New York City’s Credible Messenger Programming
Since 2012, NYC Opportunity has worked with City and service provider partners to help manage and research credible messenger programs. In partnership with YMI, we worked with the NYC Department of Probation to implement the Arches Transformative Mentoring program (Arches). The Urban Institute found that Arches reduces recidivism at rates rarely seen among programs serving legal system-involved young adults. The Urban Institute also found that Arches helped participants to achieve gains in key attitudinal and behavioral indicators, including self-perception, future orientation, emotion regulation, and relationships with others. The success of Arches and similar initiatives has helped to advance the credible messenger approach, and New York City has emerged as a national leader, convening and providing technical assistance to other municipalities and stakeholders seeking to implement credible messenger programs.
A Cross-Program, Participatory Action Research Study of Credible Messengers
As a growing body of evidence and community support have driven expansion of the credible messenger field, NYC Opportunity undertook this study to help strengthen this impactful approach by amplifying the input of the credible messenger workforce. At a moment when public and civic sector leaders are grappling with legacies of gatekeeping, this study’s participatory methodology has provided an invaluable platform to center the voices of credible messengers as we work to identify actionable recommendations and inform City strategy for further investments in credible messenger programming.
Community engaged methods (CEM) and participatory action research (PAR) were central to this study. Researchers used CEM by engaging leaders and staff of City agencies and outside organizations, as well as funders and other stakeholders, in key project activities and deliverables, including the project design, a literature review, an inventory of agencies and organizations, a workshop, and the final report.
The study’s PAR strategies included hiring credible messengers as part of the Urban Institute research team, who directly influenced all aspects of research design, data collection, and dissemination of the findings. This is an evaluation approach that NYC Opportunity will continue to use as we seek to center equity-driven practices in our work.
Key Insights from the Study:
The study highlights major strengths of the credible messenger approach, emphasizing successes related to individual healing, service navigation, conflict de-escalation, and community empowerment. It found that credible messengers:
- facilitate individual and community healing, empowerment, and capacity building, and help reduce contact between police and communities by providing alternative prevention strategies to address harm and violence
- engage different stakeholders, acting as bridges between community-based organizations, community members, agencies, and policymakers
- show the public how community members can take care of each other without relying on police, prisons, and other carceral institutions
- teach their communities about the root causes of criminalization and mass incarceration and make people more conscious of shared experiences and systemic oppression
The study also highlights challenges in the field and presents several recommendations for strengthening the credible messenger approach in New York City. These recommendations include a focus on improved career ladders for credible messengers and enhanced pay and compensation packages that are commensurate with other human services professionals.
- Low pay and lack of benefits. Credible messengers are not paid a living wage, rarely receive raises, are typically paid less than their non-credible messenger counterparts (e.g., social workers, case managers), and are not given benefits like health insurance, paid time off, and retirement investments.
- Funding barriers. Participants reported a wide range of barriers to gaining adequate programmatic funding, as well as restrictive contracts, ill-suited performance and evaluation measures, and excessive time commitments required to execute funding.
- Stigma. Participants stressed that racism, capitalism, and trauma all continuously marginalize credible messengers and their work. Because credible messengers are predominantly Black and Latinx people with criminal convictions, they typically face challenging work environments and have compounded trauma that is difficult to cope with while serving others who experience similar traumas.
- Workplace culture. Participants said there is often a mismatch between credible messengers’ missions and values and the workplace cultures of organizations that employ them. Traditional workplace cultures often do a poor job of relating to marginalized populations.
- Increase pay, benefits, and supports for credible messengers. Credible messengers need career ladders, affordable healthcare, and retirement benefits, and their pay needs to be raised to a living wage equal to their non-credible messenger counterparts.
- Increase flexible funding for capacity building within and between organizations. Programs need diverse and flexible funding streams to support professional and business development.
- Reduce the time it takes to execute funding to organizations. Contract processing time currently presents outsized burdens for many community-based community messenger organizations.
- Introduce alternative and healing-based forms of evaluation and performance measurement. Outcomes beyond recidivism, violations, and dosage might include school attendance, physical and mental health and well-being, costs saved by diverting people from system involvement, and measures of individuals’ and communities’ upward mobility.
- Be more inclusive of people with lived experience in all areas. People with lived experience need to be incorporated in roles and fields they have been historically excluded from, such as contract development, policy, education, and research.
- Ensure the purpose of the work is driving organizations’ structures and processes. Provider organizations must guard against “overclinicalizing” the work, and need to maintain workplace structures and processes that support the unique needs of the populations they employ.
The study’s findings align with those of No Wrong Door, an NYC Opportunity initiative examining how New York City can better support legal system-involved individuals and the provider organizations that connect them to services. Based on Learning Community meetings with providers in spring 2022, we launched the Community Navigator Institute in East Harlem, which provides community-led training in service navigation tools and frameworks, delivered by individuals with lived experiences in the legal system. In addition, we are piloting a participatory program review process with City partners to improve program design and service experiences for legal system-involved individuals.
The findings and recommendations presented in the Urban Institute study can help to inform future programmatic investments, and to strengthen the credible messenger field in New York City and beyond.
Support for the credible messenger approach has been growing. In February 2022, President Biden highlighted it as a powerful tool to strengthen communities. That same month, NYC Mayor Eric Adams announced the City’s commitment to connect every young adult probation client to a credible messenger mentor.
As momentum for credible messenger programming builds, NYC Opportunity is committed to working with City partners to champion the recommendations presented in this report, and supporting the City’s ongoing leadership in this powerful and empowering movement.
To learn more, read the research findings on credible messenger programming and other community-based services for legal system-involved youth and adults:
- New York City’s Wounded Healers: A Cross-Program, Participatory Action Research Study of Credible Messengers
- New York City’s Wounded Healers: Findings at a Glance
- Arches Transformative Mentoring Program: An Implementation and Impact Evaluation in New York City
- Arches Transformative Mentoring Program: Findings at a Glance
- Evaluation Report on New York City’s Advocate, Intervene, Mentor Program
- Advocate, Intervene, Mentor: Findings at a Glance
- Considerations for Justice-Involved Youth Programming: Lessons Learned and Recommendations from the Arches, AIM, and NYC Justice Corps Evaluations