Last November, I had the privilege of meeting and collaborating on a project with the program coordinator and peer educators of a Brooklyn-based branch of the nonprofit organization, Project SAFE. The project became "GoCause", our little superhero campaign used to promote NPOs through short, funny viral videos. I've written about the character and the campaign before, mostly because I really believe in this new era of social media-influenced advertising, but here I have proof that this is more than a potentially good idea -- it is an involving, community-minded experience.
None of this -- the video you see in this column, our future work with some terrific NPOs/NGOs all across the country -- would have been possible without the amazing people at Project SAFE, starting with Daniel Silber-Baker, the program coordinator, and continuing through to Syreeta Gates and Eden Connelly, as well as all the talented young people I got to hang out with during their Wednesday afternoon sessions. See, as I initially understood it, Project SAFE acted primarily as an inversion of what I'd long perceived "after school programs" to be, what with its offering high school students in the neighborhood a place to meet and talk, organize shows for their community and form stronger bonds outside of their scholastic environments. What I came to learn, after spending several weeks talking with them and performing with them in scenes for "GoCause", was that a) these young people were a hell of a lot more politically aware than I was in high school and b) this wasn't an ordinary after school program, it was a think tank.
The high level of discourse present during my every visit inspired me, something I hope is evident in the video we collaborated on. Unlike some of my college classes, the discussions held in Project SAFE's classrooms never excluded what I like to call "real world information"; these students were more effective at drawing connections between their academic research (whether it was found in a textbook or a lyric in a Mos Def song) and what went on in their everyday lives (pre-college anxiety, why the "D Boys" in their neighborhoods need to become an extinct species) than any other group of people I've come across. It made me feel good about our next generation of leadership, and believe me, that's not easy to do...well, okay, I'm an optimist, I just hate writing the phrase "next generation of leadership."
A little bit of history, in their own words: Project SAFE of Lutheran Family Health Centers was founded at the Project Reach Youth site in Brooklyn, where it has been providing teen leadership and HIV peer education programming since 1989. The program trains youth between the ages 14 and 19 to provide life-saving information to their peers through workshops and performances which highlight a variety of mediums, be it spoken word, dance, theater or art; at several of these performance events, HIV testing and counseling is made available. Project SAFE's trained peer educators ensure that youth in their communities have the skills, information and resources they need to make healthy decisions. The program provides young people in the area with the support and opportunities they need to not only avoid risky behaviors, but to develop their full potential and become agents of change in their communities.
It was my goal to integrate this terrific organization's mission into the meat of our "GoCause: Origins" story. I think we accomplished that, but I got a lot more out of this experience than just material for an episode; I got a real education on what peer leadership can be. It's a hell of a thing to see talented, decent young people working together to create a healthier environment for their community, and I am lucky to have been able to work with Project SAFE. I wish I'd been that cool in high school.