If you spend even a short amount of time with Dana Rachlin, you’re likely to hear the phrase “slow motion miracle.” It’s a philosophy that allows her to frame the world, and how she continues to think big. Rachlin started her career in criminal justice reform while working with the Center for Court Innovation on Staten Island. Her job was a big one: help young people under 16 years of age who have been arrested and mandated to an alternative-to-detention program to avoid recidivism and successfully exit the juvenile justice system. When we sat down with her she told us, “I recognized that we focused on kids once they were in the justice system but we weren’t really paying attention to the pipeline between school and the justice system.” This is why, in 2015, she started NYC Together. She wanted to be able to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and do it in coordination with the largest police department in the United States, the NYPD.n the United States, the NYPD.
NYC Together is a social justice organization that empowers students and police officers to have an open and honest relationship that fosters trust, ideas, and ultimately re-defines how we think of policing, all while increasing grades and school attendance for the students involved. Participating school administrators are asked to choose students that are chronically late, absent, and have disciplinary issues, recognizing that these are the students who may have the most contentious relationship with the police. After students are chosen they are told, ‘You’ve been selected [for this program] because your school thinks you’re a real asset but haven’t been using your talents correctly. We need your help to work with police officers and help them understand the role they play in your life and community and help them be better.’ In exchange, students get academic and social support, as well as access to experiential learning activities like trips to Broadway shows, workouts with ConBody, trips to Atlanta for the Usher’s New Look Disruptive Innovation Summit, and financial literacy workshops.
By the end of this year, the department will complete the roll-out of its neighborhood policing program citywide. All police officers, are being trained in community policing tactics and the department as a whole is embracing the idea that communities and police departments need to work together. Rachlin remembers, “I came into the police department at a time when neighborhood policing wasn’t really the philosophy. The commanders and police officers I was working with at inception trusted and believed in the vision, and within the year that we launched the whole police department shifted to neighborhood policing. Now there’s an abundance of police officers charged with doing neighborhood work and finding innovative solutions to crime that lifts up communities and builds partnerships. We were really ahead of the curve on that, but only because there were officers and school administrators who saw that vision too.”
NYC Together, not even three years old, is already in seven precincts and just took its first jump out of Brooklyn and expanded to East Harlem. “We’re running about two programs per day. I think about scale a lot,” Rachlin muses, “now that the police department has moved into this neighborhood policing philosophy, we’re sought after because we have a product that works and matches that philosophy.” Students in the NYC Together Program stay with the program until graduation and Rachlin, originally the only program coordinator, has enlisted board members to work with students who have been a part of the program from the beginning. Ideally, she says, “we’ll be allowed to train the police officers in each of the 77 commands and give them a curriculum to implement in schools. Then, we’ll have the potential to magnify our voice without physically having to be there.”
NYC Together students have a 100% graduation rate, over 40 officers who are not assigned to the program participate in quarterly service events, and the program has been locally and nationally recognized for the impact it’s having on both the police and the young people it serves. But what is really remarkable, she says, are the relationships born from the partnerships created. The students “have an opportunity to share their voice and be heard,” and the cops, she says, “sometimes can’t even fathom that the kids they know from the neighborhood have this story of resiliency and survival.”
What’s next for NYC Together? #FreeToReadAndLead, an initiative launching in a few weeks that will place free community libraries inside all 12 precincts in North Brooklyn, becoming a tool for NCOs to engage with their community and provide literacy access to all of its residents. “Recognizing that there is a correlation between illiteracy and crime, we are excited to launch an initiative that helped officers and young people understand a social issue and allowed them to work together to create a social solution for that issue. This is a great example of providing tools for our officer’s tool-boxes while avoiding criminal solutions to social problems.”
While NYC Together has been a success to most anyone’s standards, Rachlin feels that she (and the program) are where they are only because of those she’s had in her corner. “One of the greatest assets I have are the people around me who really, truly believe in me and without hesitation have chosen to support me, have rallied around me and have lifted me up. That’s what I want to do for others.”
NYC Together has locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. You may see groups of students and police officers traveling the city volunteering, handing out Valentines, or playing tennis (“They need a lot of tennis help, by the way,” Rachlin says). To find out more, visit nyctogether.org and follow them on Instagram: @nyctogetherorg.