When Red Hook Initiative (RHI) was founded back in 2002 by current Executive Director Jill Eisenhard, the mission was a little different. It started as a women’s health education program, where ten women from the neighborhood were trained to teach other Red Hook residents about reproductive health, “creating this ripple effect beyond just the ten women that were receiving the education. That principle has stayed as the core model of the Red Hook Initiative today,” says Philippa Crowne, Development Manager at RHI.
We’re sitting in RHI’s main space located at 767 Hicks Street in Red Hook. To one side of the building lies Red Hook Houses, the sprawling NYCHA development housing over 6,000 residents – the largest development in Brooklyn. On the other side lies Coffey Park and the laid-back storefronts and restaurants of Van Brunt Street, with our NYC Ferry landing off of Pioneer Street in Atlantic Basin. It’s a rapidly changing neighborhood, and at RHI, their success comes from empowering local residents.
Once the community knew that RHI was a place they could congregate, the needs shifted. People started requesting help with finding jobs, applying for high school, and other community issues. Out of these requests RHI’s Youth Development Pipeline was born. RHI offers programs for middle schoolers all the way through young adult, which they consider age 24. “Having that long span of time where we can support someone who is in the formative period of their life” is really important to the organization’s current mission, says Crowne, of nurturing young people in Red Hook to be inspired, resilient and healthy, and to envision themselves as co-creators of their lives, community and society.
Annually, RHI serves 400 youth per year along this pipeline. The programs range from Teen Chef, where youth are taught nutrition and cooking classes, to Researchers, Youth Organizers, and the Teentrepreneur program, where high school students learn about starting a business. Beginning in high school all youth take home a paycheck from RHI, so on top of getting help with their homework or college applications, they take home a stipend for participating in these programs. All in all, RHI pays a million dollars back into the Red Hook community every year through youth and staff salaries.
When Hurricane Sandy devastated this coastal community in 2012, RHI stepped into a new role. It was a transformative time for Red Hook, and in the last 5 years, RHI has doubled in size. They’re now focused on advocating for more public middle and high schools, better transportation, better access to fresh produce and a renewed resiliency plan. A new program, Local Leaders, has taken shape, empowering residents to act as emergency responders and teach other residents about preparedness. RHI’s success after 15 years is still reliant on the model that empowered residents know what the neighborhood needs best.
A prime example of this youth development pipeline is Bonicia Terry (Bo), a Fellow with the Young Adult program. As Outreach Coordinator, she recruits 18 – 24-year-olds in the neighborhood to join the Professional Development program. It’s during this eight-week program where residents learn how to write resumes, practice with mock interviews, and get job search support. Terry graduated from that same program a few years ago and had an internship with RHI before moving on to work as a camp counselor and basketball coach at the local community center run by Good Shepherd Services.
Terry has been a Red Hook Resident since she was 11 years old. Growing up, she saw her friends take different life paths, some got out of Red Hook, others remained. She excelled at basketball and was able to go to Stevenson University in Maryland to study Criminal Justice. She always knew though that it was important for her to return to Red Hook, “I was able to come back to give back,” she says, acknowledging her responsibility as a role model to a younger generation who want to play ball and go on to bigger things.
She wants to provide guidance and consistency to young adults in her neighborhood. Through her work at RHI, she lets her recruits know “I have your back, I’m here to support you,” but she’ll also be holding them to a higher standard. Much like her role as a basketball coach, she reminds everyone she works with how important perseverance is and that failure is only temporary.
Looking to the future, Terry would like to be a director of a non-profit. She wants to run a youth basketball league that connects pros to kids in the neighborhood to talk about basketball and how important it is to get an education. There are still a lot of challenges to overcome in this neighborhood, but continuing to be a positive force is important to Terry.
Chikoo Texidor is the Community Organizing Fellow for RHI. He moved to Red Hook four years ago from Miami. His family was on the brink of being homeless when they moved in with his grandmother, and at first, Red Hook was a new and scary place to walk around. Then he followed a friend’s suggestion and joined RHI’s Teen Chef program.
It opened doors for him, getting him more involved in his community. He participated in his Council Member’s Participatory Budgeting initiative, and there he met his friend Quincy. For two years they organized to try and get a skate park on the ballot for their neighborhood and every year they were told No, the price tag was too high ($3 million). “It got me triggered,” he says with a laugh. “We then sat down with Council Member Menchaca, in this room, and asked: what do we have to do to get a skate park?” The Council Member told them to start a petition.
800 signatures later, he convinced two Council Members and the Borough President to commit to funding this skate park. But you won’t see Texidor pulling any tricks – he actually doesn’t skate. He just saw this as another opportunity to “make Red Hook great.”
Petitioning and working with RHI’s Director of Community Building through the process of PB, really changed the way Texidor saw Red Hook. He knows everyone now when he walks down the street, he says, and when asked what makes a community he thinks, “it’s like making a family, you have to make a connection with someone.”
Texidor really admires how much RHI’s programs focus on youth and how many opportunities they create for youth in the neighborhood. It’s something he’s now proud to be a part of, as some of his fellowship duties involve recruiting middle schoolers to participate in RHI’s programs. In the future, he’d love to create an RHI-style program in Miami, but for now, he can’t see himself leaving Red Hook anytime soon.