City University of New York (CUNY)—Hunter College
Silberman School of Social Work
East Harlem, New York
The Bridges Youth Empowerment Program is a unique social work-based program hosted by the Union Settlement Association in partnership with the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. The Union Settlement Association provides all direct services and management of the program, while Hunter College provides essential and high-level program evaluation, research design, professional development, and technical assistance regarding trauma and group work, and input into program design. Bridges addresses serious health and safety issues faced by youth in East Harlem, a community where 40% of households live below the poverty level and where teen pregnancy rates are the highest in New York City. Working with 32 students (grades 8-10) from Isaac Newton Middle School for Math and Science, many Bridges students have experienced severe personal traumas. The community lives in the constant presence of violence: violence among youth and gangs, sexual violence, and domestic violence. Many youth have been physically abused or have witnessed crime in the street, often perpetrated by someone close to them. This violence has stifled and paralyzed the minority youth, altering their worldview.
This fear changes the way they function in the community, affects the way they learn, and undermines their willingness to take initiative. As a result, many of these youth have never ventured beyond a few blocks from their home, too afraid of both perceived and real threats to their safety. The magnitude of the violence experienced at such a young age necessitated a different and unique approach. The creation of this social work-based, trauma-informed program aims to help these students develop self-confidence and experience life beyond their small community, all while increasing college aspirations and promoting healthy living practices. In the process, the program educates students on personal health and safety issues, such as unintended pregnancies, HIV/AIDS, STDs, diabetes, obesity, and tobacco use.
The Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College is a national leader in social work education that strategically relocated to East Harlem to meet the needs of this community. The most important contribution the college lends this YEP is social work and group work — two of the program’s most crucial components, according to Bridges Program Coordinator and Social Worker Sara Kaplan. Many East Harlem community partners lack funding to keep social workers on staff, making this social work-based program a great model for how to contribute in ways no community partner can. “Hunter social workers train the Bridges staff on how to properly deal with trauma in kids, and execute the program’s trauma-informed social work and group work, both key pieces to our program,” says Kaplan. As a practice-based research school, Hunter partners with the community and allows the data from its research to guide its clinical practitioners and practices. Faculty from the school oversee the YEP program, evaluate long-term outcomes of the healing process, monitor changes in reproductive health and wellness practices, and assess improved academic performance.
“Hunter is a school committed to working in participatory relationships with the community,” says Dr. Robert Abramovitz, M.D., Moses Visiting Professor of Social Work at Hunter and the project’s Principal Investigator. Kaplan explained, “We want to show our students that there are a lot of options open to them. That they can leave this neighborhood safely and feel like they belong in other parts of the city. But also, that East Harlem can be a really amazing place for them, as well. That’s empowerment … knowing they can create their own communities and feel safe at home.” The partnerships established through Bridges have proven highly beneficial to its cohort of students. The Bridges Program partners include Union Settlement, el Museo del Barrio, Isaac Newton School, the Legacy Project, and Youth Advocates, among others. Union Settlement and el Museo del Barrio are featured.
The Bridges Program is staffed by personnel from the Union Settlement Association, one of East Harlem’s largest social service agencies, which has worked in this community since 1895. A community mainstay, Union Settlement provides effective programs in education, childcare, nutrition, senior services, counseling, the arts, job training, and economic development — many of which are key elements to the Bridges Program.
Union Settlement is the hub for Youth Services, which lends three Youth Advocates to the Bridges Program, who each oversee a caseload of students in what’s referred to as anchor groups. Anchor groups operate much like homerooms do in typical school settings. “Our Youth Advocates facilitate the anchor groups,” says Kaplan, “and help their students create workshops that interest them. They’re also called upon to be there for the students as mentors, to do some short-term counseling for them, to try to be an advocate with the schools, and also to keep parents engaged. So they’re really building family and community relationships around each student.”
El Museo del Barrio — New York’s leading Latino cultural institution — is a museum whose mission is to present and preserve the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States. The museum offers programming that benefits the city’s Latino youth. Despite being located within walking distance, many of the youth in this community had not felt safe enough to visit el Museo. As part of Bridges, el Museo provides the opportunity for students to create art and to use it for self-expression. Their art is exhibited and becomes a tremendous source of self-confidence and inspiration, essential in helping children overcome problems with low self-esteem resulting from trauma. A curriculum was tailored to meet the needs of each el Museo youth. An artist-in-residency program paired a local poet with the youth and offered workshops on poetry and spoken word.
El Museo’s School Partnerships Coordinator Meghan Lally says, “You can really see the impact our partnership has had on the youth in the Bridges Program, seeing them come back, seeing them bring their families and their friends to the museum to look at their work hanging on the walls. The work they’ve created speaks for itself.”