January 25, 2017
From Mean Streets to Meaningful Mentoring: Becoming a Credible Messenger
By Brandon Overby
I was raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn. As a young boy, I was a good kid. I got good grades and was always in the top classes in school. My most memorable childhood memories are of when the kids in my neighborhood would get together and play cops and robbers, or play wrestling in the park with belts, tables, and chairs like they did on WWF.
On the other hand, things were not so good at home. My father was very authoritarian but never really provided for the family. I also lived with my older brother, who was always beating me up for no reason. Tired of the abuse, I would go outside and take it out on others. The only place I felt in charge was in the streets. The streets were not kind either. In 2008, I had just turned 15 years old and my best friend was murdered right in front of his door. The case is still unsolved.
I began to cut classes in high school and eventually dropped out. Soon after, I began getting involved in the justice system. When I caught my first charge for possession of narcotics I was still a minor and got off with a probation sentence. Then when I was 19 I went to Pennsylvania to sell drugs. Eventually, I got caught and spent eight months in Lehigh County jail. Two months after coming home, I got shot. The person who shot me alleged that I shot him back and I was rearrested on an attempted murder charge. The case was false, but while I was fighting it I caught another drug charge. In the end, I pled guilty to possession of a firearm and served eight months on Rikers Island, then another six months in Lehigh for violating parole.
I was able to get my GED while I was in jail, and I attended college for a few months on the outside, but I never really felt that the lessons being taught were going to help me in the long run. I thought that I would be in the street selling drugs all my life.
Things started to turn around when my probation officer forced me to enroll in ARCHES, a mentoring program for court-involved youth. The program uses “Credible Messengers”—people with criminal backgrounds who have turned their lives around for the better—as mentors. Credible Messengers were able to relate to my trials and tribulations, and handle certain situations that a person with just a degree couldn’t.
ARCHES started getting me to think about different options in my life and that I could use my experience to help others. In 2014, I voluntarily joined the 4As program (ARCHES Alumni Academy for Advancement), designed for ARCHES graduates to themselves become Credible Messenger mentors for other court-involved youth.
I learned about restorative practices, which try to help the person who committed harm to better understand the consequences and to work with the “victim” to create healing, a resolution, and potentially replace incarceration.
I was also introduced to knowledge about my roots and the history of mass incarceration and systems of oppression, which made me realize that I did not want to support the prison economy.
Mentoring work fulfills me. I am able to get mentees to open up about their struggles and how hard their lives are. I am able to connect with them because I have gone through similar experiences and walk the same streets. Becoming a Credible Messenger has made me feel like I am actually helping other young people. It also opened many opportunities for me professionally.
Recently I have been working with my mentor to develop a new program for Credible Messengers at the Center for New York City Affairs. The Institute for Transformative Mentoring is a training program for Credible Messengers working as mentors at social service agencies throughout New York City. Our objective is to help them improve their skills.
Our program is a semester-long college course that teaches restorative justice and trauma-informed care techniques, an understanding of social factors (like poverty or homelessness) and historical trauma that impact health and wellbeing. Credible Messengers will also learn how to be better employees or supervisors, and how to communicate effectively with colleagues.
I sat at the table here at The New School with employers and educators and helped to make sure the program gives mentors what they need to succeed. One of the things that I think is really important is building a network. In my neighborhood these are often gangs. But now I have a professional network and this project will foster a network of workers and movement leaders who can support one another and help the next generation of kids coming up like I did.
For myself, I want to help support my mother because she helped me all my life. I want to give back to her for all the long nights and stressful days I’ve put her through. I’m not going to say that I’ve made all the changes I need but I’ve have made great strides for the better. I am passing on what I’ve learned to the youth in my community.
Brandon Overby is a Credible Messenger mentor and restorative justice practitioner. He helped to develop the new Institute for Transformative Mentoring at the Center for New York City Affairs. The Institute’s first semester begins January 28th.