Sowing Second Chances
In a nation with the world's largest prison population, Los Angeles County has the highest rate of youth incarceration and probation, and a recidivism rate of 69 percent. Why do so many young people find themselves back in the justice system after they've been released?
Because they lack the support and care they need to begin their lives anew. Harry Grammer knows. He was one of them. But today, he and his organization, New Earth, are providing that guiding hand, helping over 20,000 young people break new ground on a brighter future and experience "what freedom feels like."
New Earth Opens in a new tab runs a mentor-based arts, academic, vocational training, and counseling programs at Los Angeles County juvenile halls, youth detention camps, and group homes. The organization also runs a joint charter high school that supports youth after their release from detention.
Q: To start, maybe you could tell us about what inspired you to start New Earth?
A: I was one of these young people. I spent five years on juvenile probation as a young man. I was a teenage father. I left home at 18 years old. I was a college drop out. Later in life, I realized that providing young people who may have traveled down the same path as I did with the services, the mentorship, and the support they need to pull themselves out of the system would help set them on a road to success.
I also spent time in homelessness, and during that period I had a lot of time to reflect on my life. And I thought really hard and deeply about how I really wanted to learn and grow from my past, and I wanted to just transform my own life. And as a result, I found myself reflecting on giving back to my community, looking at how young people in our community lived and died, and knowing how badly things needed to change for them. That set everything else into motion.
Check out Harry and peer Obama Fellow Keith Wattley in conversation about their work to help justice-involved people earn a second chance.
Q: And how do you work to transform these kids’ lives? What kind of approach do you take?
A: Well, as a start, our team is very diverse. We have a full clinical team, a program management team, and we have staff that I like to say are “in the field.” They’re in detention facilities daily and in community schools providing services. We have team members from all over, including Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. We believe in collaborating deeply with other community based organizations across the city, and we feel it’s very important we have allies we can collaborate with in case one of our young people is from one of their neighborhoods. Overall, I really think organizations like ours should be collaborating whenever possible.The first step in our work with young people involves stepping into their shoes to really understand who they are before we make a decision on how we’re going to move forward. It’s really important to build trust and relationships with a young person before we do anything else. We meet them where they are in their journey and know that everyone’s going to be a little different. We find it imperative to use the arts. We use music, we use rap and hip hop, and fine art. We expose them to things that they otherwise would not have experienced.
Music is a unique aspect of our work because most kids I come across love hip hop. That made us think more about how we can engage them with writing and composing beats to help us build a strong relationship upfront. Then we’ll be better prepared to talk about what that young person needs after we build rapport. We don’t want to rush in and put a young person in a judgement box—we want to listen to what they think is important. Honestly, a lot of the young people we work with at New Earth have faced some extraordinary challenges and struggles in their lives, but they’re also in search of extraordinary triumph and victory over those obstacles.
From there, we accompany a young person on their journey without giving strict direction on which way to go. They need to decide what’s best for their own futures. Everyone needs to find their own way to get out of the situation they’re in, so our work is really all about surrounding them with community, building relationships, listening, and being with them as they progress on their journey. I think young people we’ve worked with have really gravitated towards that type of care.
Additionally, we offer a high school diploma program since a lot of young people leave juvenile detention facilities without enough school credits to graduate, so we help them catch up through our on-site high school diploma program and credit recovery services with teachers who really care.
Q: You mentioned exposing the young people to the arts and music and other activities to help build trust. What kind of experiences do you organize to help do that?
A: You can only get so much in one block or one neighborhood. Since LA is on the coast, we go out on the ocean every month with an organization here in our community that’s helping bring back our marina in the city. I take kids who have recently been released from incarceration out on 24-foot boats to the middle of the ocean and dolphins are jumping and coming up to our boat, seals are flipping around, and whales are floating just 100 feet away. They pull their phones out to snap photos and it’s in that moment that they’re seeing something brand new.
I remember one time, I was sitting on the front of a boat with a mentee named Julio. We were riding pretty quickly and his hair was blowing in the wind and he said, “Man, this is what freedom feels like.” Today, that young man is writing a book and making a documentary film. It goes to show that taking young people out into the world and into nature can really change their perspective.
Q: Aside from the impact you make on one person’s life like that, what kind of impact do you think New Earth is having broadly?
A: The recidivism rate for the Los Angeles County juvenile justice system is about 69 percent for young people that go into incarceration. So that means when a young person comes out of the system, within two-to-six months they’re back in again. What we try to do at New Earth is interrupt that revolving door system through our work and our services, both inside detention centers and outside. When we guide a young person from being inside into our organizations in the community, we have a five percent recidivism rate, which means 95 percent of the young people who go through our aftercare program never re-enter the system.
We’ve worked with and have helped about 20,000 people since 2004. It’s been really special to see that kind of impact.
Q: If you had one piece of advice for someone who's even earlier in their journey, and they're thinking to themselves, "I see this problem in my community, and I really think I can do something to fix it." What would your advice be to them?
A: My advice for anyone who is looking to make a difference in their community is to find the nearest organization that is already making the impact you want to make, and get involved. Volunteer your time, ask questions, talk to the clients they’re working with, whether it’s young people or a different population. Become part of the solution. Spend as much time as you can getting involved. There’s so much you can do, but know that becoming a leader in the community takes time if that’s who you see yourself becoming.
Q: And what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
A: The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was, “Always just stay persistently persistent, and consistently consistent in your work, and you’ll get to where you’re going.”
To me, being persistently persistent and consistently consistent means that there have been times when I’ve just wanted to give up. I’ve been to about 11 funerals in the last 10 years of students that have gone through my programs. I’ve been that guy in the back of the funeral home with the stack of music CDs that they recorded in our recording studio that I had to hand to someone’s grandmother, mother, or father. I’ve been that guy. I’ve been the person who’s had, you know, to look at our books and know that any day now our doors can close, because the funding is just not there for kids that people believe are criminals. And there’s been moments where it’s been painful.
Q: This work can obviously be difficult, potentially full of setbacks and injustices. What would you say keeps you going when things get tough?
A: The fact that when children come into this world the first thing they put on is their superhero pajamas keeps me going. Hear me out. (laughter) Then something happens, and they lose that superhero-ness somewhere along the way. I want to help them put that superhero-ness back on and that’s really what keeps me going. The fact that 95 percent of the young people who go through our detention aftercare program remain jail free. It brings hope into the equation and it brings hope into the organization. It brings hope for other young people who see that there are other pathways besides going in and out of prison. There are other ways they can live their lives. They can be productive, they can thrive, and they can have a generally healthier experience.
Q: And to close, how would you say the Obama Foundation Fellowship has impacted your work?
A: This fellowship has really been instrumental in helping to amplify the work we do for our community at New Earth. Getting to learn from two people who started as organizers on the South Side of Chicago—where I was born and raised—who are now doing work to bring this planet together and to help some of its most significant issues is truly incredible. I trust that the work I’m doing to close juvenile detention centers throughout my state will grow, and I’m hoping New Earth will continue to be a voice in the movement to redesign and reconfigure how we treat young people who have experienced a high level of trauma instead of incarcerating them.
You can learn more about Harry, New Earth, and meet our other current class of Fellows here.