Written by Andrew Malekoff Friday, 21 December 2012 00:00
The Nassau County legislature made a misguided decision, born of partisan politics, on July 5, 2012, to cut $7.3 million from youth, chemical dependency and mental health services for tens of thousands of people.
The decision to defund human services in July led to months of protests by human-services providers, parents and youths. In an attempt to draw wider attention to the impact of the budget cuts, one of the affected agencies, STRONG Youth, Inc., a gang-prevention and intervention program that lost all of its funding, staged a symbolic funeral for youth services at the Hempstead Pentecostal Church, in Hempstead, on August 2, 2012.
The funeral was followed, a few weeks later, by street theater. Adults and young people from STRONG attended a legislative meeting in Mineola, dressed symbolically as hostages – bound, gagged and blindfolded. One of the legislators said, at the meeting which was attended by hundreds of people, that “Child Protective Services” should be called. A few weeks later, STRONG held a prayer and candle lighting vigil. The vigil drew 150 people. All of the demonstrations by STRONG were peaceful and planned, with adults and youths working together. How do I know this? I proudly stood alongside them in each one of the events.
Some critics accused STRONG of being too extreme. Others called the symbolic funeral “disrespectful of the dead” and the “parading of hostages” as a disgrace. Nothing could be further from the truth. These events were thoughtfully organized by STRONG social workers and volunteers, young and old, who galvanized a complex network of teenagers and parents (including parents of murdered children) crime victims, clergy, community leaders and local businesses.
The skills used to organize this event were the same ones that were used to develop and implement exemplary gang prevention and intervention services that aim to help young people to become successful students and active participants in community affairs. Nassau County should not eliminate STRONG, or programs like it. Rather it should be celebrating and promoting them as national best practices in youth development.
One of the speakers at the funeral was a young woman, Amory Sepúlveda. She testified from her wheelchair. “When I was 19-years-old,” she said, “I was the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting that resulted in never being able to walk again. I was hurt physically and emotionally and thought my life was over. With the help of county youth services, I am now a college graduate in pursuit of a master’s degree. I’ve shared my story, changing the lives of thousands of youth in Nassau County.” Today, in her role as crisis counselor for North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, Sepúlveda is providing aid to hundreds of victims of hurricane Sandy.
STRONG Youth Inc.’s approach to protesting Nassau County’s cuts to human services funding were not radical; they were rational. Its tactics were well-planned, intergenerational events that captured the imagination of the public and media.
STRONG took effective steps to motivate change. The public should embrace the group for its peaceful protests, which represent the best of our democracy. These events helped many young people to move from apathy to activism. In fact, many of the protesters that were derided by members of the Nassau County Legislature have become volunteers in the hurricane disaster relief, demonstrating their empathy, civic involvement and activism, all for the public good.
They have learned their lessons well and now fight not only for themselves, but for the next generation.