A gathering of the Lewiston delegates who went to Harlem to explore how to tackle generational poverty in hopes of finding ideas they could bring home to Maine. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

NEW YORK – A dozen community leaders from Lewiston recently ventured to Harlem in search of innovative ways to deal with poverty in their struggling former mill town in Lewiston.

At first glance, it seems an odd choice.

Harlem, after all, still has an image in the popular imagination as a sea of decrepit housing projects, crack dens, gangs and graffiti.

Only a few decades ago, that image wasn’t far off the mark.

Brian McClendon, an executive with the Harlem Children’s Zone, said he grew up there seeing abandoned, burned-out buildings, crack vials littering the sidewalks and children as young as 10 dropping out of school to sell drugs.

In short, hope had fled from Harlem.

“It was about hustling and making money,” McClendon recalled.

It’s not that way any longer.

The mostly African American neighborhood still has plenty of poor people, but it also has a thriving business community – including a Whole Foods Market and an Old Navy – and a clear sense that its future is bright.

There are reams of scholarly papers that have aimed to figure out how the transformation occurred, most recognizing that America’s urban centers are doing better almost everywhere. But at least part of the answer is the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The nonprofit organization visited by the Lewiston delegation has a straightforward mission: “To break the cycle of poverty in Central Harlem by working at scale to build community, strengthen families and ensure that our children succeed from birth through college and career.”

The Harriet Tubman Memorial, also known as Swing Low, stands on a traffic island beside Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

In practice, what the $130 million-a-year charity does is to ensure thousands of young people in Harlem are cared for and educated every day, morning to night, from birth until they graduate from college.

It’s been surprisingly successful, one reason that groups from around the world go there to eyeball its programs and hear from its leaders.

What the Lewiston group saw in its three-day visit in mid-January may help spur changes to the Maine community’s approach to problems that have made three of the city’s census tracts among the four poorest in the state.

“What you saw is a lot of what we want to do,” Lewiston School Superintendent Todd Finn told the travelers last week.

Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said he aims to do more than “stick a Band-Aid” on poverty in downtown Lewiston.

WHY THEY WENT TO HARLEM

Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said that during his career in law enforcement, he often ran across young people getting into trouble whose real problem lay in their family’s poverty.

Heidi McCarthy, economic development specialist for Lewiston, speaks with Fowsia Musse, executive director of Maine Community Integration, during a break at the Harlem Children’s Zone. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

He said he felt like there was nobody to show them how to break out of the cycle they were caught in so, not surprisingly, they didn’t often find their way to productive citizenship.

As a city councilor, Cayer said, it struck him that the issue of poverty rarely arose. All anyone seemed to do, he said, was “stick Band-Aids on the problem.”

There wasn’t any attempt, he said, “to address the root cause of generational poverty” that trapped two, three or even more generations of a family.

It seemed to Cayer that the few programs that did exist were “like a windmill blowing in the wind,” just spinning endlessly without getting anywhere.

“I just thought that we had to find a better way,” he said.

So when he became the chairman of the Lewiston School Committee, Cayer established a special Poverty Awareness Subcommittee to dive in and see what, if anything, the city could do to find a new path that would offer hope to a community that has more than three in five families living in poverty.

Amanda Winslow, principal of Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston.  Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

To turn around the city, he said, it’s clear that officials need to emphasize both economic development and the community’s well-being. In that respect, dealing with poverty is crucial, Cayer said.

Since he set up the panel, he said, everyone he’s talked with has backed the idea.

“I’ve heard nothing but excitement since Day One,” Cayer said.

Cayer said he learned about the Harlem Children’s Zone from Shanna Cox, now president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and decided it might be a place to get tips that could be adapted for use in Lewiston.

The committee secured a $15,000 grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation that Geiger matched to cover the costs of going to Harlem.

On Jan. 14, 11 community leaders, mostly in education, headed for Harlem with a Sun Journal reporter in tow to see what, if anything, could be learned from the nonprofit’s efforts in the nation’s biggest city.

Brian McClendon, director of the Practitioners Institute at the Harlem Children’s Zone. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

A HARLEM EDUCATION

To get a sense of what’s going on in Harlem, it might be best to start with a single person mentioned earlier: Brian McClendon.

The original Promise Academy building in Harlem. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

As it happens – and it’s no coincidence – the director of the zone’s Practitioners Institute that guided the Lewiston delegation through the charity’s programs has been part of the nonprofit’s efforts since he was in high school.

Back in 1996, McClendon was a typical kid growing up in an especially troubled neighborhood, with a lot of “knucklehead friends” and a vague dream of becoming a federal agent. Drugs and crime were all around. Violence was commonplace.

McClendon heard about a program for children and families operating four blocks from the housing project where he lived. It offered a chance to earn a little money working around the office after receiving some tutoring, he said.

 

McClendon headed over, got pulled into an office and was told that he could collect some cash if he succeeded in the program – and that he could even go to college, a proposition far removed from the hard streets around him.

With that, he became a Peacemaker, part of an effort through AmeriCorps. He soon wound up supporting teachers at Public School 76 on West 121st Street where even today, with the area doing better, a third of the K-8 students are homeless. He started attending John Jay College in the evenings.

“It was crazy,” McClendon said.

Before long, though, he led the Peacemakers program. Then he headed a program working with fifth-graders for a few years before he earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

In the years since, he’s worked with K-6 students at the Promise Academy, one of two charter schools HCZ operates; directed an after-school program focused on science and technology; and led other social and educational programs.

All along, he worked pretty much every day from early in the morning until at least 6 p.m., often on weekends and holidays as well.

“Whatever it takes, we have to do,” McClendon said.

Throughout his years, he said, “I was juggling a lot,” but everyone else in the nonprofit who stuck around did the same because they saw it as both a calling and a way to transform their own neighborhood.

“Children always come first,” McClendon said.

For a decade somewhere in that mix, McClendon shepherded 50 Harlem kids each summer on a trip north to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where they got to experience a touch of college life, eat some lobster, watch fireworks and more.

His assistant director, Janet-Marie Lopez, who started in the program as a teaching artist 20 years ago, added that some of the youngsters saw stars for the first time in Maine. Others discovered they’re allergic to grass.

McClendon obviously loves what he does. He’s been at it for 23 years already.

“I’m one of the poster children,” said McClendon, who has a master’s degree in public administration that he somehow squeezed in along the way.

McClendon, the group learned, was no aberration within the children’s zone’s ranks.

Many of the nonprofit’s leaders started off as students getting help, went off to college and came back to share their experiences, eloquence and heart with the next generation.

Two Harlem Children’s Zone executives talked about the nonprofit’s programs to help poor students. On the left is Janet-Marie Lopez, assistant director of the Practitioners Institute, and on the right is Troy Smith, managing director for Promise Academy Afterschool & Athletics.

A QUICK GUIDE TO THE HARLEM CHILDREN’S ZONE

The logo for the Harlem Children’s Zone on a wall at the Promise Academy. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Starting two decades ago, the Harlem Children’s Zone – a new name for a program that began on a smaller scale years earlier – launched an ambitious effort to try to beat poverty by elevating youngsters.

With an array of services offering unprecedented breadth, it sought to tackle every barrier to success for children with a “seamless pipeline of services” that would enable Harlem children to “reach their potential at each stage of their development, from birth all the way through college graduation.”

Its primary focus was, of course, education. But it also targeted “other areas that are critical to a child’s growth: health, social-emotional needs and soft skills such as resilience, grit and self-advocacy.”

Lopez said they did everything from community gardens to building relationships with the police, faith-based partners and anyone willing to lend a hand.

McClendon said they also partnered with foundations, groups like the Children’s Defense Fund, parents and all sorts of stakeholders “in order to move the needle” for children to succeed.

“We have to get everybody involved,” he said, and to this day remain deeply rooted in the community.

Lewiston School Committee Chairwoman Monique Roy and Joe Philippon, a Lewiston police community resource officer, chat during a visit to the Armory, where the Harlem Children’s Zone runs many athletic programs. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The basic notion is to pull children into the program at birth, McClendon said, and keep them there until they graduate from college, using high-quality programs that work together with each other flawlessly.

None of that comes cheap.

The Children Zone’s budget is more than $130 million annually and it employs 2,100 people. It operates two Promise academies that serve children from pre-K through high school as well as a broad array of after-school centers and programs, educational endeavors and more.

Excellence at every step is a necessity, McClendon said.

“We couldn’t mess it up,” he said. “There’s a lot of emphasis on getting it right every time.”

The nonprofit collects reams of data to measure its successes and fine tune its programming.

Fowsia Musse, executive director of Maine Community Integration, talks while in Harlem recently. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Emily Presler, assistant director for evaluation and data, said 14 full-time professionals, including five with PhDs, pore over the data daily to figure out what they can squeeze from it. They track what the nonprofit’s students and programs are doing each day, using the information gathered to figure out what’s working and what can be improved.

The children’s zone has a simple goal for each of its 13,000 students: to graduate from college, ready to become self-sufficient adults who can compete in a global, technology-driven economy that “makes college-level proficiencies an absolute necessity.”

Its Practitioners Institute, which has received more than 650 visiting delegations over the years like the one from Lewiston, aims to teach its “secret,” the nonprofit said.

It says the answer is straightforward: “We stay with our families over the long haul, build trusting relationships and customize our services so each child gets what he or she needs to succeed.”

Lena Washington, who runs the Employment and Technology Center that provides year-round programming after school and during the summer to 350 public high-school students, said the program aims to make up for the lack of family and social connections that so often support well-off students.

“That is what is going to get our kids out of poverty,” she exclaimed. “Poverty is a mindset. When you empower people with knowledge, they can do anything.”

Washington said her center tries hard to involve students’ parents as well as many professionals.

“You know that saying ‘it takes a village?’ It’s real,” Washington said.

The men and women from Lewiston nodded in agreement.

TOMORROW: The group’s reaction to what they saw in Harlem, and what might come out of the trip to benefit Lewiston.

 

Finding humor during a session at the Promise Academy II were Julia Sleeper, co-founder and executive director of Tree Street Youth Center; Amanda Winslow, principal of Farwell Elementary School; Monica Miller, prekindergarten coordinator for the Lewiston Public Schools; and Joe Philippon, a community resource officer for Lewiston Police Department. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.