the Clearwater: Yusuf Burgess (center right) on the Clearwater
with kids and chaperones.
3 of a series looking at programs in Albany that are trying
to provide gang alternatives
By david king
By alicia solsman
Past the Block
Burgess wants to get urban kids out of their neighborhoods
and into nature
Rayshawn Hoke and Janet Hallaman sit on separate seats in
an oversized passenger van with their cell phones raised and
clamped tightly to their ears. Behind them a pillar of a ship’s
mast juts out over the small Catskill dock. It’s an impressive
sight, but the two teens aren’t interested in it. The image
of the remodeled old-world ship sitting at a semi-modern dock
next to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge would be a distraction for
many, but not for Janet and Rayshawn. What interests them
now are their cell phones.
we’ll be home soon,” says Hoke into his phone. Hallaman swivels
the phone from one ear to another, impatiently listening while
rummaging through her bags. “Yes, I’m going to be working
again,” she says, rolling her eyes. Then she bursts into a
fit of giggles.
are just excited to be back on dry land,” says Yusuf Burgess,
environmental educator assistant for the Department of Environmental
Conservation. For a week, Hallaman and Hoke have been on the
Clearwater, a boat devoted to environmental education,
sailing up and down the Hudson, and they are not wasting one
minute before reintroducing themselves to the luxuries to
be had on land.
This was no summer getaway or luxury cruise for the teens.
Instead, Hoke and Hallaman learned how to live on the boat;
they also learned how to teach visitors of all ages about
the life of the Hudson River and about the Clearwater
itself. As paid interns, both Albany teens had to learn to
do without technology and modern plumbing. They had to learn
to adapt to eating the food cooked on the ship’s deck and
to sleeping in the cramped quarters below it.
As their cell-phone conversations finally come to an end,
Burgess prods them. “So what did y’all learn?” Both teens
launch into a chorus of responses, describing the meals they
ate, the people they met and the lessons they learned and
Then Burgess asks “Would you do it again?” The flurry of enthusiasm
comes to a screeching halt. For a few seconds they both seem
to consider the time they’ve spent away from their cell phones,
their video games, their friends, their city, their summer
jobs and their parents. Then they both raise their heads cautiously
and reply, “Yeah, Probably,” “I think so.”
you recommend it to your friends?” Burgess asks. “Yeah,” says
Hallaman. “I don’t know if they would do it, though.”
With his pepper-gray beard and knitted cap, Burgess makes
an impression on kids, first because of his placid demeanor,
but most of all because he approaches kids as though he and
they are on the same level no matter their maturity or level
For the past year, Burgess’ job has been to recruit urban
youths to take part in environmental activities. He gives
presentations at schools and churches all around upstate New
York about opportunities the DEC provides, from various camps
to kayaking and skiing trips to visits to college campuses
that have an environmental-studies focus. He looks for urban
youths who have an interest in the environment and might want
to see something outside of their hometowns.
Thanks to the Diversity Initiative enacted this year by DEC
Commissioner Denise Sheehan, the DEC now actively recruits
urban youths who are rewarded with scholarships to attend
one-week sessions. As a result, this summer, for the first
time in their 50-year existence, DEC-run camps were filled
with urban kids who don’t normally get past their own street
Last Arbor Day, Burgess, with a group of Albany kids, broke
the Guinness Book of World Records record for tree
planting by planting 60 trees in 60 minutes. He also heads
an African-American ski club for Albany youth.
Before his time with the DEC, Burgess spent seven years as
tech person and gang-prevention coordinator for the Boys and
Girls Club in Albany. It was during that time that he first
met Hoke. Ask Hoke how and when he first met Burgess, and
he’ll tell you, “I don’t remember. It was so long ago.”
His mother’s memory is a little more reliable: “Oh, I remember.
Rayshawn had an attitude problem and Yusuf saw that he needed
below deck: A chaperone emerges from the sleeping quarters.
started out by attending Camp DeBruce in Catskill State Park.
“I was sort of skeptical about it at first. I was scared.
But I trust Brother Yusuf in a major way,” says Hoke’s mother,
Sonya Timmons. >>From his first stay at camp, Hoke became
involved in skiing and kayaking, and was soon invited back
as a counselor. The leadership skills he displayed as a camp
counselor also led to his time on the Clearwater, where
he was paid to be a ship educator. Hoke seems to be drawn
to the program because he is given a chance to prove his responsibility,
to experience things away from his house and excel at something
not everyone can claim to be good at.
Hoke met Burgess when he was in fifth grade. Now that Hoke
is a junior in high school, Burgess is helping him channel
his interest in the environment into a college choice.
is not exactly targeted gang prevention,” Burgess warns. Despite
his years working as a gang-prevention coordinator, what Burgess
is doing for the DEC does not involve confronting gang members
or trying to get through to those no one can reach. What Burgess
does is approach kids who are interested in more than their
own city blocks. He looks for kids who are interested in the
environment, nature and adventure, and hopes that by giving
their interest a focus they will in turn get others in their
peer groups or in their schools interested as well.
we can get them past five blocks from where they live and
talk to them about things that are bigger than them and their
block, it becomes a better avenue,” he says, then adds, “It’s
not peer pressure. It is peer attraction.”
Burgess sees urban youth becoming more and more isolated from
nature. Be it from video games or MTV, Burgess sees the youth
of today being swallowed by marketing ploys and fads. That
does not mean that he wants them to throw it all away. “They
need to see it for what it is,” he says. “They need to be
reconnected with nature to give them a sense of who they are
and where they come from.”
Burgess says that he developed his approach to gang prevention
during his first few years at the Boys and Girls Club.
was brought in as a tech guy,” he says. “I got these kids
interested in technology. Before that, it was just a gym and
swim place.” It wasn’t long before Burgess realized that “these
kids were cold to each other.” Burgess began combining his
knowledge of technology and the resources the Boys and Girls
tech center provided with his love for the outdoors. “Kayaking
was a big passion of mine, and I saw how it brought people
together. It made them work hand in hand.” So Burgess introduced
outdoor adventures, environmental stewardship and other similar
activities into his gang-prevention program. That’s when he
says he began seeing the kids he once described as cold open
up to nature and then to each other. Burgess later took the
basis of the program he calls “hi tech/hi touch” with him
to the DEC.
Although his gang-prevention background strongly influenced
his current approach, Burgess’ own experiences as a teenager
probably had an even greater effect.
He grew up in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, where, he says,
he was somewhat sheltered from the chaos and violence of the
projects because his brother was a “warlord” of a prominent
However, Burgess felt some need to escape, and at age 17 he
signed up for the war in Vietnam, where he served for 19 months.
During his tour, Burgess experienced the horrors of war. He
lost friends, and, as he says, he lost himself. Burgess’s
wife adds, “We’ve been dealing with the effects of that war
since he came back.” Burgess admits that his return to normal
life was not easy.
came back with a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder, from
being depressed to substance abuse to just dropping out of
life altogether. I witnessed a lot there,” he says, and it
sounds like a major understatement. It was also upon his return
that he realized there were parallels between his situation
and those in America’s ghettos. “I saw some kids that were
just as desensitized by mayhem and disorder as those who had
been by the Vietnam War. Communities, people in the hood,
people are seeing a cop car went by, someone just got shot.
It wasn’t a deterrent, it wasn’t that they were fearful; it
was the order of the day.”
The fear and chaos that festers in some of our region’s worse-off
areas drives Burgess to stay involved in finding a solution,
a solution that does not exclusively have to do with his job
at the DEC.
Along with his day job, Burgess participates in community
efforts that work directly with those affected by gang violence.
He also speaks to organizations in the area about gangs.
Rows of youths dressed up in Sunday whites sit on metal folding
chairs with their arms folded across their laps. Periodically,
they glance back at their friends in other rows and exchange
whispered quips, which are followed by sporadic fits of laughter
that sweep like waves over the rows of teens.
This weeknight in August, the Union Baptist Church on Morton
Avenue in the South End is having a series of nights to prepare
its teens for the start of the school year. As Burgess sets
up his projection unit and his laptop, the teens’ nervous
energy seems to increase. Girls twist their braids around
their fingers and boys tug on their ties. Finally, Burgess
begins his presentation. This night, rather than discussing
the outdoor adventure scholarships and programs he has to
offer, Burgess has been asked to do a gang-awareness presentation.
“This presentation tonight isn’t about something you guys
haven’t heard of,” Burgess tells the audience. “But I think
I have a different twist than you might not have heard.” Teens
look back skeptically. Some have yet to really pay notice
guys, if you’re not part of the solution in some of these
things, then you could be or lend yourselves to part of the
problem. So I’m going to start out by saying that you guys
are a big part of the solution to a problem this city is seeing
growing and growing and growing.”
Burgess clicks through PowerPoint slides with antigang slogans,
pictures of weapons, and warnings of how to tell whether people
are involved. As the slides go by, the teens turn out to have
more and more to say. Some of them talk at length about how
they deal with violence.
Burgess then tells the kids how he feels the media can encourage
gang behavior. “Take it for what it is,” he says. “It’s just
The kids have heard this before; they want the harder questions
answered. When Burgess begins discussing how to avoid associating
with people who might be involved with gangs, a teen raises
his hand and asks, “How do we help people from getting involved?
How do we help our friends who might be involved?”
Parent: Joseph Bowman surveys the ship.
pauses and looks as though someone has asked the question
he has been waiting to answer. He wonders if his gang-awareness
presentation was necessary; perhaps this group of kids would
have been more interested in his camperships. “You can depend
on your friends; you can lend energy to someone else. . .
. You don’t have to handle it on your own. You can ask other
people for help. Sometimes it can be more of a badge of courage
to ask for help rather than to act on your own.” Then Burgess’
tone takes on a stern, matter-of-fact tone that rarely comes
up in his talks. “You aren’t going to be able to just reach
in and take someone out of a gang, out of trouble,” he says.
“You can set an example yourself, you can be successful and
hope that it attracts them. That it shows them a different
While Burgess is sometimes pleasantly surprised by his audience,
other times it becomes clear just how hard it is to break
through the barriers that kids put up.
On a dreary November night, Burgess begins a presentation
at the Arbor Hill Community Center. The adults in the room
order the kids to circle up. They slowly make their way around
a crescent-shaped table, partially distracted by their cell
phones and their Game Boys. A sign that hangs on the wall
behind them clearly forbids the use of either, but Burgess
continues on without scolding or nagging. He introduces himself
and explains he is here to offer camperships.
The teens begin to chatter. Some laugh, some put their heads
on the table. Others spin in their chairs. “How many of you
have ever been camping?” he asks. About half the group of
about 15 raise their hands. “How many of you have ever been
fishing?” Two or three hands are raised. “How many of you
would like to go fishing?” No hands rise. “OK, how many of
you have been mountain biking?” The teens nod their heads
this is about stuff that you may not be used to, that you
may not know about. I know that some of you all are only about
things you know, like rap, dancing and basketball, and I’m
not knocking those things, but I think I have some things
here that you really might like to try.”
Another burst of laughter lifts from the table. A girl knocks
the cap off a boy’s head. “How many of you are interested
in dirt biking? Dirt-bike racing?” More than half the hands
in the room shoot up. Their interest peaks there and then
steadily declines as Burgess shows a PowerPoint presentation
about the camps.
The teens’ interest rises one more time, briefly, as Burgess
mentions a girl who became involved in the camps and went
on to work for one after high school. “She made $540 a week.
I’m not trying to lure you, but I’m just letting you know
what opportunities there are out there.”
Burgess ends his presentation looking a bit defeated. Game
Boys and cell phones are out in full force as he asks if anyone
has questions. A young woman with a purple shirt blurts out,
“You got to be 12?” Burgess responds, “Yes, to go to the camp
you have to be at least 12 years old.” “Nah,” she replies.
“How old you got to be to earn $540 a week?” Burgess’ face
contorts as though he’s just been stung, “You have to be 17
to work there or out of high school,” he replies.
had great presentations in Syracuse, in Poughkeepsie, recently.
There was a great excitement level there,” Burgess insists.
“It’s just Albany. . . . You need some momentum to get things
moving, you know?”
According to Burgess, schools are where things need to get
moving in a hurry. Burgess knows firsthand that gangs exist
in Albany. He sees the effects of gang violence every day.
What he wants to know is what the community is going to do
about it. “We don’t have the resources we should have for
these kids,” he says. “We don’t have anything for these kids
to do when they get out of schools at 3. We need to have more
clubs and activities inside the schools to keep kids busy.
Keep them off the corner of the block.”
Rayshawn Hoke stands out as one of Burgess’s success stories.
Despite his mother’s concerns about his environmental adventures,
Hoke volunteered to help out at camp DeBruce. What started
as outdoor adventure has turned into trips to colleges and
universities. Thanks to those trips, Hoke knows that he wants
to go to Syracuse University to study environmental science.
He knows that he can probably get a full scholarship if he
follows the path toward a major in papermaking that he is
considering. He also knows what he has to do to get into the
school and get the scholarship. The boy Burgess met years
ago who, his mother says, “had an attitude problem,” is now
a leader, an example for all the rest of the kids Burgess
Burgess and Hoke’s mother are both reassured that the program
Hoke is interested in offers tutoring and help for students
who may not have received a full education in their high schools.
“It makes me feel better to know someone’s going to be looking
after him,” says his mother. Yet, if anything is clear from
Hoke’s experience at camp, on the Clearwater and as
a spokesperson for Burgess’ camperships, it will be that he
excels when he is given a chance to work on his own, when
responsibility rests on his shoulders. So even though Hoke
may have been hooked by the excitement of some of Burgess’
outdoor adventures, he has come a long way from there.
and I we started out with recreation, kayaking, some things
with camping, but now we’re at the point of career launch,”
says Burgess. “So whatever hook it is, whatever it is that
gets them through the door, we just need to get them through
Burgess insists that Hoke’s successes can be duplicated, but
that the key is to reach youth early. “You have to get them
before they get hard-hearted,” he says. “You have to get them
while they still have that sense of awe.”
Gang-Prevention Activities and Resources
and Girls Clubs of America
After-school activities for children and teens.
Capital District YMCA
95 Central Ave., Albany, 465-0683
Outreach, support services, after-school programs and counseling
for at-risk youth.
Liberty Partnership Program
University at Albany, 402-8517
Drop-out prevention program.
Saturday night Gang Prevention Center
Washington Avenue YMCA, Albany, 434-5723
Drop-in event welcoming all teens. Run by Ron “Cook” Barrett
[“Nights at the Y,” Aug. 11].
Summer in the City
Comprehensive guide of summer activities for youth in the
Capital Region assembled by the College of Saint Rose.
Homer Perkins Center, Inc. Albany
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
Yusuf Burgess, environmental educator assistant.
Various camps, Clearwater boat trips.