Umoja

A United Brotherhood of Young Black Men in South Bronx

Sar Mnahsheh, 17, and Jonathan Benjamin, 19, are members of Umoja, a young men’s leadership program originally created to work with at-risk youths. They both attend Urban Assembly School of Applied Math and Science, a sixth through twelfth grade school in South Bronx. (Photo: Angel Au-Yeung)

Joseph Jimenez, known as Jay Jay to his friends, was walking to his girlfriend’s house in South Bronx on October 15 last year when he was shot four times. He died instantly. He was 19 years old. A vice principal of his alma mater, Urban Assembly School of Applied Math and Science, wrote a memorial tribute saying it had been a case of mistaken identity.

By the next morning, on a Sunday, a group of Jimenez’s closest friends and teacher mentors had heard the news, and gathered at Riverside Park to grieve. “We just sat and cried together until the sun came down,” said vice principal Ingrid Chung. “Jay Jay’s death made us confront with how you really deal with a loss in the brotherhood.”

The brotherhood Chung was referring to was Umoja, meaning brotherhood in Swahili, a school-sponsored program created in the summer of 2014 specifically for male students who were at urgent risk of dropping out. Now 21 members strong, the group is united by location — each grew up in the South Bronx, one of the most violent and poor neighborhoods in the nation. Each was chosen for the group because they showed strong leadership potential. Jay Jay had been part of Umoja.

As an English teacher and advisory counselor in Urban Assembly, a small school in the South Bronx for sixth through twelfth graders, Chung spent years watching as her students dealt with issues like poverty, single-parent households, regular street violence, as a de facto part of life. The origin of Umoja began in 2009, when one of her closest students stopped coming to school. She found out later that his best friend had been shot and killed the day before his high school graduation.

This incident forced Chung to re-think her strategy about helping these kids, from reactive to proactive. Instead of jumping in to help them deal with violence after the fact, she realized these kids needed emotional guidance around the clock.

Student advisory programs started appearing in New York City in the last few years to provide emotional support for students in their adolescence. A 2009 report from New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit education reform organization, encouraged and showed schools how to build up advisory programs in their institutions. These support groups are especially important for students at Urban Assembly where the student body’s poverty level is at 92 percent.

With three other faculty members — middle school math teacher Kimberly Melgar, assistant principal Teri Russiello, and principal David Krulwich — Chung created Umoja in 2013, a super-advisory group of sorts that would provide intensive adult as well as peer-to-peer support for students who were struggling the most. Instead of labeling them as struggling students, the counselors made sure the young men knew this was an invitation to a leadership program, a group that would help them develop as role models for their peers.

“Instead of defining them as at-risk, what if we call them our most promising leaders?” she said. “Instead of just expecting them to beat the odds or whatever, what if their journeys became examples for other kids in the school to follow?”

Umoja began as a program to grab the attention of students at risk of dropping out. Today, its primary purpose has become to build leaders.

“It’s no secret that Umoja was created to help some of our most troubled kids,” said vice principal Tim Jones. “But it’s really grown into something else.”

The kick-off event for Umoja was a week-long camping trip in August to Black Rock Forest in upstate New York. Ten staff members, Chung included, supervised team-building exercises so that the students could begin to open up and talk to each other about their lives, inside and outside of school.

“The goal is to give the boys a safe environment where they feel nothing can harm them, so they can open up naturally,” said Angel Diaz, a former Umoja member who graduated from Urban Assembly in 2016 and came back as a counselor. “Once that happens, everyone starts trusting each other.”

Once the academic year began, Umoja met every Tuesdays after school and on Saturday mornings. They use these meetings to check up on each other, make sure they are on track with their homework and also open the floor for any issues that may have come up at home or outside of school hallways.

“We hold ourselves to a certain standard now,” said Sar Mnahsheh, a 17 year-old high school senior at Urban Assembly. “We make sure we’re not looking towards prison lots but towards creating a better society.”

Mnahsheh was an honors student all throughout middle school and entered high school on an accelerated academic track. However his academic performance took a turn once he started 9th grade. He said this was due to a newfound desire to see his friends more.

Chung has observed similar downward spirals in kids when they transition from middle school to high school. The pull of the street becomes more and more tempting. “Around the 9th or 10th grade is a pivotal year in these students’ lives,” Chung said. “That’s when they start becoming perceived as men, and they’ll be faced with decisions that essentially come down to whether they’re for the street life or the school life.”

Mnahsheh, however, said he has faced those decisions his whole life. “I wouldn’t say it’s just from middle school to high school,” he said. “I’m from the South Bronx so my whole life I’ve had to make the choice of whether to do well in school or be a part of the street life.”

Mnahsheh recently finished applying to 11 public New York universities and hopes to major in psychology. Before he joined up with Umoja, he hadn’t imagined this day.

“All the boys in Umoja, we have a background of being attached to the streets,” Mnahsheh said. “And you can take somebody out of the streets but you can’t take the streets out of them. So you have to instill a different perspective in them so that they can use that to change the streets.”

Jonathan Benjamin, another senior Umoja member, is 6-foot-1 inch tall and 19 years old. He was held back twice in elementary school for not keeping up with his academics. In 7th grade at Urban Assembly Applied Math and Science he was suspended for getting into a fight. The next year on a school field trip to Howard University in Washington D.C., Benjamin was caught smoking in a college dorm. That infraction led to his suspension for the rest of the year.

After his second suspension, he came back to Urban Assembly at the beginning of his freshman year with a new awareness OF the consequences of his actions. “I was following people who weren’t making the right decisions. I felt people were looking at me differently and I had disappointed teachers who had believed in me. I let them down.”

Benjamin, Mnahsheh and the other Umoja members had more than just poor academic performance in common when they were initially invited to the program, according to Chung. They also showed a desire or a potential to change.

“We’re looking for kids who will listen and trust us,” said Chung. “We want to know, will this kid really take the program seriously?”

Since joining Umoja in 2014, Benjamin has raised his report card average 16 points from 71 percent to 87 percent in three school years. He went from being marked late 44 times to 11 marks after joining the group.

Umoja alum-turned-counselor Diaz initially had doubts about the program. “I thought, okay, they’re grabbing colored boys and it’s just charity work,” he said. “But it’s about building a bond with a group of strangers and having that support system that we never had.”

Diaz, at 19 years old, is now a freshman at Guttman Community College in Midtown Manhattan. Guttman was built in 2011 with donations to the City University of New York from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Michael Bloomberg’s Center for Economic Opportunity. Its curriculum is designed to help improve students’ chances of earning their associate degrees and transferring to four-year colleges. While Diaz has yet to decide on a major, he hopes to work in education after graduating.

He comes back regularly to Urban Assembly to check in on the younger members. Diaz grew up in High Bridge — one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the Bronx with the seventh highest violent felony rate in the city.

Courtesy of Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York.

“Before Umoja I had friends who were drug dealers and killers,” Diaz said. “I didn’t have a destination and I was lost. But the program gave me a family of brothers.”

Jimenez was a star athlete and played point guard on the varsity basketball team. He could also be arrogant and had a penchant for skipping out of class — issues that landed him an invitation into Umoja. His untimely death was a difficult chapter for the Umoja members — but it also brought them closer. The members started checking in on each other more frequently and the brotherhood reached a new level of importance. Benjamin got the Umoja symbol, two intertwined crosslinks, tattooed on his upper back.

“Now when we leave each other and say bye we make sure to say get home safe,” Mnahsheh said. “We’ll text each other just to say hey, love you, brother.’”