A booming voice on a microphone addressed a crowd of teenagers on a Harlem street on a warm September night. Loudspeakers carried the words across the block.
“I used to be a man that run the streets, I used to smoke drugs, I used to sniff drugs, I used to carry guns, I used to rob, I used to steal, I used to be out here living a reckless life,” the man with the microphone announced to the audience. “But after a while you get tired of being enslaved and entrapped.”
That man was the Rev. Donnell Harper, the chairman of the West Harlem Empowerment Coalition, a community action group formed in April to serve West Harlem neighborhoods. On this Friday night, Harper’s role was to connect with the youth of the community. He said he used his past experiences as a way of reaching troubled teens and relating to their experiences of growing up in poverty.
“You know, I’ve come from the streets,” said Harper, 48. “So it’s easy for me to identify with people because I know what they’re doing and the reasons why they’re doing it.”
The youth of New York City are back in school, and community leaders in Harlem are looking for ways to keep their kids off the streets. That’s why the West Harlem Empowerment Coalition shut down the block at 134th Street and Broadway for the first of such neighborhood events since the start of the school year.
The coalition has hosted similar events targeting Harlem youths at least once every month since its founding in April. Each gathering follows the same model: kids, ranging from elementary to middle and high school students, come to the events for food, music and physical activities like dance routines and basketball tournaments. The winners receive prizes like movie tickets.
“This part of West Harlem doesn’t get too much attention, and we don’t have too many activities,” said the coalition’s vice chair, Alicia Barksdale. “So now we’re trying to get that back into the community so these kids will have something to do instead of just fighting or having gangs or turf wars.”
The West Harlem Empowerment Coalition was established as a collaboration among local community leaders, clergy and the NYPD’s 30th Precinct to provide resources to West Harlem neighborhoods, including health screenings, educational services and free legal and financial advice. On nights like Friday, the group’s focus is on the neighborhood children.
This particular event, which was attended by community figures such as City Councilman Robert Jackson and the commanding officer of the NYPD’s 30th Precinct, Deputy Inspector Ruel Stephenson, attracted over 75 young people, Barksdale said.
One of them was Abraham Buntin, a high school senior. But Buntin wasn’t there just to play. He attended the event with the Explorers, a youth program of the 30th Precinct.
“I want to help people,” Buntin said. “I’ve seen a lot of bad things going on growing up, and a lot of bullying, and I just want to help out and give back to the community.”
Harper, who is a minister at New Covenant Temple, a Pentecostal church on Amsterdam Avenue, said the organization was conceived with the goal of helping troubled youths before adding a wider range of community services to its mission. Now, he’s looking to continue its programs into the winter.
“What we’re looking at now is having some indoor space where we can do mentorship programs, education programs, tutoring programs, things of that nature,” he said.
Harper said he was a believer in the organization’s practice of combining activities and personal engagement for the kids, and plans to remain as chairman. “I see myself doing it as long as it’s operating,” he said.
The group hosted its latest outdoor activity on Sept. 28. As the group seeks space indoors for cold-weather programs, Barksdale said she was encouraged by the enthusiasm they saw in the neighborhoods they serve and that she was confident that the group had enough backing to meet its winter goals.
“We have a lot of support from the community,” said Barksdale, citing the coalition’s relationship with Community Board 9, the District Attorney’s office and City Councilman Jackson’s office, among others. “It’s like a village again. You know, it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s what we’re trying to get back right now.”