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.