at the Y
photos by Alicia Solsman
YMCA gang- prevention night attracts large crowds—and usually
avoids preaching at them
black youths stand on Washington Avenue in Albany. “Yo, he
was all like Anakin Skywalker on that shit son,” shouts one
as they twirl their backpacks like light sabers and fiddle
with their CD players. An elderly white couple walks by cautiously,
nearly falling off the sidewalk, making sure not to get too
close. The kids are waiting patiently (as patiently as young
teens can) for the doors of the City of Albany Gang Prevention
Center to swing open.
Saturdays a month, from 7 PM to midnight, the Gang Prevention
Center offers kids a safe haven from the realities they would
normally have to face on the streets or at home. The program,
headed by Ron “Cook” Barrett and housed in the Washington
Avenue YMCA, is designed specifically to keep the most at-risk
youth population of Albany off the streets and out of gangs
during the time they would be most likely to have nowhere
else to go.
Barrett has a round, bald head connected to his short strong
frame by a neck draped with large gold chains. He is almost
always dressed in flashy, baggy track wear and a fresh pair
of basketball shoes. Besides running the Gang Prevention Center,
which is a project of Albany’s Department of Youth and Family
Services, he also lectures about gangs across the country.
Unlike most of the kids he is helping, Barrett is white and
40 years old. Although he gets the occasional odd look or
disbelieving stare, he still can connect with some of the
hardest-to-reach kids. He is a torrent of energy and concern.
Barrett approaches the group of waiting teens not as an administrator,
but as an older brother. “Yo, Cook, can we grab the ball?”
inquires a teen as Barrett pushes open the YMCA’s doors. “You
know it’s all good my man. Just do me a favor and find something
to prop the door open and it’ll all be good,” responds Barrett.
The kids pour inside and begin pulling out tables, opening
up cabinets and setting up chairs. Barrett scurries around,
frenzied, until finally he sits down in front of a desk with
the sign-up roster.
Once inside, a teen tells Barrett, “I’m hungry.” Barrett hands
the teen some money and says “Go run across next door, grab
something.” “Where? I don’t eat meat,” says the youth. “You
know it’s all good. It’s chicken, fowl, poultry, the best
pigeon they got on Central Ave.,” responds Barrett. The teen
thanks him. “It’s all good, my brotha,” Barrett responds.
“Just grab me a bottle of water. Good look!”
Kids flood in from all over the area. The first time teens
come to the program, their names are recorded. Then, each
time they stop by, their attendance is recorded. Even though
this, a summer evening in June, is a time attendance is usually
down, 200 kids will swarm through the doors this evening.
Barrett tells of having to turn kids away on winter weekends
because too many kids are already inside. Each September,
he begins a new roster. On this year’s so far there have been
1,525 individual signatures, and new names are added without
fail every Saturday.
to Barrett, his program is as effective as it is because it
offers common ground to kids from all around the Capital Region.
Kids who might otherwise be feuding because they are from
uptown or downtown find themselves playing basketball games
together. Barrett says that the uptown-downtown feud in Albany
is very real, with the city being split mainly between the
Bloods and the Crips. “The city is split red and blue, but
I ask these kids, ‘Where is midtown? Where is midtown in Smallbany?’
Barrett says that he has known of times when kids involved
in gang activity around Albany found themselves jailed with
a member of a rival Albany gang. “Suddenly, uptown and downtown
doesn’t mean so much when you’re the only kids from Albany
facing off against kids from New Jersey and New York.” But
Barrett would much rather see the kids finding their common
ground on the YMCA’s basketball courts than behind bars.
Barrett says that when he started the program in 2000, the
basics came easy. “We wanted to open this place up to kids
who couldn’t normally afford it. For a building like the Y
to be closed in an area like this, where they really need
it, I said, ‘It’s just a no-brainer.’ ” As for activities:
“Recreation was easy. We give ’em a ball and say, ‘Play,’
but we also have computers, guest speakers, cooking for the
girls and fashion shows.”
The most creative feature of the program is that Barrett and
other volunteers videotape things that go on during the night.
They sit down with kids who tell the camera their stories
and hardships, and then they edit them together and project
them onto the gymnasium wall the next week. Barrett sees this
as a huge self-esteem booster.
here to breed kids to replace us,” says Barrett. His friend
and recent volunteer at the program, DJ, agrees. They both
fondly remember growing up in Albany and having role models
in the community who “threw the rope over the fence” for them,
including Little League and Pop Warner coaches and heads of
youth programs who took extra time for them.
Barrett points to Omar, one of the Saturday night program’s
alumni who is now in college. John Flynn, director of the
YMCA, promised Omar that if he kept coming to the program
and got through high school and college he would have a job
waiting for him at the YMCA. “John threw the rope over the
fence for that kid,” says Barrett. Whether because of the
dangled carrot or not, it seems that Omar has done so well
for himself that Barrett and DJ doubt he will take Flynn up
on his offer. They do expect Omar to be back to help out at
the program, along with other kids who have made it through.
Obviously, not every teen who attends the program escapes
the street life, and Barrett openly talks about different
teens who are now behind bars. “This one guy, I didn’t see
him in the program for a couple months and then I hear he’s
in county lockup. I get down there and he’s telling me, ‘I
wish I hadn’t gotten involved with other stuff. I wish I had
kept coming to the program.’ ”
is a jubilant atmosphere in the Y on this June night. Kids
joke with one another as they stroll down the hall. At worst,
the atmosphere is reminiscent of between-class periods in
middle school—a very tame middle school. While giving the
kids something they want to do probably plays a huge part
in their decent behavior, it also has to do with the volunteers,
who not only set up activities but become part of the crowd
Lou Ann Gapp, a short, blonde-haired woman who got involved
with the program through her church, began volunteering in
March 2001. Gapp goes out of her way to make sure the kids
know her. “We don’t just walk by without acknowledging the
kids. We make sure to stop and say hello and see how their
day has been, to see how they feel,” she explains.
In a side hall, Albany Police Officer Dan Nadarski sets up.
Nadarski comes in full official blue uniform, but he brings
a computer full of games. He has been assigned to the program
for more than two years and is not required to bring a computer.
Nor is he required to talk with the kids. But he does both.
Nadarski goes out of his way to request the assignment.
never got that about cops,” a young man says to Nadarski,
who is standing behind the front desk of the Y monitoring
security cameras. “Why do ya’ll have a gun and a night stick?”
The group of kids surrounding Nadarski begins to chuckle and
laugh. “Why ya’ll need both? One ain’t enough?” Nadarski cracks
a smile and casually intones, “Take our test.” The group pauses
for a moment, looking at Nadarski with eyes glazed over in
puzzlement. “Take our test. You’ll see why we have both.”
The kids look back and forth at each other. Then the original
speaker says, “I ain’t taking no test. Why don’t cops have
braids? I ain’t never seen a cop with braids.” Nadarski rolls
his head, chuckling.
Nadarski is not the only APD officer in the program. Detective
Dan Stevens has been with the program as long as Barrett has.
Stevens doesn’t go to the lengths Barrett does to identify
with the kids—he certainly is not wearing a track suit—but
neither is he in recognizable uniform. Stevens can regularly
be found swinging his legs from the front desk, chatting and
laughing with anyone who stops by.
This particular evening, Stevens has found himself more popular
than ever: He brought milk and cookies. “Yo, man, let me get
a swig of that!” demands a teen with a bright basketball jersey.
drink milk out of the container at home?” asks Stevens. “Get
a cup and you’ve got your milk.” The teen runs to the snack
counter and returns, triumphant. Later, while tossing the
empty milk container in the trash, Stevens confides, “I never
thought milk would be so popular with this crowd.”
David Graham sits in the coach’s office in the large gymnasium.
In front of the office are two turntables set up as a DJ booth.
The bass from a Jay-Z song rattles the bibles piled on the
bookshelves above the desk. “A large part of the program’s
success has been that we let the kids do what they want to
do,” says Graham, who has been with the program since the
beginning. Graham also works at Albany High School as an assistant
teacher, and he is nearly as popular with the teens as Barrett.
He can almost always be found on the courts or in his office
watching kids play.
the only reminders of the realities the teens have to face
outside of the program are the rap songs that blast from the
PA speakers, songs with lyrics about pushing drugs and the
word “fuck” used in ever more creative ways. The teens don’t
seem to be paying attention to the words, though, as they
dash around the court. The beats of the music and the dribbling
of the balls seem to create a focused placidity. Despite all
the furious ballplaying and the angry music, all is calm.
Barrett and other staff report that in the program’s five-year
history there have been no notable fights or problems. It
is often difficult for outsiders to believe this.
That point is made very clear when a young APD officer with
short, buzz-cut blond hair and bright red cheeks appears at
the front desk. “Had an incident with a group of teens down
on Swan. They sent me down here,” reports the officer as he
nervously begins patrolling the darkness in front of the entrance
to the Y. Stevens and Barrett invite the officer in and tell
him to have a look around. The officer’s eyes dart from teen
to teen as though he might be suddenly surprised. His cheeks
send guys down when there are incidents in the community just
to make sure no one comes looking for kids in the program,”
says Gapp. “But we’ve never had a problem before. I think
this guy’s just a little nervous.” The officer seems dazed
and worried as he passes through a group of giggling, yelling
teens. But soon enough, he has calmed down and is chatting
invite anybody to come see what makes these kids click,” says
Barrett. “Everyone wants to know what is with the violence.
They’re kids, and they want everything you and I wanted as
a kid: protection, belonging and respect, and if I can give
a sense of that to these kids, then they aren’t gonna be out
in the streets.”
Barrett says that the kids in the program often are treated
as problems to be analyzed. Groups from various law, teaching,
or social-work organizations come down periodically to ask
the teens questions about violence in their lives. While Barrett
generally encourages people to come talk to the kids, he doesn’t
encourage groups who do things like give kids tickets for
pizza slices in return for answering questions. “Kids come
up to me asking, ‘Yo, who is this, Cook? Why they here?’ These
kids are real, and they recognize real.”
Which isn’t to say that every kid who attends is paragon of
virtue, or that Barrett will always defend them. During the
early hours of a June session, a man with spiked hair, dressed
in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, approaches Barrett and explains
he is “having a problem with some of the kids. . . . After
your kids got out the other week, one of them was laying on
my car,” he says. “I say excuse me and he ignores me and I
say excuse me again and the kid just says back ‘I’m going.’
So I get in and start my car and start driving and he moves.”
Barrett looks at the man and says: “That’s part of the stuff
we are dealing with here at the program. We teach these kids
to respect this area just like they would their own neighborhood.”
The man begins to smile. “That’s probably a big part of the
problem. Don’t treat their own areas too great,” he says,
now in full-body chuckle.
Barrett assures the man he will talk to the kids about the
incident during the group get-together later in that night,
and asks the man if he can describe the teens. The man makes
a comment to the effect that all the teens in the program
dress the same.
all part of the gang culture,” says Barrett through what seems
to be a feigned smile.
is notorious in the region for his stance that “a gang wannabe
is a gang gonna-be” and that kids become attracted to gangs
through symbology and speech from rap music and TV. But he
doesn’t try to make the gang-prevention program free from
those influences. In fact, sometimes it seems to be the opposite.
As a group of girls leaves the program, Barrett calls after
them, “Yo, where y’all going?” They keep marching, but a little
faster. He persists.
Finally, one stops. “We’re gonna go to my friend’s house,”
she whines at Barrett.
man, I’m glad you stopped. I was gonna have to call my girls
and get ’em to jump you if you dissed me like that,” Barrett
says, laughing. The girls giggle and continue on their way.
play roles,” explains Barrett. “I sit in meetings with the
mayor and I shake hands and promote the program, and then
the next minute I’m back to myself chilling with the kids,
talking like this. . . . We need to show the kids that life
is a game where you have to fulfill certain roles. They can
have their gangster thing. They can try to live that image,
but they need to be able to turn it off to function in the
are a constant struggle. So far, the program has been funded
primarily from a multiyear Department of Justice grant and
money from the Meridian Corporation. But Barrett says funding
from law-enforcement sources is trickling away, often being
diverted toward “homeland security.” “What do you call it
when you got communities too scared to leave their homes cause
people are outside getting shot?” asks Barrett. “You gotta
take care of your backyard before you worry about anything
College interns have done some fund-raising from local businesses,
but according to Graham, “After the pretty college interns
are gone and we show up the next year asking for money, those
[local] businesses are no longer so interested.”
As a result of shrinking resources, there is less going on
within the program than there used to be, and the messages
that are sent to the kids vary based on who is willing to
Currently, the largest influence besides Barrett on the teens
comes from Lou Ann Gapp and other members of the nondenominational
Christian Victory Church on Quail Street in Albany.
After a Saturday block party in July, the church sends over
a Christian rapper. Some bible students from various countries
follow, saying they heard there was an after party. Barrett
seems a bit miffed. The students pile into the gymnasium.
They stay isolated, away from the regular teens.
A fat man in a basketball jersey sits slumped over in a chair,
not interacting with the teens. They carry on with their basketball
games, ignoring the chairs being set up on half their court.
Church members continue to push back the start time for the
rapper’s show, hoping for more of an audience.
Finally, around 10 PM, the show starts. The slumped-over man
is introduced. “Hey, ya’ll, what’s up,” he says as he saunters
in front of the crowd. “Ya’ll ever had that thing where you
ate too much good food and you feel like if you do too much
you’ll puke?” The kids look back and forth at each other,
confused. Anyone who spends much time at the program is acutely
aware that a number of these kids don’t get regular meals.
The rapper chokes/raps his way through a quarter of a song
and then announces, “Yo, I’m mainly here cause I want to talk
to you kids about our Lord.”
He then launches into a tirade about sex. “I don’t know what
ya’ll know about gays and lesbianic sex, but if you be sleeping
with lots of people then that makes you gay.” After that,
he explains that he has “slept with six women and has had
oral sex with over 30.” The teens begin to squirm furiously
and giggle as he reports that he called every woman he ever
had relations with to apologize. Then he explains that the
biggest apology one needs to make is to the Lord.
I want ya’ll to close your eyes. Now if ya’ll is feeling the
Lord moving you to stand up and apologize, then you should
stand up.” The teens look back and forth, some confused, some
angry, some disgusted. “All right, man, now if you feel the
Lord working through you and you don’t stand up then you’re
a . . . alright, I didn’t want to have to get this real, but
if you don’t stand up and you’re feeling it then you’re a
punk!” Some kids sigh, some head for the door.
Volunteers stop them from leaving. The rapper angrily spouts,
“Yo, man, can I get some attention. Yo, up here.” Finally,
after another few minutes silence, the rapper says, “Man,
if the Lord is working through you and you don’t stand up,
then you a bi. . . OK, I’m not gonna say it, but you know
what I’m talking ’bout.”
At last, the sweat-soaked rapper shuffles over to a water
fountain. The teens all head back to the courts to grab basketballs,
and normalcy returns. Barrett’s point that whoever shows up
to work with the teens gets their ear has never been clearer.
9 PM on a Saturday night in July, and the numbers in the program
have begun to thin. The oppressive summer heat and lack of
air conditioning has made playing basketball upstairs like
swimming in a fishbowl. The most content kids are the ones
seated around Barrett at the entranceway. In fact, there is
usually some controversy over who gets to sit next to Barrett.
One teen digs in his pockets to show Barrett the name of a
social worker or a parole officer assigned to his case. “OK,
yeah, I know this guy. He’s a good guy. I don’t want to hear
you’re giving him trouble,” says Barrett.
It seems the program is coming to an early end tonight, yet
outside, a group of girls haphazardly dash their way across
traffic toward the Y. Drivers jam on their brakes, lay on
their horns and flash their lights through the twilight haze.
The girls continue on their way, giggling and chatting.
A woman sitting on a stoop groans, “Kids ain’t got nowhere
to go. Ain’t no one watching out for them.” Ironically, this
is the one night of the week when that isn’t true. Tonight
they are headed to the Y. Tonight someone will be watching