Putting Kids on the Path to Success: The Brotherhood/Sister Sol
When Khary Lazarre-White was in college in 1995, he and his friend, Jason Warwin, read that for every Black male who graduated from college that year, 100 Black men were in prison. That chilling statistic motivated them to start an organization that today has evolved into The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. The organization empowers Black and Latino youth in New York City who face a daily reality of poverty, drugs, violence, poor parenting, failing schools, and unhealthy images of masculinity. At its headquarters in Harlem, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol provides youth with a sanctuary from the streets, offering programs that empower them with the skills to self-direct their lives in a positive manner. The organization’s services include enriching after-school programs, summer camps, job training, college preparation, and more. Its Rites of Passage program follows adolescents intensively for four to six years, teaching them about conflict resolution, drug awareness, community service, and leadership. The Brotherhood/Sister Sol has received numerous awards, including Oprah’s Use Your Life Award. To learn more about the organization, check out this week’s Nonprofit Spotlight.
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, Inc.
New York, NY
New York, NY
Yale Law School
BA, Africana Studies
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol
About the non-profit
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing Black and Latino youth into empowered critical thinkers and community leaders. We offer long term, intensive involvement with our participants over the course of their secondary school careers and provide unique services that support their personal development and academic achievement. Our primary goals are to: 1) empower members by teaching them the skills and competencies needed for positive self-direction and achievement, and 2) develop members’ ongoing commitment to their communities by helping them gain the knowledge, tools and resources needed to foster social change.
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (BHSS) was established in 1994 to offer supportive programs for Black and Latino youth in under-served communities. Co-Directors and childhood friends, Jason Warwin and Khary Lazarre-White, founded The Brotherhood when they were seniors at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. They recognized the obstacles young men face growing up in poverty, and they believed that the creation of a strong, supportive community could help youth overcome the challenges of circumstance and succeed in life. They brought their innovative and successful youth development model to New York City in 1995, initiating the program at Jason’s alma mater, Central Park East High School in East Harlem.
In 1998, Dr. Susan Wilcox came on board as a third Co-Director, joining Jason and Khary in the Directors Circle, the leadership team which provides our organizational vision and echoes the organization’s core ideals: community, collaboration and equity. Under Susan’s guidance, the organization expanded to include programs for young women and was renamed The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. In December 1999, the organization purchased and renovated a Harlem brownstone, which still serves as headquarters. This past year we purchased the lot adjacent to our building and now control a five lot imprint in West Harlem. In 2004, alumni and long time staff member Cidra Sebastien joined the Directors Circle as the Associate Director.
With 12 years of experience, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol’s award-winning holistic programs are now a model for youth development organizations throughout the country. We have earned national recognition for our work, receiving awards that include, the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World Award, the Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network Use Your Life Award, the Fund for the City of New York’s Union Square Award, the Abyssinian Development Corporation’s Harlem Renaissance Award, the Community Works Long Walk to Freedom Youth Activism Award which recognized us as “national civil rights leaders of the new millennium,” and Brown University’s inaugural Alumni Association Young Public Service Award.
We have recently developed and published the first volume of our curriculum titled, “Brother, Leader, Man, The Official Curriculum of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol.” Through our Spread The Word project we are utilizing the curriculum and a nationwide series of intensive three-day training sessions as way to share our model and create an independent source of income for our organization. We have already contracted to train or trained educators in Chicago, Boston, Bermuda, New York City, Atlanta, North Carolina, and the Bay Area. Reverend Alphonso Wyatt of the Fund for the City of New York writes of our Curriculum that it can transform young people. This “youth-centric” work should be used by public schools, private schools, youth development agencies, civic groups, cultural institutions, faith based organizations and families.” Santiago Taveras of the NYC Department of Education, observes that “in the middle of the poorest and most drug-infested neighborhoods in New York City, youth that join the BHSS family learn about respect, responsibility, choices and the importance of community involvement…” and that our Curriculum helps youth to “build positive peer relationships, gain self-confidence, and develop leadership skills.” Ruth Charney, Co-Founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children, one of the leading trainers of teachers in the country, describes the Curriculum as “a gift that is urgently needed by today’s educators…. it is a workable investment that will empower teachers to teach and students to learn.
For over ten years, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol has stood at the forefront of comprehensive youth development, building programs that provide a network of support and guidance for youth who face a range of challenges and pressures each day. We offer daily after school programming, youth organizing, leadership training, international study, job training and internships, community outreach opportunities and more.
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol exists to help Black and Latino youth survive and excel as independent thinkers and leaders within their community. We operate five main programs to achieve the following:
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol Development Program is the core program on which the organization was founded. Our goal is to empower youth through discovery and discussion of history, culture, social problems and political forces surrounding them. We establish partnerships with public secondary schools to develop gender-specific (Brotherhood or Sister Sol) chapters, each consisting of 10 to 18 youth members and two adult leaders. During an intensive four- to six-year rites of passage process, members learn critical thinking and global awareness skills through leadership development, drug awareness, conflict resolution, political education, community service, and other activities. Each chapter develops a Mission Statement and collectively defines what it means to be a leader, man/woman and brother/sister. Members also create individual Oaths of Dedication—personal testimonies to how they will live their lives. The program is structured around ten focus issues, incorporating topics such as Pan African and Latino History, Sexism and Misogyny, and Political Education and Citizenship.
The After School Program provides academic support, enrichment activities, and healthy meals for youth ages 6 to 18 on weekdays from 3:00 PM to 8:00 PM, giving them a safe alternative to the streets. We offer enrichment activities, including poetry, martial arts, hip-hop/step dance, cooking, mentoring and computers on a rotating basis. We incorporate key elements of our youth development model to help students expand their minds and develop a strong sense of community and self. Teen members display their artistic talent in Lyrical Circle, our award-winning group of spoken-word poets, and in our Community Museum, where members create exhibits highlighting current social and political issues.
Summer Leadership Program provides a variety of positive educational and cultural activities to engage our members during the summer. Our International Study Program takes high school students on four-week trips to Africa and Latin America to study the history, culture and politics of foreign nations. Our Summer Day Camp operates five days a week, providing breakfast and lunch, and a rotating list of recreational activities for children, ages 6 to 12. Our seven week Youth Employment Program offers youth job training and placement within our organization.
The Spread The Word Program represents the ways we collaborate with other individuals and organizations to build healthy communities in which our children can thrive. Our staff members offer presentations and workshops to other organizations, and often distribute our three published materials—our curriculum and collections of writings by our youth. We are working to develop additional print resources that will enable us to share our unique youth development model with organizations and educators throughout the nation. The Reality Check Newsletter features our youth members’ writings and is distributed to over 2,000 people. We also engage volunteers to serve as mentors, After School Program assistants and special event planners.
The Liberation Program is designed for youth who have demonstrated an interest in activism. During the four-week Summer Liberation School, members develop awareness of social problems and their effect on self, family and community, learn to identify and analyze different forms of oppression, receive briefings on current issues and learn strategies in social advocacy. Members who complete the Summer Liberation School receive an honorarium and become part of the Liberation Collective, the organizing body of the Liberation Program, to develop campaigns around issues of members’ choosing.
We are a grassroots organization, and our direct services benefit specifically the West Harlem community, but our success and the great need for youth services have led us to explore ways to expand our program to serve more youth in other areas. The Spread the Word Project, described in more detail in the Program Description, is one step we are taking to expand the scope of our services to reach more youth in communities throughout the nation with our proven successful methods.
Recently The Brotherhood-Sister Sol launched a study of our surrounding neighborhood to uncover the specific demographics of our local community. We have defined our community as all land within a half-mile radius around our building. This includes parts of West Harlem, Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights. Utilizing census and other government statistics, published research and frontline data we have begun to paint clear picture.
Preliminary results show that there are 23,023 youth below 19 years of age in our community. The mean family income is $26,471 with over a third of all residents living below the poverty level. According to the Department of Education, our school district (SD #6) is the only overcrowded elementary district in Manhattan. Further, our neighborhood is “the main distribution point in the northeast for cocaine…supplying 95% of the city” (Cocaine Crackdown, Daily News, July 21, 2002).
To examine what local services are currently available we have utilized the research funded by the Charles Hayden Foundation and conducted by the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) and the Partnership for After School Education (PASE). According to the study, conducted in 2003, there are 13 youth serving agencies in our community. After contacting these organizations we discovered that three no longer existed and six serve less than 100 youth.The two largest youth serving agencies, serving over 1,000 youth, are Riverbank State Park (providing primarily athletic and recreational activities) Harlem School of the Arts (providing training in dance, theater and music). The only other holistic youth program is the Harlem Children’s Zone beacon center, which lies on the borderline of our community and serves 244 youth.
So where do the 23,023 youth in our community go to receive comprehensive support? Unfortunately, too many of them turn to the streets for lack of positive alternatives. Clearly the youth of our community are underserved, and with real estate values skyrocketing there is little hope for new youth service developments. Currently we are providing year-round holistic services to 200 youth.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
Co-coordinate executive and administrative tasks and fundraising; co-facilitate Brotherhood chapters and other direct youth programming; supervise and evaluate staff and implement staff development; help provide overall vision to the development of the organization which services nearly 200 youth each year, employs a full time staff of sixteen, and provides support and guidance to its members who range in age from six through 21.
I work on Board development and capital expansion. With a budget of 1.4 million dollars, we provide intensive services that range from rites of passage programs to after-school care; from wilderness retreats and summer camps to international study in Africa and Latin America; from job training and work opportunities to legal representation; from home and school counseling to activist training; from college guidance to writing workshops and arts organizing.
Most notable milestones
Founded in 1995, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is one of the most unique youth development organizations in the country. We have been recognized over the last 12 years for providing some of the most innovative and highly successful practices in the nation. We have earned national recognition for our model. We were featured on the Oprah Winfrey show and awarded the Oprah Winfrey Angel Network Use Your Life Award; last year we were awarded the national Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World Award which recognized us for “outstanding leadership” and commits to position us in the national conversation on education and youth based issues for 2005-2007; we have received the Fund for the City of New York’s Union Square Award naming us as “national grassroots leaders”; been awarded the Abyssinian Development Corporation Harlem Renaissance Award; received Brown University’s inaugural Alumni Association Young Public Service Award; and received the Community Works Long Walk to Freedom Youth Activism Award, recognizing us as “national civil rights leaders of the new millennium”
Our alumni outcomes are documented: 85% have graduated from high school or received their GEDs with 80% graduated from high school, 81% were accepted to college, 84% are working full time or enrolled in college, 0% are incarcerated, only 3% had a child before graduating from high school, and only 2% of our male alumni under 21 have a child.
Over 100 foundations and corporations have supported our work since our inception. Our present and historical funders include Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Arthur M. Blank Foundation, Charles Hayden Foundation, Clark Foundation, Tiger Foundation, Compton Foundation, Levitt Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, New York Foundation, Pinkerton Foundation, Public Welfare Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors, Tides Foundation, Surdna Foundation, Taconic Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, United Way of New York City, Amalgamated Bank, Washington Mutual Bank, Citigroup Foundation, Louis Dreyfus Corporation, St. Paul Companies, the City of New York, assorted elected officials, and over 1,000 individual donors.
What’s the niche?
We are seeking to help young people not only survive the oppressive conditions faced in our communities, but to excel, for we must raise the bar. We focus on issues such as leadership development and educational achievement, bias reduction, sexual responsibility, sexism and misogyny, political education, community service and responsibility, and global awareness. We offer a four to six year intensive rites of passage program where members define what it means to be men/women, brothers/sisters, and leaders in their community.
These definitions serve as the governing tenets of our organization, the guidelines that our youth seek to live up to as they pursue more conscious lives. We provide thorough five day a week after school care, school and home counseling, summer camps, job training, college preparation, employment opportunities, activist training, a community garden stewards program, and free legal representation. We continually seek to expose our young people to new opportunities through wilderness retreats, cultural performances, college tours, and month long intensive study programs to Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, Mexico, Morocco, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Brazil.
What’s the biggest challenge?
We are involved in youth development because we recognize youth need a safe space to speak their minds, define their beliefs and reach their full potential. We recognize young people need holistic support to combat all the emotional and physical challenges of growing and learning in order to become healthy and whole women and men.
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (BHSS) exists because our children are faced with the daily specter of violence, of pervasive drugs, of destructive images of manhood, of womanhood, of love, of respect, of responsibility. With all these negative pressures, we provide a positive pressure to make informed choices. Our children have not been expected to survive, but to fill jails and the stories of broken men and women. As James Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time:” “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended you should perish. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence, you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
“Through BHSS I discovered a part of me I never knew existed; This organization taught me how to fight society’s discrimination, not in a violent way, but in pursuit of achieving my goals.”
“I feel lucky to be in Sister Sol because I got a chance of a lifetime. There are people who don’t even get to leave their block, but Sister Sol takes us many places and shows us love.”
“I take The Brotherhood in with all my heart and soul. Never have I ever been able to express my feeling to anyone as I can with my brothers. In my lifetime I’ve seen a lot of mistakes and anger, but so little love. The Brotherhood showed me love, manhood and brothers that would be there for me; I thank The Brotherhood for all of their support and for showing me the positive side of any challenge that comes along.”
“BHSS has changed my life for the better. I have become more responsible, reliable and gained more confidence. If it were not for this program I might have fallen into traps and made mistakes I would have regretted for the rest of my life. Before BHSS stepped on the scene I was affiliated with a lot of negative activity due to my surroundings. What makes BHSS special and unique to me is the great amount of respect and love that was given to us from day one. The main objectives of BHSS are to first create trust and unity among the brothers, then to educate us in various areas, and then to help us pass on what we know to those who don’t know. As young men in a society where a father figure is a rarity, it is our duty to the next generation to seek enlightenment, spread knowledge and create stronger ties within our communities. The Brotherhood is more than just some club for boys, it’s more like a family that lifts brothers up while climbing. As an organization we are creating a strong foundation for the future.”
We do this work because we are committed and dedicated to making change. We do this work because we have been influenced and inspired by activists and social change makers who came before us; we see ourselves as part of a long and established legacy. We do this work because it is our passion to work with young people, to seek to provide opportunity, guidance and love to our children, the most vulnerable and most impressionable members of our society.
We do this, amidst a plethora of issues that we could be dedicated to, because society is failing our children, because in the City of New York, children are allowed to attend failing schools, to be surrounded by drugs and violence, allowed to have no real opportunity, because they are Black and brown and economically poor and this is a daily, lived reality that is injustice to its core.
What’s in store for the future?
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol has recently purchased the lot adjacent to our building and will be expanding our space.
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is now at a major crossroads in our existence. The Metamorphosis, expansion of our space, will enable us to sustain and build our infrastructure, expand our services and our membership, and better serve our immediate community.
Our brownstone headquarters is currently the only building amidst 5 adjacent lots on 143rd Street between Broadway and Hamilton Place. To the east, three lots have been combined to create the Frank White Community Garden. This garden is owned by Green Thumb and is maintained by the youth of our organization. To the west, the vacant land is currently being utilized as a makeshift parking lot. Combined with our building, these lots will create an indoor/outdoor youth development facility that will be the largest holistic youth serving organization in our community.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity; there is no other adjacent lot that will go on sale. We must control the site to ensure that we have the space to grow and develop and thus help many more young people in our community; youth in dire need of our services. Within our headquarters we have created a sanctuary from the streets, a space where our members feel secure and loved. In addition, we have created a place of learning, where members have access to books, media, computers, and study rooms and spaces such as: our Community/Performance Space (which serves as a meeting & activity room, a small theater, and a dining area), The Club House; (which includes a library, 15 computer stations, a TV/video lounge, and a youth lounge), our Mind, Body & Spirit Room (which is utilized for arts and crafts, drumming circles and physical fitness), and our Music Recording Studio; Ultimately, our building represents our organization, and is the physical manifestation of our mission – a space dedicated to youth, knowledge and community.
However, we have maximized the usage of every square inch within our building. We need additional space to enhance programmatic services. In fact, throughout the year, there are many times we find ourselves overbooked with no space for youth or staff to meet with any semblance of privacy.
Purchasing the adjacent lot will provide the space necessary to expand our operations, enabling us to provide a broader spectrum of services to an increased number of youth. This expansion is absolutely essential to the continued growth of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol and to our ability to better serve our members. It is a critical time in our existence and we must seize the moment. The new structure will provide classrooms, expanded performance and recreational space, staff offices, improved technology center, and a variety of other resources. We envision a green building (built according to prevailing environmental standards) with an emphasis on natural light and a warm and welcoming youth-centric environment that might include:
Quiet workspaces for youth
Greater workspace for staff
A larger library
A larger technology center for members
Specific educational & recreational areas constructed for children (6-11 years of age)
Performance space/Exhibition space
Soft studio for dance, yoga, aerobics, martial arts
Large, industrial sized kitchen
Best way to keep a competitive edge
The best way to maintain a competitive edge is to remain focused on what is important in life. Too many people are concerned with obtaining things and maintaining an image that is for others – find what makes you committed, find what makes you dedicated, find what keeps you hungry each day – and the edge will always be there. Walk to the beat of a different drummer, be an individual, don’t try to merely “fit in.” As our young people say all the time: Do you.
Guiding principle in life
To create change and to fight and struggle against all forms of oppression. To love my family and do honor to my family name. To continue the legacy of those who came before me. To speak truth.
Yardstick of success
To have the respect of those that know me, to live by my word, to inspire young people, to be an honorable and dignified man.
Goal yet to be achieved
Work harder for change.
Best practical advice
Seek in life a calling, something you are deeply passionate about – and then do something that so often society cautions us against doing: commit.
Why do so many of us seek so much education and then this education does not free us to do what we love, but instead confines us to work we too often dread? What is the point of all of the educational effort, all the time, if it does not give us more say over our life?
Supportive words from a family member or friend on your venture
“I take The Brotherhood in with all my heart and soul. Never have I ever been able to express my feelings to anyone as I can with my brothers, In my lifetime I’ve seen a lot of mistakes and anger, but so little love. Now, when love is shown it takes me to a whole new level. The Brotherhood showed me love, manhood and brothers that would be there for me. Without it I wouldn’t be the writer, rapper, poet, and thinker that I am now. I thank The Brotherhood for all of their support in my life. I thank them for showing me the positive side of any challenge that comes along. Now I can proudly say, in the name of The Brotherhood: There is no knowledge that is not power.”
– Melvin W., alumni of The Infinite Chapter of The Brotherhood and founding member of the award winning Lyrical Circle, whose work is published in a collection featuring a foreword from Sekou Sundiata and a closing from Nikki Giovanni.
My parents – they have inspired me and continue to inspire me everyday.
What motivated you to get started?
In the year I graduated from college, 1995, for every Black male who graduated from college, 100 Black men were incarcerated at some point in that year.
I read this statistic with my childhood friend, Jason Warwin, while we were in college together. We decided we had to do something. We returned to his alma mater in East Harlem, and we founded The Brotherhood.
Like best about what you do?
Every day is different – every day is a challenge – every day we see the fruits, even if in a small way, of our work.
Like least about what you do?
What I enjoy the least is convincing people of the urgency of the situation. What our children face is a challenge of mammoth proportions. They face this because of poor schools, violent neighborhoods, deeply misogynistic, degrading and abusive media images, and in many cases parents that are not doing their jobs. The only innocent party is the child, age eight, who faces all of this. They were born into what they were born into without guilt – they face what they face because of poverty and injustice and adults who are failing.
More Black men are in prison than in college. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among Black women 18-35. Half of all New York City schools children are failing academically – in a school system of 1.1 million children, with 85% of those children being Black and Brown.
What we face is critical and immediate and coldly dangerous. Where is the outrage?
At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I knew there was injustice in the world and wanted to change this reality – well, that, and to play for the New York Yankees or Knicks.
What was your first job?
Youth job: building a school and working with three to five-year-olds.
Adult job – research assistant for Kellis Parker, tenured professor of law, Columbia University, researching the laws of slavery.
Biggest pastime outside of work
Reading – newspaper and books.
Spending time with family.
Hanging out with friends.
Experiencing the culture of New York – museums, theater, music and film
Traveling the world.
Person most interested in meeting?
Nelson Mandela – a man of conviction, conscience, decency, morality and honor.
Leader in business most interested in meeting?
Bill Gates – what he is doing with his foundation to cure diseases that are curable on the African continent is a momentous task.
Three interesting facts about yourself
- I studied Marcus Garvey and political thinkers and writers at the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica
- I am a published author in collections and magazines
- I was a Division One recruit in three sports.
Three greatest passions
- Traveling the world
- Good food
One would be impossible, some are:
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
“Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison
“I Write What I Like” by Steven Biko
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
“Absalom! Absalom!” by William Faulkner
“Price of the Ticket” by James Baldwin
“Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde
“The Art of War” by Sun Tzu
“Invincible Memory” by Joao Ubaldo Ribero
Who would you like to be contacted by?
All those interested in the work of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol.
Interview by Elizabeth Mhangami
Introduction by Preeti Aroon
Edited by Valerie Enriquez