Make It Happen! is an OVC (Office of Victims of Crime) funded program run in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation’s Domestic Violence department. Special Projects Coordinator Kira Cohen sat down with Founder and Project Coordinator of Make it Happen!, Brandon Gibson, to discuss the program, which begins its second full year today.

Kira Cohen: Can you tell us about when the program started and why there was a need for it?

Brandon Gibson: We got a grant to do a program that dealt with young men of color ages 16-24 who’ve experienced violence, and as a result of that experience, they now have some traumatic manifestation of those experiences. I came on board to really be the coordinator who initially was just mainly connecting those young men to resources that could help them deal with those experiences and those traumatic manifestations. We were supposed to be the bridge to traditional victim services. What we found was that if we were just going to be the bridge, in many cases, we were going to be a bridge to nowhere. Because many of the traditional victim services – not all, but most – cater to women and children, not this demographic. So the mission sort of widened and deepened, and it became more of, not only do we have to be the bridge to services, but we need to be a service in and of ourselves. And that’s how Make it Happen was birthed.
One-on-one sessions and group sessions are the main two components of Make it Happen. During the one-on-one sessions they meet with me every week. Those sessions can be for fifteen minutes to three hours, depending on what they want to talk about. And our group sessions are a little bit more targeted, where we have about fifteen to twenty guys in a group, and we work with Connect, an anti-domestic violence organization, and they sort of counsel men who are perpetrators of domestic violence, so they co-facilitate the group sessions with us. And so we have different topics ranging from identity to sexuality to fatherhood to race, and we talk about these things in depth. And that’s one aspect to the program. So that’s really a mentoring component, camaraderie, brotherhood, kind of thing, and then the other component is in trying to inform traditional victim service agencies better on how to service this population, how to make their services more friendly to our guys.
KC: So how do you go about doing that?

BG: We have stakeholder meetings with agencies, and we talk about some best practices that we see that they could use. For example, whenever we have a group session, we don’t start the group session until I have one-on-ones with all the guys who are going to be the in the session. So it’s not even just a formal application process, but an actual one-on-one session, where I get a chance to figure out who these guys are, they get a chance to figure out who I am, and so by the time the group sessions roll around, they’re a little more comfortable, we see who is who and who’s coming in with what, for the most part. That’s one of the best practices that we have, and there are others.
KC: How many years has the program existed?
BG: We had a trial, a test group, about 5 weeks, in 2012 last summer. And then we had the next group this past January, and that was like the first full cohort, 12 weeks. And then this upcoming one is the second full cohort.

KC: Are you able to share some of the experiences that might lead people to your program?

BG: One of my participants was mentioning how he used to smile a lot. You know, he would be in school and he’d walk around smiling, until one day a group of guys came up to him and we like, “you smile too much.”  And they beat him up because of it. And from then on he said that he doesn’t like to smile. Smiling is a sin in some instances, unfortunately. So, you know, there’s a lot of sad stuff like that. Where guys are just constantly being victimized because they just want to… be. They just want to be who they are and they’re not allowed to. They have to fit this particular mold in order to survive, even if it’s not true to who you are.

One of my other participants, his mom actually introduced him to gang life. So if it weren’t for that he probably not have been involved – maybe, who knows – but he certainly wouldn’t have been introduced the way he was introduced, which was by such a dominant figure in his life, because it’s pretty hard to say no to your mom. So that’s kind of the stuff that we’re dealing with.

KC: Can you tell us about what you’ve seen come from the program in terms of success?
BG: I have one guy, he was a felon in Atlantic City. He came out to New York, and he got in touch with our program and to make a long story short after being in our program- we’re not the only people that were a part of his success, but according to him we’re a major part- he got his GED, and now he’s at Rutgers University studying to be in business, and we stay in touch regularly. He was one of the first participants last year.

Another guy, who is really trying to get a job and go to school. He’s in school now, and really trying to turn over a new leaf. And we have other guys, whose success stories aren’t as glamorous, but you know, guys who are just starting to take responsibility for their own lives, and really trying to be somebody.
And then we have stories that aren’t so great. I have guys who are really smart and have great potential but are sitting in a jail right now. And this is after being in our program. But they still keep in touch with me, I visit them at the jail and, you know, the beat goes on.
KC: It’s a connection.

BG: Yeah, and it’s a process. No one person changes just like that. And the thing with these guys is that they come from places that are so different and opposite to what I teach and what we talk about. So we may talk about conflict resolution. Well, conflict resolution in the hood is “I’m gonna handle you,” and I’m teaching “We’ll talk,” so… but because I come from the streets that they come from, I understand. I get it.
KC: How do guys usually find out about the program and connect to you?

BG: I either canvass, so I’ll walk around the streets and introduce myself to people and do it like that, I’ll go to churches and speak at churches, and they’ll refer people. I’ll connect with schools and schools will refer kids to us and that’s pretty much how we do it. S.O.S. will refer people, people will just walk in from the street, and the front desk will be like, “hey, you should join this program,” and then they’ll call me.
KC: Could you sum up the mission
of the program?

BG: Our mission really is to give our participants the tools necessary to overcome those traumatic experiences, and to be able to succeed in spite of those experiences. That’s really what we’re here to do.

For more information on Make It Happen! or to join or refer someone to the program, contact Brandon Gibson at or call 646-943-0074.