Interview with Brandon Gibson
Avodah Americorps Member Ariana Siegel sat down with Brandon Gibson to talk about Make It Happen! an OVC (Office of Victims of Crime) funded program run in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation’s Domestic Violence department.
AS: So, tell us about “Make It Happen!”
BG: Make it happen is a program geared towards helping young men of color between the ages of 16 and 24 overcome experiences with violence, and succeed in spite of those experiences.
The program consists of two main components: individual sessions and group meetings. The individual sessions occur before the group first meets. In the individual sessions I work on forming a trusting relationship with the participant, and from there we talk about their past, my past, what their goals are, how they want to go about obtaining those goals. Then when the group gets together, we meet specifically to talk about issues relating to manhood, identity, community, gender equality and other relevant social issues.
AS: How was Make It Happen! created?
BG: The Crown Heights Mediation Center wanted to expand their services for young men of color. These are services that will help them get over the pain and trauma of their circumstance, whether it be physical violence, mental abuse, or socio-economic, institutional violence—which is extremely apparent in the lives of these young African-American men.
Some of the most harmful violence experienced by young men of color is institutional violence. I believe that Black men have lived in large part, and died in large part due to policies that have adversely affected our community. All of these things that sent myriad fathers, sons, nephews, cousins away to jail for minor offenses, you know: the crack epidemic, and the war on drugs. If it were not for those policies I don’t think we would be in the shape that we’re in today.
So there is a need to expose young Black men to an alternative life. Not necessarily leading them down the road to being millionaires, but just being happy. Just being at peace. Understanding who they are. Understanding the world in which they live, and how to navigate it, because it’s a very different journey for them than for people who don’t look like them.
AS: How do you go about exposing them to an alternative lifestyle? What are the steps?
BG: The first step is building relationships. You really have to look at this work as building relationships, building trust, being transparent. You have to be intentional if you want to build relationships with participants. And once you build a healthy relationship, what comes along with it by default is trust. It’s safety that one feels, a level of openness. That’s what we try to foster with MIH.
AS: How long have been doing this now?
BG: About 5 months. This is all brand new. The pilot group was 5 weeks long; we recruited 10 guys and had a group meeting once every week. [The participants] would meet with me one-on-one whenever they wanted to and we would deal with issues of trauma, not in an official therapeutic capacity, but just mentoring and setting goals. The entry point of Make It Happen, the way we grab their attention, is success. Helping them to succeed by getting jobs, job development, training, education. Helping them learn about how to have healthy relationships, how to have self-control, gender issues, all of that.
AS: How would you rate your progress so far?
BG: The pilot group went great. After only 5 weeks we have success stories. We have one guy who already got his GED after having a felony drug case. He wants to be an entrepreneur so we’re putting him into a program called “Defy Ventures
” that will teach him about business and ultimately fund the business that he starts. Another young man who dropped out of college after meeting with us and being exposed, he’s enrolling back into school. He didn’t have a job but he’s employed as a nurse’s assistant because he wants to be a doctor. We have another young guy who… was shot more times than anyone in the city and survived. He has not been arrested over the past month or two, which is huge for this young man, and he’s also in a GED program. Another guy is enrolled in NYU’s high school law program.
AS: Does the program look the way you originally envisioned it would?
BG: It’s not where I imagined it yet, but that’s good because that means that we have room to grow. I want to see the participants of Make It Happen running the program, where these guys are the ones recruiting their friends on the street, they’re the ones running the workshops, they’re the ones mentoring, they’re the ones doing the community organizing. I think I should just be there in a supervisory capacity. They should be taking ownership of the program, because it’s theirs.
AS: Have you started the recruitment process for the next cohort?
BG: Yes. We’re looking for guys who want to make it happen. Who want to succeed and don’t know how to right now, but want to. You may not know what success means for you, but you have to be open to hearing about it. Maybe it’s going to school, getting a job, not going to jail next week, tired of getting arrested every other week. And we want to help you achieve those goals. Ages 16 to 24.
AS: What drew you to this work? What motivates you to keep going?
BG: I spent some time in that finance world but I always felt kind of guilty because I was doing so well, and a lot of people who look like me, young men in particular, were not. So I felt a pull do to this work, a “calling,” if you will.
Also, I recently read Steve Jobs’ auto-biography. He grew up in a very lower-middle class home, a family that didn’t have much, and he had trouble in school. And his parents decided to save up every penny they could to move into a better neighborhood, for him to go to a better school. So they moved into a neighborhood where Steve Jobs was able to meet a major software engineer named Steve Wozniak—who created the first Apple Computer.
So I look at that story and I get angry because I ask myself the question: I wonder how many Steve Jobs there are in the projects, in the jails, on the couch doing nothing? And if they just had a chance to be exposed, what cou
ld they become? That’s one of the drives for me: the potential and the possibilities of these young men. And that’s what really drives me to do what I do.
For more information on Make It Happen! or to join or refer someone to the program, contact Brandon Gibson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 646-943-0074