Roots of Community Resilience: An Interview with the Institute for Transformative Mentoring
by Sasha Hodson, Tamara Oyola Santiago, Cincere Wilson, Keyonn Sheppard, Ashraf Rijal, Zbigniew Grabowski and Zef Egan
In conversation with Sasha Hodson, staff members at the Institute for Transformative Mentoring (ITM) Tamara Oyola Santiago, Cincere Wilson, Keyonn Sheppard and Ashraf Rijal share their thoughts and wisdom on credible messengering during coronavirus, anti-oppression organizing, and dismantling the prison industrial complex.
Thank you again for taking the time to meet with us. My name is Sasha Hodson, and I graduated from The New School in 2017. I’m an Environmental Studies graduate and I focused on mapping and data analysis. After graduating I ended up at the Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA’s) office, which was different than I imagined my path being. I’ve been there for the past two years as an investigative analyst and was involved in the first restorative justice case at the Manhattan DA’s office. I am introducing my background as a way to feed into what you guys are doing, which I think is really wonderful. I would love to start off by everyone introducing themselves and then what brought you to the Institute for Transformative Mentoring?
Tamara Oyola Santiago
Good morning, everyone. My name is Tamara Oyola Santiago. I’m Senior Educator and Mentor at the Institute for Transformative Mentoring. I am a public health educator and I have worked at The New School since December of 2009. I used to be Director of Community Health within Student Health Services. I’ll just say that, as a public health educator, I see myself in the role of helping to transform communities where social justice and equity are centered, and that the personal is deeply connected to the macro structural.
ITM works within the Schools of Public Engagement, and within the Schools of Public Engagement, in the Center for New York City Affairs. Our students are people who are impacted by the criminal justice system, many of whom are formerly incarcerated, who are now taking classes at The New School focused on restorative practices; our framework is storytelling, in a trauma centered approach for healing. For example, how do they use their lived experiences to actually become change agents for community health and empowerment? I think within ITM, the four of us, Ashraf, Keyonn, Cincere and I we’re mentors, we’re teachers, we’re activists, and I’m using these titles, which I don’t necessarily know if my colleagues identify with, but I see us as this group that really mobilizes in circles of solidarity to improve the lives of New Yorkers.
Hi, I’m Cincere Wilson. I am the program facilitator and mentor. What brought me to the Institute is that I was already doing similar work. And my supervisor got wind that the Institute was being created, and they were looking for people with my background, and he knew I’d be the perfect fit. He introduced us. I got hired. And as you see the rest is history.
I am Keyonn Shepherd, I am the youth program facilitator. When ITM began, it did not have a component for young people. It was simply intended to train individuals who were working with young people in organizations that were grassroots and community based. I came to ITM as a student in fall of ’17. So I was the Resource and Referral specialist for Children’s Villages. Harlem Justice Community Program and a mentor at the Arches High Bridge program, Arches’ program in Highbridge in the Bronx. I served those two purposes at Children’s Village. And as a new person in the credible messengering field  they sent me to ITM in order to learn restorative practices and the trauma-informed care practices that we teach here at ITM. And I took it and completed the advanced class for ITM and then on the opportunity presented itself to apply to be the youth program facilitator. So I made an application and have been in this role at ITM, it will be two years in February.
Hi, I’m Ashraf Rijal. I’m the operations manager at ITM. When I came to ITM, I was working in the arts and arts nonprofit administration sector. I was looking to find a way to be more directly supportive and finding a position where my values align more directly with the work I was doing. And the founding program director of ITM, we were mentored by the same Professor back in college, and I started doing some video work with ITM. And then eventually a full time position opened up for operations. So I got involved in that capacity.
Tamara Oyola Santiago
Cincere, can you define what is a credible messenger? Because that is such an important term and group that we work with.
Sure. Credible messengers. It seems to be a fluid definition because it’s changing. Right? Initially, though credible messages were people who had criminal justice experience, got their life together, and then came home to work in the community to steer the youth away from incarceration and violence. What made them credible is the fact that they work and they live in the same community as the youth they help, so that the youth, and if not the youth themselves, their parents know of the credible messenger when he or she was in their hayday. This gives them credibility and influence. So the youth they mentor usually listen to them. And there are other people already in the community doing the same work, who’ve never been to prison, and they also get recognized by the youth and others, because of their consistency, as credible messengers. They’re always there, they’re always doing the same thing, they’re always looking to help. So these people in the community are looked at as credible messengers as well. Folks, did I leave anything else out?
I think that a portion is, especially when we’re talking about folks who are returning citizens, who are now doing the work, it is about genuinely doing the work, right. And it is about the fact that you have the desire to be beneficial and reinvest in the community that you come out of that then makes you the credible messenger. It is not simply the fact that you were incarcerated, and now have been released.
That’s the only portion that I would add, because every person that returns home from incarceration does not get to work in the community, and is not looking to reinvest, especially in our young people. Credible messengers are returning citizens who work in social service organizations with court-involved young people as a deterrent to long term incarceration. And that is the significant part. You are working as a deterrent for somebody else, in terms of following in your footsteps, you’re trying to show somebody what is a better pathway, so you must be taking a better pathway is a requirement.
Thank you, that’s very helpful. In terms of credible messengering, what is the niche that ITM fills? How do people hear about the Institute? Is it mostly by word of mouth? Or are you partnering with other agencies or organizations?
There is some context that has to be explained. In the beginning, we went out to organizations and we did presentations, for health and hospitals, the health care for the agency for New York City hospitals and mental health facilities. They have a meeting once a month with every Cure Violence program director in NYC. A few times we were there to do a presentation about ITM and to get them to send their staff to the school. We help credible messengers address their personal trauma so that they can be better mentors to their mentees. And we do that by way of restorative practices. Circle work, story work. And so we started out by doing these presentations going to different organizations, different places, and then the word of mouth began. And people started telling other people about ITM. And then, I think we very strategically invited people to our graduations and they loved those. There’s a part of our graduation process where each student has an opportunity to get up and talk about their experience with ITM, and how the experience has influenced their life. And that turns out to be a beautiful thing. So the more people who saw what each student talked about, the more people wanted to come. But we also do have a strategic outreach plan where we partner with over 50 organizations now.
In addition, the ITM model is the first university based, credited model. So how did the word of mouth spread so big, so fast, you actually have the capacity to earn three college credits from the New School in order to certify yourself as a credible messenger. We were the first place where that was an actual tangibility. So now other universities have followed ITM in order to replicate that process, but part of the reason why it is that we have such a wide network is because originally ITM was the first university-based credible messenger training program that was accredited. So that was significant.
People are training all the time, Dude, what’s the point of my going to get another training? Well, this is actually university-based, and you’re going to get three college credits to move further towards your degree. That’s different, that’s pretty significant. And then the credible messengering field is still young, as an occupational field to begin with. So I don’t know that credible messengering has existed a full decade at this point. So a lot of the organizations do have a very close knit relationship with each other. And a lot of the funding sources for credible messengering work comes through a lot of the same sources, ie, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, or the Department of Probation.
But I would just like to reiterate what Cincere said: ITM is a healing space. It takes on a different characteristic even than the New School as a university. It is as much a restorative space in terms of your own personal self care as it is a learning space in terms of how to translate that to your young people when it is that you get back to work. And I think that the pairing of the healing of the individual as the student while it is that we are in class, and also the professional development that comes from the curriculum — in terms of what it is that we will return to our organizations with — really that makes it so that when folks graduate from ITM, like, yo, bro, you got to do that. You just start, somewhere in the middle of class, you start going, “Hey, have you ever heard of ITM? Yo, man, you got to go do this.” Right. So the word of mouth is really big. But I think that that’s the basis for it to a large extent.
Tamara Oyola Santiago
And if I could just emphasize that it’s a train the trainers model. Students graduate with not just that internal healing process, but also a framework for how to do this in their home agency, and how to do this back in their community. They’re learning how to develop activities, how to lead a circle in your support group, inclusive of different communities — i.e. with young people, or within a workshop or within a team meeting. It’s capacity building that’s both internal and outwards.
Students that graduate not only have the knowledge, skills and abilities, but also, now they’re part of a pretty robust alumni network, across the five boroughs of New York City. They can call upon other folks who are credible messengers, who understand the importance of healing in order to transform communities. That’s one piece of it. And the other piece of it is, what is our curriculum? And I think this is really important. It links directly to Resilience and the theme of the Quarterly. It’s not about just the individual level processes. There’s a lot of that that happens that we link directly to the systems of oppression that shape and structure the USA. So we talk about racism and sexism and ableism, and homophobia and transphobia, and poverty, and how these are all deeply connected to each other, and they impact the school to prison pipeline, mass incarceration, who gets incarcerated, and in fact link racial slavery to Jim Crow to the current system of mass incarceration. We’re giving a macro lens of how to analyze why it is that their community is what it is.
The solutions lie in community change that addresses the systems of oppression. Our work is deeply linked to anti-oppression frameworks, which are deeply internal, and are healing processes. We were having this dialogue earlier around resiliency, and how there’s been more and more criticism around the term itself, because resiliency wouldn’t be needed, if the conditions that create adversity weren’t present in the first place. Resiliency and resilience as an individual level characteristic of strength is a beautiful thing to behold, it is necessary. But what would it look like if we were able to create a movement or several movements that are homegrown grassroots that dismantle the systems of adversity in the first place? And I think that’s what ITM does, we link it so that we say, yes, you are resilient. Yes, you’re a change agent. Yes, you are a person who has survived the system and is now doing beautiful work in the community. But, how do we change so that those adversities, those forces don’t exist anymore? And for that, we need the anti-oppression framework.
I think that ITM creates a community of resilience. Let’s just start with the fact that the community is based upon credible messengers. Folks who have survived mass incarceration, and still have a positive enough outlook to now be community change agents for the better. That’s a level of resilience to start with that begins before you came to ITM.
ITM creates a commonality when all of those individuals are in the same room at the same time. Through personal narratives, we share our stories, then you get to know hey, I have a commonality with a dude who is Latino from the Bronx, even though I am African American from Brooklyn. We know exactly that — Hey, I’m that guy, that guy’s me.
And then we have created what is a more resilient network for the community because now I am connected to a resource in the Bronx, and he is connected to a resource in Brooklyn. So whereas I might have had a stratosphere that was simply Brooklyn — Brooklyn is big enough for you to deal with enough organizations in Brooklyn to the point where you never get out of Brooklyn. And the Bronx is the same, or Harlem is the same, but ITM brings all of those people from all of those boroughs together, and brings together different types of credible messengering.
There are different types of credible messengers. Some credible messengers are violence interrupters. Where there are violent acts taking place in a community, they literally show up on the scene. And tell these people to stop shooting, okay. You put your gun down, and you put your gun down. And based upon the fact that they have some sort of credibility in the neighborhood, folks will at least pause long enough for them to start a conversation that brings about some level of more peaceful interaction.
There are other people who are mentors that work in after school programs like Arches and Next Steps, who facilitate workshops, but they’re not necessarily the people that stand in between people with guns in their hand.
There are other folks who are hospital violence interrupters, who deal with people who have been the victims of violence. While they are still in the hospital, somebody that is on residency at Kings County, if you come in as the victim of a stabbing or shooting, comes as a credible messenger. — Hey, are you safe to go back to the neighborhood? Is there some way that we need to mediate a situation for you before it is that they release you from this hospital so that you don’t end up coming back to this hospital, or worse.
So there are different types of credible messengers that work in different capacities. But they all get trained in restorative practices and all get a chance to network meet and heal at ITM collectively.
Seeing somebody else who is also resilient and survived certain situations, gives you another level of strength, and then knowing that there is an entire community of us, then actually allows us to start to collectively address the framework that causes the necessity of resilience.
I may just give you an example of what that looks like in regard to building that resilience. I have a student from one cohort, who had some issues with Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). And she thought that ACS was trying to take her daughter. She called me and I connected her to two other students from two different cohorts who we consider our child welfare experts. And they gave her information, told her who to call, told her who to call in regard to a lawyer, gave her all the information. And then she called me back to tell me that the lawyer told her exactly word for word what the two former students told her, and she went and used that information that they gave her. And that day she went home with her daughter.
Tamara Oyola Santiago
I think Cincere’s example highlights also how we see the prison industrial complex. It’s not just prisons and jails, it also includes ICE and detention centers and people impacted by the child welfare system and ACS. We see it as though there is a tree called the criminal justice system, then those are the different branches. And in order to address the isms and the systems of oppression, we need to be able to mobilize and build solidarity to eradicate across all those different tree branches and see how oppression is all connected.
And chop that tree down.
I think that’s a really robust explanation of what you guys do, and how it addresses so many different facets of the prison industrial complex.
Could you talk a little bit more about how you see ITM’s work going forward? In terms of either expanding ITM, or replacing some of these institutional structures and barriers that are part of that criminal justice system, and creating communities and cities with localized and trauma-informed approaches to violence going forward.
In the very long term, what I’d like to see is based on the ITM model which says healed people heal people. And that we may come to a day when we actually exchange the current criminal justice system for a restorative justice system. I would love to see that happen. That’s why when you said earlier that you were part of the very first restorative justice case, I wrote that down. I definitely want to hear what that was about.
Now in regard to expanding. We want to spread our message far and wide. And one way to do that is to do trainings for other organizations. Right, we can go to work. Go to the organizations, or zoom, and spread out capacity that way. Those are just one of the many things that I think about it in regards to trying to expand ITM.
Tamara Oyola Santiago
Part of the challenge that we have within ITM is a challenge that exists for nonprofits across the US because of the nonprofit industrial complex: funding streams segment our work. So that you are very much on this one highway that is focused on food justice, or you’re on this one highway that is focused on homeless service outreach or another one that’s harm reduction. But I think in order to be truly transformative for the US as a whole, and to create a US that is centered on healing and health and equity, we need to be able to work across those highways. And I think that the work of the credible messengers during the pandemic illustrates the power that we have.
Credible messengers in the community during COVID have become providers of elder care, childcare, they have been distributing meals, they have been walking the neighborhood, checking in with people who are isolating and practicing physical distancing. They are organizing fairs out in the street and in parks where we know that people can physically distance and the coronavirus isn’t as transmissible. They’ve been informing communities about COVID-19, right? Talking about myths and about what it means to have a vaccine or not. And I think that that’s why credible messengers are so important in New York City, because they are centered in the community. They’re from a community, they know their neighbors, they know their block, and thus can mobilize across different health and well being issues that include education, and you know, hospital visits and whatnot.
In terms of the long term movement — echoing what Cincere said with restorative justice as a centering framework — is the importance to move beyond the nonprofit industrial complex and into mutual aid networks that are community centered and led. And with that, I’ll pass it to Ashraf.
Thank you, Tamara. I think this speaks to both our values and the ways that we work within ITM. I feel like ITM is very much about capacity, network and movement building. And I might even go beyond that to say that, as much as we want to build, we also want to make sure that there is this centering of the collective. So when we talk about building, it’s even more about contributing. We want to be capacity contributing and movement contributing and network contributing. Because we understand that the movement is very layered, and it involves many different parties. And ITM doesn’t center itself, even within its own program. People don’t come to take ITM courses to become certified as credible messengers. They already are credible messengers. They already have the expertise. And as we talked about earlier, we’re training the trainers by building and contributing to capacity. We’re allowing folks to develop skills.
In terms of expansion, I know at least where the young people are concerned, my aspiration is to make sure that they have a clear understanding of the restorative practices and principles.
As I said earlier, I speak from two different capacities. One is as a graduate, right. How did ITM help? What is it that ITM assisted with? Because like Ashraf, said, I was working as a credible messenger when I got there. So coming to ITM didn’t necessarily make me a credible messenger. But it gave me an understanding of what credible messengering is. How does that fit into the social service framework? How does that fit into the public health framework?
There were certain lightning rod things that were like — Wow. Is that for real? On social determinants of health, that the same failing neighborhoods have been failing for the last 30 years. That means that regardless of administration, Democratic or Republican, who was the mayor, or the governor, the same neighborhood that was failing in the Bronx, before the 80’s, is still failing in the Bronx right now. There’s got to be a reason for that. And even if there’s not a reason, somebody needs to wave their hand and stand up and say something. And somebody needs to let the people who live in that demographic in the Bronx know that so that they can stand up and fight for themselves.
There are certain points in time where you’re not even going to fight for yourself, because you don’t know that there’s a fight there to be had. And when you lack the information, then sometimes you lack the passion, sometimes you’ll find apathy, the neighborhoods that don’t understand what the consequence is, right?
It is very lucrative for New York State to send you to jail. They make money annually off of you being incarcerated. It is more lucrative for them for you to go to jail than it is for you to go to work tomorrow and pay taxes. Sometime, somehow, the community has got to know that and then begin to work on its own behalf because it understands the level of severity that it is faced with. At the point in time that we have the ability to share with ourselves the consequences, then we go — Wait a second. Let’s see how we can work together to mitigate this, especially if it befalls these particular neighborhoods on a continual basis, especially if we have gone through multiple generations without this thing changing. We can’t just continue to be apathetic and allow it to transpire. Guys, what are we going to do?
Once we get together, we can have each person, who has boots on the ground, tell us what is the most effective way they think to approach what is the challenge in their community. It is by bringing all these people together and having these conversations that that change actually has a platform to be made. And so I think that that is a major strength of what ITM can and will do as we move forward.
The COVID pandemic puts this into context. We’re at a point where the criminal justice system is at such a standstill. Nothing is happening with people’s cases — or people are getting arrested and things aren’t happening at the same pace they used to in the court system.
There is an opportunity for a lot of change right now. How do you chop down that tree, and use COVID as an opportunity to do so, when all of these other institutional structures are at a sort of standstill? Considering your credible messengers are — I think, Cincere, as you said — they all have become essential workers for their communities, particularly during this time.
That is exactly right. Because nobody else was in the community doing it. When, when this pandemic was at its worst, nobody else was coming to the communities and helping us make sure that our elderly were okay. And so credible messengers stepped up and did it. And the work they did saved people’s lives.
COVID has changed the field in one very important way. And that is a credible messenger’s bread and butter is his ability to connect. If he or she cannot make a connection with the person, then that person needs to get another mentor, because it’s not gonna work. But once you do make that connection, and you stay consistent, then that is a bond that is unparalleled in the child or juvenile justice system. So what COVID did, though, is take us and pull us apart. We don’t do as many face to face meetings. You know, something as small as a hug, on the right day, at the right time, it made the world of difference. And when you have a connection with your youth, when they walk in the door, you can look at them and say, this person needs a hug. Or there’s something going on with this person. You ask them — Do you need a hug? You can’t do that now. You can’t hug anybody over zoom. You can have all kinds of encouraging words, but it’s not the same. I’m hoping that when we get past the zoom era, that we can quickly get back to where we were with making those human connections. Because those things are very, very important.
It also depends on the individuals and the type of organization. A lot of our credible messengers are still doing the exact same thing they were doing before. How did COVID change it? I do it with a mask on, I do it with a hand sanitizer in my pocket. For credible messengers who do violence interruption — a gun will kill me a lot faster than a virus. I’m not going out there unintelligently. I’m going to make sure I have my mask on and my hand sanitizer. I’m going to make sure that I have what I need to protect myself. But at the end of the day, I’m not ready to let the guys with guns win because the virus is outside. That’s not the way a lot of the credible messenger organizations that we work with have been operating.
You know, I had the pleasure of being outside with another one of our organizations giving out Thanksgiving boxes to families. You know folks still got to eat. I’m saying the people who have acute immediate problems still need those problems to be addressed in some sort of a fashion. So I believe that credible messenger organizations are doing the best job that they can do with all things considered. Yeah, some of the budgets are smaller, some folks have had to minimize staff or have people work in different capacities, but to the best of their ability credible messenger organizations work in communities in crisis. The COVID pandemic is just another crisis in those communities. And the way another part of the effect is that the communities that were most challenged, and most need the work of credible messengers were the ones that were most heavily affected by the pandemic.
If you took the demographic for all of the numbers for mass incarceration, because I actually went to the Resilience Quarterly site, if I pull up all of those charts [5 Charts that Explain COVID-19 Impacts in NYC], and start laying those charts on top of each other, the mass incarceration chart and the high COVID number chart will be the same exact, dark shaded areas.
Tamara Oyola Santiago
Which coincides with poverty, which coincides with asthma, which coincides with diabetes, which coincides with low birth weight among children. Right. And just to echo what Keyonn is saying, again, and linking it back to resiliency, which is the theme of the quarterly under COVID. Absolutely, beautiful community mutual aid networks happened under COVID. They existed before, they were amplified exponentially. Our communities have thrived and grown and survived because of those mutual aid networks, because the system has failed us. So what we do within ITM is say, we’re going to celebrate who we are, we’re going to celebrate our beauty. And we also need to talk about what are those underlying currents that lead to that in the first place. And that’s where the anti-oppression framework leads. I just want to go back to that framework of why it is that we do what we do.
Thank you. That’s very important. Do you have anything you want to share? Any questions you have for me?
I have a quick question for you. I want to hear about the first restorative justice case.
Sure. As I said before, I’m an analyst at the DA’s office. I worked on a case that involved an individual named Mr. Lee who robbed an elderly gentleman at a bank. And the elderly gentleman ended up falling. And as a result of that fall, he died. The case was charged as a felony murder case, which as you probably know, carries a higher charge than just a homicide charged as third-degree murder.
Looking at the particulars of the case, Mr. Lee had no prior criminal history. He was in his mid 50s. He was a former security guard who had recently become part time rather than full time. He was single, he was living on his own, and had kind of fallen into financial hardship, because of the part time work. And when he was arrested after this incident he didn’t know that the man who he had taken the money from had died.
We were able to get a resolution to the case that involved restorative justice, a conversation with him and his sister, and the victim’s son and his wife. It was a mediated conversation with a restorative justice social worker. The four of them had a conversation, both the victim’s son and Mr. Lee were able to express where they were coming from, and also not wanting to hold on to — what makes me think about the Institute when I think about this case — is really taking their trauma, and then turning it, using it as a way to heal and move forward.
This case could have been written off as a 20 year prison sentence, with no other nuance. But we were able to get this. It still involved some years of prison time, but I think it’s a step towards what our criminal justice system should look like.
Listen, guys, never forget the numbers right? Never forget that we live in a capitalist country. And that all of this information does amount to dollars and cents, right? And somebody wanted every penny.
But listen, we appreciate the work. And I know Mr. Lee appreciates the work and in earnest. It is most likely the right thing right? To put some dude away. He didn’t even know the person died. Dead wrong for robbing this guy, but like at 50 to give a guy 20 is like — okay, go die in jail.
And I’m just going like, come on dawg. Because I was broke and needed a couple of extra dollars — go die in jail. Like, that’s kind of harsh, bro. Like, can we at least look at it? Can we at least discuss it or something. So I am encouraged, at least, that there is some inclination to have that conversation. Alternative to incarceration programs do that for young people, for me, like the fact that you would be willing to at least give them a program to try and get them back on the right track, as opposed to, you know, just get up and throw away the key.
Learn more about the work of ITM:
Hear about the restorative justice case mentioned in the interview:
Recorded Zoom event from February 2021 with Jinsoo and Julia Kim, “Choosing Restorative Justice After Violent Crime” reflecting on the case
We would like to thank Prison Policy Initiative for the data and analyses published in Mapping disadvantage: The geography of incarceration in New York State. We would also like to thank Executive Director, Peter Wagner for clarifying the finer points of the data set.
Zbigniew Grabowski used this data to map incarceration rates in New York City.
 ITM broadly defines credible messengers as “formerly incarcerated men and women working in the social services fields throughout New York City. These mentors help young people navigate community violence and avoid the criminal justice system. Credible messengers are gaining systems-level recognition in New York City as an effective strategy to reduce crime and criminal justice involvement.”
Sasha Hodson graduated from the New School in 2017 with a degree in Environmental Studies. She currently works as an analyst for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. @Hodson_Sasha
Zbigniew Grabowski’s research focuses on the social, ecological, and technological relationships driving landscape scale patterns of human well being and ecological health with an emphasis on hydrological systems. He is a Research Fellow at the Urban Systems Lab and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. @zjgrabowski
Zef Egan is an educator and writer. He is pursuing a masters focused on environmental and social justice at the Graduate Center. Zef is the managing editor of Resilience Quarterly. @EganZef