Talking to: Dennis Febo

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 9.08.26 PMA few weeks ago, my friend Gina raved to me about about the good work that her old friend Dennis Febo has been doing. So when he and I happened to chime in on a Facebook thread about a program in Camden set up to reduce violence, I took the opportunity to introduce myself. I still haven’t met him in person, but from reading about him and talking to some people in our community, I can definitely feel his positive impact. Through his organization Guazabara Insights, he – along with a team – conducts “street education” on issues having to do with health; he’s also involved in prisoner reentry and youth mentoring. It’s a little hard for me to wrap my head around just how many different projects he’s involved in, but safe to say he has devoted his life to service in his community in a variety of ways.

Dennis states in one part of this interview, “If we can get our hands on more resources, and more people to care and step up to the plate, I don’t see why Jersey City couldn’t celebrate a year without a murder or a shooting.” Think about that as a goal –  it’s the kind of goal a politician would never set, because it seems impossible with things the way they are now. But, why should it be impossible? Why shouldn’t we try for such a thing? How are things ever going to get better for JC if we don’t start setting a higher bar for ourselves?

I happened to be meeting with our Councilman Chris Gadsden recently, and mentioned towards the end, “So, do you know Dennis Febo?” Chris answered solemnly, “Oh, Dennis Febo is the real deal.” Certainly seems that way. I hope you’ll read his story and be inspired as I was.


Can you tell me about Guazabara Insights? I know you have a street education team organized around health information – what sort of things do you do? What sort of information are you trying to get out there? Where do you meet people and talk to them?

Guazabara Insights has always been centered on Self-Knowledge.  We started back in 2010 mainly holding events for colleges, universities and CBO’s and it has evolved into a multi-faceted education and health services provider.

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 9.06.07 PMStreet Education has many purposes.  First to educate people on topics that are pertinent to them, however don’t have the guidance, or access to information, or resources that would allow them to live into their full potential.  Out of all the topics we could discuss, Health is the most important, because without it we wouldn’t be able to discuss anything.

The premise of Street Education is gathering as many volunteers, training them on the topic, and we visit commonly frequented areas in our community, to meet the people where they are, and talk to them about, in this case Health.  You’d be surprised how many of us lack the simplest information that could improve our state of health.  More water, better sleep, mental hygiene, and exercise.  We call them the 4 pillars of health, and we use them as our talking points when engaging people in the streets.

The other main reason, is that people in the community get to see other community members CARING.  Watching our educators engage with community members, seeing the interactions, and then seeing community members faces as they walk away from the exchange, they appear more light, happier, and appreciative that someone took the time out to talk to them about something that would improve their life.

We target all six wards of Jersey City, we go out every Saturday from 12 to 3 pm, one ward per weekend.  For the participants it’s also eye opening to engage with different communities within Jersey City, and to see the disparity in the environment, access to healthy foods, and how knowledgeable they are in certain topics.  There is still a lot of work to be done.

Can you explain to me how street education works? Do you go out and find people, or do you sit and wait for them to come to you? And can you describe your team a little bit?

Each round manifests differently.  We promote amongst social service agencies, schools and networking associations to register volunteers/educators.  We then hold trainings discussing the topic, talking points and approach, then we hit the streets.  This year we have 6 interns from the Health Sciences Department of NJCU who helped out a lot.  Our team this year is mostly made up of students and Guazabara staff, fraternities and sororities, who are inspired to do community work.
We set up team captains for each ward, to plan out the routes we would be walking along with important establishments, such as CBO’s, food markets, barbershops, anywhere that can help spread the word.  We use artwork as the means of dissemination, and present it to a community member as a gift, along with the information.  We use two camera crews to follow along and film interactions, or interview community members on camera.
Most of our team is already either trained in the curriculum or find themselves in the field of public health.  However, anyone is welcome!

We first connected on Facebook talking about a Camden, NJ project to reduce violence (link to the video we were talking about here). I’ve heard you’re involved in something similar in JC, working with at-risk youth. Can you explain a little about that, and what you’re hoping to do?

In 2013, I wrote a curriculum based on self-knowledge called Cultural and Social Consciousness Education, and the curriculum was first implemented in Hudson County Corrections, working with the incarcerated, male and female, running groups on their tiers with them, and since its inception we’ve worked with around 1000 people who have found themselves incarcerated, mainly due to drug use or distribution.  We achieved a 33% recidivism rate compared to the national average of 76%

I do one on ones with them, to help them establish a life plan, and if you could imagine the stories I’ve heard from people in that situation, a lot of times it would take me some time to mentally and spiritually process the things I’ve heard.  There is so much suffering out there, and most of this suffering stems from the cycle Poverty that affects our communities.  In Hudson County, Blacks and Latinos make up 40% of the population, however find themselves at the 80% percentile of incarcerated individuals.  We also find ourselves concentrated in areas that are largely ignored by people in positions of power, the same way we find ourselves in inner cities across the US.

Our program was petitioned at the Juvenile detention centers.  We started in Hudson Juvenile Detention, however that was closed, and now our kids are being sent to Union County where we also execute our curriculum.  Keep this stat in mind, the US is 5% of the world’s population yet are 25% of the world’s inmates.  There is a direct correlation from poor performance in schools, to suspensions, to in-school detention, to juvenile detention to adult incarceration.  This is called “The School to Prison Pipeline”.

When I first stepped into that setting I was completely dumbfounded.  How could children be found in such a setting in our times?  Not only are they being “punished” in ways that are outdated, and statistically shown to make people “worse”, but they are largely ignored by the system.  When I looked into their eyes and engaged with them all I could think is “these are kids!”.  If you could hear their stories, if you really knew what was happening to kids in OUR city, and if you had a heart, you would want to fight for them.  As I got more and more involved, I learned that it is statistically known that most of the violence and crime is stemming from wards A and F, the ignored and disenfranchised areas of our city.  If you pay attention to the news, you would also be familiar with the countless stories of young people murdering each other, in broad daylight, in front of schools, inside churches.  Something is really wrong.

We also work with NJ’s Children’s System of Care, in partnership with Hudson Partnership CMO, working with the youth with highest risks.  We provide mentoring, behavioral assistance and intensive in-community therapy, and as of last year we are State approved Health Services Provider.  We have established strong connections with all the main players in our system to formulate Wrap-Around/team based approaches with our youth and their families, with high success.  However, while working with these youths individually, I’ve learned that the buck stops at a certain point, and if we are going to wholeheartedly help a family, we realize that there are limitations due to poverty and access to resources, the problem is systemic!  Something else has to be done, something more coordinated, out of the box, and heart-based must be executed to solve the problem.

I learned of the success of the Violence Interruption efforts in NYC, 4 different targeted areas in NYC with high violence celebrated over a year without a murder or a shooting.  I’m originally from Brooklyn, so I know that is a big deal…I thought to myself if NYC can do it so can Jersey City.  So I started injecting the vocabulary within these systemic circles, while also paying mind to the inner workings of our community to see which area would be the most strategic.

Low and behold, in February it was petitioned for us to go into Booker T Houses to begin taking action, one of the guys had been murdered, and many wanted to retaliate.  We’ve been there every Thursday night since then, in their community center, bringing in as much information and resources we could get our hands on.  Guazabara Insights, CMO, Go get My Kids, the Royal Men Foundation, Corrections Officers, Rising Tide Capital, NCI, Jersey City Public Library, Gilmore Speaks, Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition, One Stop, fraternal organizations, and anyone who cares, have gone into Booker T Houses to assist in these efforts, the City of Jersey City has been in talks to help fund the effort, knowing that in order to solve the problem of violence, we must take direct action.  We wanted to listen before taking action, and the community petitioned more programs for the young ones, and the ability for the older youth to participate in education and creating recreational activities to keep them busy and their minds going.  So we collected many many donations from the community in the form of books, curriculums, toys, and games. We are still collecting donations by the way, especially sports equipment.

If we can get our hands on more resources, and more people to care and step up to the plate, I don’t see why Jersey City couldn’t celebrate a year without a murder or a shooting.

I see from your website that you’re interested in practices including yoga and meditation. Can you explain a little of the value of these, in particular for urban youth?

I am a Kundalini Yoga instructor.  I’ve been practicing and teaching Yoga for 15 years.  I myself grew up affected by systemic statistics and poverty, I myself was once an angry rebellious teen, who had gone through things that most couldn’t understand.  Yoga and Meditation transformed my life.  I was able to conquer fear, anger, sorrow, stress, hurt and any other physiological processes that halt and end the lives of many.

Most of the solutions to our problems lie in our body, developing body awareness.  Take this fun statistic:  New Jersey has a 50% MIS-DIAGNOSIS rate.  Let that sit for a while.  How many of us are walking around diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, Bi-polarism, and many other Behavior Disorders?  Then medicated with drugs, and told we have something that prevents us from functioning properly.  These labels become permanent in people’s minds.

If we really understood the power of the mind, its inner workings, and what we are truly capable of human beings, we wouldn’t be stuck in this vicious cycle.  Especially our for our youth.  Breath is also the key, many of us don’t understand the power of our breath.  There are many practices that assist in regulating our state of being, however, the answer is simple….it is in your body!!!!

I think a lot of times, the cycle of poverty and violence leads us to think there’s no hope. I’d love to hear an amazing success story. You don’t have to name any names or anything like that, but can you describe a situation that you had a hand in that turned out positively? 

As a warrior in the trenches I face this all the time, and it is in these success stories that find the fuel to keep me going.

I was referred a 19-year-old who was in the 10th grade, in and out of drug rehab programs, and was not listening to mom at home.  Mom is a single mother working hard to provide for her children.  Because of my knowledge of the system, and my ability to properly asses the real reasons this youth was acting out, I was able, within 3 weeks to get him from the 10th grade to his first semester at Hudson County Community College.  I knew once he were to be presented with this opportunity he would step up to the plate.

Another case, adult, in his 50’s in and out of jail his whole life, with an addiction problem.  Through my work with him, he just completed his first year in college, is clean, and family life is stable and back to normal.

There are many many examples, and while it does feel good to help at least ONE, our goal is to assist in the positive transformation of our ignored communities, and we won’t stop until this is accomplished.

Duncan Ave cleanup

The Junkyard Dogs – the St. Peter’s University group that does service in the community around litter cleanup – came through on Saturday and they did not disappoint!! They did an absolutely fantastic job. 18222011_10155395533738919_5005891567304585970_n18274927_10155395533708919_4158491402346883459_n18275147_10155395533673919_9075195281666582018_n

A crew of about 14 students and one instructor showed up with shovels and bags and garbage pickers. They scoured Duncan Ave, even cleaning up a vacant lot and the surrounding bits of the gas station. People on the block came out to say thank you and bring them sodas – it was really wonderful.

My friend Jodi and I were there to help them – but they definitely didn’t need our assistance (seriously, the kids did all the work). While we were waiting for them to show up, Councilman Chris Gadsden drove by and made the mistake of waving to us, so of course we pulled in him and made him get to work too! He was a great sport and spent an impromptu hour and a half walking around with us, helping to clean.

THANK YOU so much to St. Peter’s and the Junkyard Dogs!! You really made a difference and we appreciate you!

Neighborhood cleanup

Yesterday was the second annual Keep Jersey City Beautiful neighborhood cleanup. We got a great turnout in Ward B, and it was a surprisingly fun morning. I was very impressed by how well-organized the whole operation was, with shuttle busses dropping off volunteers to clean up areas just outside of reach. Here’s some pics:

IMG_7336IMG_7337IMG_7338IMG_7329

It really was great. And those streets got clean.

Unfortunately, by nightfall, bad habits came back. By this morning, Facebook was exploding with people talking about litter again. I took this picture:

IMG_7334

It definitely wasn’t as bad as it’s been at times, but also it wasn’t good. And of course, after all that effort less than 24 hours earlier, it was hard to take in. A DPW worker was out cleaning it up, and a friend and I pitched in to help him a bit.

This isn’t going to get better overnight. But the amazing turnout yesterday shows that this community wants to have clean streets and we want to do better. We’ll get this right. This is a winnable battle, and we will win it.

 

Like wearing a headdress to Coachella.

There’s been a pretty fervent debate brewing over the last few years in this country over the idea of “cultural appropriation.” In the wake of someone like Rachel Dolezal, the question of who has a right to claim the right to signifiers of different cultures has been debated feverishly on college campuses and beyond.

I think that even among people a little on the fence on the issue seem to agree that it’s tasteless – to say the least – to define and appropriate a culture, ethnicity, or race by a few  token visuals we ascribe to them. Native Americans, possibly more than any other group, have suffered by seeing their culture reduced to a few kitschy, mass-produced “accessories” – exemplified by the image of the hipster wearing a ceremonial headdress to Coachella, and chronicled in blogs such as Native Appropriations.

A few more articles on the topic (there are many):

http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/

http://jezebel.com/5959698/a-much-needed-primer-on-cultural-appropriation

Enter, Jersey City.

I was shocked, to say the least, at receiving an email from the New JSQ Community Association earlier this week, announcing a new city-funded (that is to say, taxpayer-funded), “official” mural going up in JSQ. Here’s the artist’s conception. Painting started today:

IMG_7294

I was concerned, to say the least. At no time was there vetting or information shared with the community for this mural, nor is there ever any vetting for any city-funded mural ever – Jersey City’s mural program is done almost completely in the dark, run through the Department of Public Works, and paid for by a grant for litter and graffiti abatement (if you read this blog regularly, you know how well that is going). There is no open process by which artists can apply, nor any process by which the community can give feedback or let the city know their opinion on the work that they will have to live with for the foreseeable future. This results in debacles like the Monopoly board scandal of last summer. You can read a letter I wrote to the editor of the Jersey Journal back then, about the need for more of an open process:

http://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2016/07/better_process_needed_for_jersey_citys_mural_progr.html

As I viewed at the email from the neighborhood association, I tried to keep an open mind at the jpeg opening up on my phone. Yes, there’s a tepee in the lower right, somehow being blocked off by the hand of the Statue of Liberty. Yes, there’s a howling wolf, braying at the moon. Perhaps all this Native American kitsch was just…. a coincidence? Maybe it was an ironic swipe at the history of appropriation?

Then, I realized the artist had a second mural, already in the area:

IMG_7308

Oh.

I checked the artist’s website, praying he’d claim membership as a member of an indigenous tribe. As far as I can see, he does not.

It really doesn’t even matter. The fact that I even had to check to see if such a thing existed in the bio of the artist says to me that the city hasn’t done their job in creating this mural. In other cities (like Philadelphia, or the many programs that exist in NYC, or numerous other cities), creating a mural is a multi-step process. The artist meets with the community. They get to know him/her. In some cases, schoolchildren or members of the neighborhood are tapped to come out and assist in helping execute the mural. The work of art becomes a centerpiece and place of pride; people can walk by and say, “I had a hand in that,” or “I know that artist – and he’s great.” People are happy to have the work of art as part of their daily lives. They feel a sense of ownership and connection.

But that’s not how we do things in Jersey City. Here, we rush to get up as many murals as possible (over 70 last year), community be damned. People wake up one morning, and there’s a mural there they had no input on. But it’s not really about what we want, you see. It’s just about jamming this project through as quickly as possible. (Does the impending Election Day have anything to do with this? Well, that’s up to you to decide.)

 

I showed images of the mural in progress to my sophomore/junior/senior art history class this past week, at the art school I teach at in NYC. They were absolutely aghast. How on earth could a city, just 20 minutes away, do something so tone-deaf, so out-of-touch, as this? They were slack-jawed and horrified. “That’s like wearing a headdress to Coachella,” one of my students said.

And yes – that’s absolutely correct. That’s the Jersey City “official” mural program – so out-of-touch, so twenty years behind any sort of dialogue on art and culture that it’s absurd. And so it will remain, until actual, real community involvement is integrated.


Note: a petition has been drafted to address these very issues. It can be found at the following address:

https://www.change.org/p/mayor-steven-fulop-help-prevent-cultural-appropriation-within-the-jersey-city-mural-program?recruiter=76507663&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink

Thinking outside of the box about littering

It’s been a few weeks since I talked to Scott Garibaldi about the litter situation on Duncan Avenue. I knew that the Department of Public Works had met with him after that blog post, and that they spoke with him about improving services. Checking in with him this evening, he said mostly what I had expected: “Even though things have gotten better, it is still not enough to keep up with the severity of the situation.”

Thinking about this persistent problem made me curious to do some research and talk to some people outside of Jersey City, outside the direct mix of personalities and particulars of our area, to hopefully get a fresh perspective on this problem. After all, litter is a issue everywhere; cities throughout the US have all come up with their own programs and ways of dealing with it.

Nobody gets a PhD in litter strategies (at least, no one I could find), but there are related fields. I found Dr. Rosemary Wakeman, the Coordinator of Urban Initiatives at Fordham University, through a friend who suggested I speak with her. And by way of an article about litter and what communities can do to help with it, I also found Justin Travis, who is a specialist in Industrial Organizational Psychology and instructor at several colleges/universities. Wakeman and I spoke via the phone; Travis and I emailed each other. Here’s what I found out from speaking with them.

I first started by asking the simple question: why do people litter? To this, Travis had the most specific and direct answer. He divided it into first, “dispositional predictors,” such as:

  • Values – clearly some people hold values that drive their environmental behavior. For instance, it is likely individuals who hold values such as protecting the environment, caring about others, and community concern are going to be less likely to actively litter.
  • Attitudes – Attitudes toward the environment are predictive of littering behavior, as attitudes are strong predictors of intentions and intentions are predictive of actual behavior (all else held constant). Additionally, attitudes toward groups (neighborhoods, classes of people, etc.) are also indicative of littering behaviors since holding a negative attitude toward a particular group can disinhibit someone who may otherwise not litter. This could be considered a type of interaction between attitudes and environment – say someone is driving through an unkempt neighborhood where the driver holds negative opinions about the residents. That driver, who normally doesn’t litter in their own neighborhood, may be more likely to throw trash out the window since “these people don’t care about their community anyways.”
  • Age – younger people are more likely to litter
  • Personality – People that are more conscientious (dutiful, organized, careful, dependable, etc.) are less likely to litter.

What’s most relevant to us (because they’re things that we can have the most control over) are his list of “situational predictors.” The immediate environment someone is in has a big effect on whether or not they litter:

  • less likely to litter in clean environment (litter begets littering)
  • farther from receptacle/disposal = more likely to litter
  • presence of authority figures = less likely to litter
This speaks to some basics that our community has been asking for for years – more garbage cans, help from the city cleaning when messes occur, and more of a community policing presence.
But I thought it was most interesting when I asked both experts what their ideas would be for making the situation better. Dr. Wakeman suggested a “flash activity” that could be “mediatized” to get maximum attention. It’s important for people in the community to feel as though the public spaces they pass through include them and that they feel a part of them – this leads to a sense of responsibility and inclusion. She suggested some sort of act that could help involve people in the community to beautify the space. People will want to keep a place clean that they helped to make pretty in the first place.
Strangely enough, I remembered this random occurrence from a few years ago. I was shocked to discover that I had saved a picture on my phone, as it really was more than two or three years ago. Anyone remember this?
IMG_4350
Back then, we have a major problem with people throwing out chicken bones in the park, on the sidewalk. It was the weirdest thing – and really troublesome since they can be a choking hazard for dogs (also, no one wants their kids playing near a big pile of chewed up chicken bones). So someone took it upon themselves to do this – they wrote it on the sidewalk in multiple locations throughout the park. When the rain washed it away, they wrote it again. I remember I took the picture because I found the phrase “thrown your bones in the trash” so wonderfully emo and poetic, and really a little funny. But here’s the thing: that hasn’t been a problem since that person did this. Once these chalk statements started appearing, the chicken bones vanished.
Could something like this – a simple slogan, written in chalk – really change something as complex as littering? Probably not… but what if it was a really beautiful chalk drawing asking people not to litter? What if we got a bunch of neighborhood kids to help out with it? I mean – it can’t hurt to try, right? The only cost is that of some chalk and an afternoon of drawing on the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, Travis also had some interesting ideas:
  • Get people to make small commitments (signing petitions, agreeing that litter hurts the community and environment) that are pro-environmental. This facilitates their later behavior that is congruent with the previous behavior.
  • Make the importance of a clean, healthy environment salient around the community. The principle of social proofing suggests that people feel social pressure to conform to others, particularly those they see as similar to themselves. Thus, if a community members perceives everyone in the community as being committed to and valuing pro-environmental behavior, they are more likely to adopt this behavior as well.
The first of these two really struck me. What if we had a Girl Scout troop (or some such group – staffed by cute kids overseen by an adult) go around to people in the neighborhood and ask them to sign a pledge not to litter? Who could resist such a thing? While they’re out there, they’re spreading information that it is our community standard to not litter, and also getting people to make a promise. Again, it strikes me as something that is worth a shot, doesn’t cost anything, and definitely won’t hurt.
None of these suggestions replaces the help we need from the city in keeping our streets clean. We still need garbage men to pick up after themselves when a bag they’re hauling rips; we still need dozens of additional garbage cans that will be emptied regularly. We still need, in short, for the city to do their job. But maybe some of these suggestions will help us to figure out what we can do in addition to all of that, to make our community a nicer place to live.
(As a final note: if you know of any local business that needs to be reminded of its responsibilities to our neighborhood, here is a link to a bilingual sheet explaining their responsibilities, and also a link to the official DPW brochure on what they need to do. Please share with them.)

Many thanks to Gina Vergel for her help with this article.

Justin Travis cites the following sources for his remarks:
Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current directions in psychological science12(4), 105-109.
Schultz, P. W., Bator, R. J., Large, L. B., Bruni, C. M., & Tabanico, J. J. (2013). Littering in context: Personal and environmental predictors of littering behavior. Environment and Behavior45(1), 35-59.
Steg, L., Bolderdijk, J. W., Keizer, K., & Perlaviciute, G. (2014). An integrated framework for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: The role of values, situational factors and goals. Journal of Environmental Psychology38, 104-115.

Lincoln Park West walking trail

It was gorgeous out today, so I played hooky for a bit and headed out to Lincoln Park west – way west, out in the part that runs along the golf course.

IMG_7145

This is past the dog park, over the little bridge that in the summer has people fishing (please don’t do that, or at least, don’t eat the fish you catch – the Hackensack River isn’t entirely healthy; it’s fine where the park is, but those fish move around a whole lot so you don’t know where they’ve been), and onto a trail with a sign warning you to look out for flying golf balls (this is of course impossible, because how are you supposed to see them before they hit you?).

I’m under the impression that a lot of people still don’t realize that this part of Lincoln Park is even open to the public. It’s pretty rare to run into anyone over here. Off in the distance, you can see golfers, but it’s otherwise really quiet. As you walk along the path, wildlife scampers away  – a whole variety of birds, gophers, and rabbits live in this area – frightened, but often not so scared you can’t at least catch a peak at them.

It’s quiet – almost unsettlingly quiet. I took a video to show you how quiet it is. It’s a terrible video and I turn around too quickly so hope it doesn’t make you nauseous. But here it is:

 

You entire by a tiny waterfall:

IMG_7144.jpg

And then very soon thereafter, you’re surrounded by a field of beautiful golden grass. It looks like what I imagine wheat to look like, given that I don’t know what a wheatfield actually looks like and I’ve never been to one. Look, I don’t know what it is, but it’s just wild and free, and it’s a home to lots of little critters and looks amazing with that golden color just contrasting against the bright, blue sky.

IMG_7140

Of course, this part of the park is planned and cared for – there’s a very definite path that you stay on, and your course throughout it is determined by that planned path – but it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels very free and open. And quiet. That’s the very best part.

(There’s a second route even more tucked away and isolated, but my dog got too tired and we had to head home. For another day.)

Lastly, my pic could be better, but I am convinced that this is the very best tree in Lincoln Park:

IMG_7141

But I’ll have to follow up further to be absolutely sure.