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Aboard the Clearwater: Yusuf Burgess (center right) on the Clearwater with kids and chaperones.

Off the Streets
Part 3 of a series looking at programs in Albany that are trying to provide gang alternatives
By david king
photos By alicia solsman

Seeing Past the Block
Yusuf 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.

“Yeah, 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.

“They 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 relayed.

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.”

“Would 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 of interest.

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 corners.

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 help.”

Exploring below deck: A chaperone emerges from the sleeping quarters.

Hoke 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.

‘This 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.

“If 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.

“I 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 gang.

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.

“I 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 to Burgess.

“You 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 entertainment.”

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?”

Proud Parent: Joseph Bowman surveys the ship.

Burgess 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 way.”

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 distractedly.

“See, 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.

‘I’ve 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 talks to.

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.

“Rayshawn 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 it.”

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.”

dking@metroland.net

 

Some Gang-Prevention Activities and Resources

 

Boys and Girls Clubs of America

www.bgca.org

After-school activities for children and teens.

 

Capital District YMCA

869-3500

www.cdymca.org

 

Equinox

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

www.nysgangprevention.com

Drop-in event welcoming all teens. Run by Ron “Cook” Barrett [“Nights at the Y,” Aug. 11].

 

Summer in the City

454-2891

Comprehensive guide of summer activities for youth in the Capital Region assembled by the College of Saint Rose.

 

Trinity Institution

Homer Perkins Center, Inc. Albany

449-5155

After-school programs.

 

NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

Yusuf Burgess, environmental educator assistant.

402-8517

Various camps, Clearwater boat trips.


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