The Institute for Transformative Mentoring (ITM) is a dynamic training program focused on the development of credible messengers working in the social services fields throughout New York City.


The Institute for Transformative Mentoring (ITM) is a dynamic training program focused on the development of credible messengers (formerly incarcerated men and women) working in the social services fields throughout New York City.  These mentors help young people navigate community violence and avoid the criminal justice system.  Credible messengers are gaining systems-level recognition in New York City as an effective strategy to reduce crime and criminal justice involvement. 


New York City is increasingly employing credible messengers to engage young adults involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  These programs serve thousands of young people through youth justice, violence interruption, and after-school programs. For the programs to be impactful and norm-changing, they must provide alternatives and opportunities for both participants and credible messenger staff for lawful, gainful employment and support to build productive and healthy lives for themselves and their families.

Credible messengers are hired to stand in harm’s way in the streets and act as agents of change in young people’s lives. They also become staff at human services agencies and must adapt to an entirely different set of norms.  The Institute was developed in partnership with social service employers and responds to the need for professional development and support for this vital workforce.

Credible messengers help make communities safer and reduce incarceration.  Mayor de Blasio has recognized their impact on reducing gun violence and a new evaluation from the Urban Institute and the Department of Probation shows a 57% decrease in convictions among young people working with credible messenger mentors. 

Because of ITM, mentors improve their job performance, increase employment retention and advancement, and enhance their personal development. Beneficiaries of the program include credible messengers, the youth they serve, the organizations that employ them, and the community. 

Program Description

The Institute for Transformative Mentoring is based at The New School and offers an intensive, semester-long training course.  The Institute is intended to help credible messengers heal and enhance their practical skills so they are healthier, more knowledgeable and better able to help others.  ITM is structured using restorative justice practices and interactive learning to support participants in engaging deeply with the material and each other. 

The college-level course covers trauma-informed care, youth development, history of mass incarceration and a social justice framework, and career advancement.  Students engage in activities, role play exercises, and develop lesson plans and strategies that they use in their daily work with young people.  A director at Children’s Village remarked that by the third week in the program his staff members were already demonstrating increased insight in working with youth, greater initiative in planning activities, and more intentional engagement with other agency leaders. 

ITM also offers a condensed version of the course during the summer for young adults who are mentees in the programs we serve and interested in becoming peer mentors.   In 2018, we are expanding the young adult program into a year-long engagement.

Students from the professional and young adult programs also participate in workshops, film screenings and policy events that are designed to help build a professional network and a base for ongoing criminal justice reform efforts.

Target population

Credible Messenger mentors serve young people citywide (with a focus on high-poverty, justice involved areas such as the South Bronx, Harlem, Central Brooklyn, and Jamaica).   Participating students are employed by 25 organizations including: Artistic Noise, Bronx Defenders, Brownsville Think Tank Matters, Center for Court Innovation, Center for Employment Opportunities, Child Welfare Organizing Project, Children’s Village, Community Connections for Youth, Exodus, Family Life Center – Tru 2 Life, Friends of Island Academy, GMACC, Good Shepherd Services, Incarcerated Nation Corp., KAVI, LifeCamp, Man Up!, New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, NYC Civic Corps, Osborne Association, Phipps, Release the Grip, Sheltering Arms, Strive, and Young New Yorkers.  Students range in age from 18 to over 60.  Students identify as Black or Latino and one-third of participants are female.  Students draw on life experiences from poverty, trauma, incarceration, gangs, surviving gun violence and interpersonal violence, and the child welfare system.

Early Outcomes

  • ITM has served a total of 80 students in four cohorts since January 2017. This includes 57 in the semester long college course and 23 participants in youth program.

  • 38 Students (100%) completed the ITM semester-long course and earned 3 college credits; 19 are currently enrolled. All students who completed the course earned a grade of B+ or better (75% received an A) and attendance averaged over 90%.

  • 15 of 38 students have been promoted (39%) to date and all but one remain employed in the field. These new roles include: Supervisor of Hospital Responders, Advocate Intervention Specialist, Outreach Supervisor, Site Manager, Program Manager, Program Coordinator, Supervisor of Parent Coaches, and Lead Mentor. These positions include a wage gain and sometimes also reflect a change from part-time status to full-time with benefits.

  • All 23 students in the young adult summer intensive completed the program, 21 are participating in the ITM internship program (with wages supported by MOCJ) and three of these students are enrolled in college.

Participants and their employers credit ITM with immediately increasing their capacity to serve youth. Pre- and post-assessments showed that students gained knowledge that will assist them in their personal and professional lives. Supervisors agreed that they saw new concepts, greater understanding of youth development, and increased initiative from their participating staff. Supervisors also reported that participants were more self-aware and better able to use their personal experiences to support others. 

Young adults credit the experience with helping them to develop a support network, heal, recognize their strengths, and develop a greater sense of their capacity to give back to their communities. Several students reported improved interpersonal relationships and a young woman remarked that the program made her “a better mom”.


The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs developed the program in collaboration with credible messengers and social service employers, including Good Shepherd Services, Osborne Association, and Children’s Village.  The Pinkerton Foundation helped to develop the program and is a funder of ITM along with the JM Kaplan Fund, Other Press, The New School, the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice, employers, and individual donors.

The Center for New York City Affairs is an applied public policy organization at The New School that is focused on practical solutions to the city’s most pressing social and economic challenges.  The Center has a long-standing commitment to juvenile and criminal justice reform.  The New School offers college credit for the course and participants benefit from campus resources and events, such as library and computer access, lectures by leading thinkers, concerts and film screenings, and other student activities. 


ITM Staff

Sajjadur Rahman | Program Director, Institute for Transformative Mentoring

Saj Rahman directs the Institute for Transformative Mentoring, a training program for Credible Messengers who use their experience to work with young adults to reduce incarceration and violence. Saj has more than a decade of experience in youth development, community based research, curriculum development, advocacy and non-profit management. Saj has designed and implemented programs in New York City that foster personal transformation and build leadership skills among formerly incarcerated credible messengers.  Saj previously served as the founding director of Arches Alumni Academy for Advancement at Community Connections for Youth. Saj graduated with a bachelor and master’s degrees in Psychology from Wesleyan University. He received the 2006 Holzberg Fellowship in Clinical and Community Psychology.


Ben (Cincere) Wilson | Program Assistant, Institute for Transformative Mentoring

Ben Wilson is a Program Assistant for the Institute for Transformative Mentoring, where he leads trainings, offers college and career counseling, and coordinates program operations.  He also serves as a high school equivalency instructor at Exodus Transitional Community Inc. and has personal experience with the criminal justice system. For over 15 years, he has facilitated GED, mentoring, poetry, and theater programs in correctional facilities.  He designed a creative writing course with the primary focus on college prep. As a mentor, Ben has helped young men navigate the pitfalls of the street life that leads to prison by helping them focus on formal and informal educational pursuits. While helping these young men, he won an “Honorable Mention” award for his submission to the prestigious PEN Prison Writing contest (2015). Ben obtained a bachelor’s degree from Bard College.


Keyonn Sheppard | Youth Program Facilitator, Institute for Transformative Mentoring

Keyonn Sheppard is the Youth Program Facilitator for the Institute for Transformative Mentoring, where he leads ITM’s Youth Program. Keyonn most recently was the lead mentor at the Harlem Justice Community Program (HJCP) and with the ARCHES/Next Steps programs in the South Bronx, both of which focus on anti-recidivism. Keyonn’s career spans 30 years, beginning as a founding member of the Citykids Repertory Company. He is the former Leadership Training Coordinator for the IMPACT Repertory Theatre Company in Harlem. Keyonn also serves as the Assistant Pastor of the New Beginnings Tabernacle of Deliverance in Brownsville, Brooklyn. When Keyonn isn’t mentoring youth in his programs or at his church, he is a proud husband and father of three beautiful children. 


Tamara Oyola-Santiago | Senior Director & Mentor at the Institute for Transformative Mentoring (ITM)

Tamara Oyola-Santiago is Senior Director & Mentor at the Institute for Transformative Mentoring (ITM). She is a public health educator and activist who specializes in harm reduction. After earning graduate degrees in Public Health and Latin American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Tamara joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a Presidential Management Fellow. Since 2009, she has been part of The New School, working with students to mobilize for social justice, equity and liberatory practices of education. Areas of life work include harm reduction services grounded in social justice in Puerto Rico and New York City, HIV/AIDS de-criminalization, self-determination and anti-colonial practices, Queer liberation and LGTBQIAGNC health. She is co-founder of Bronx Móvil, a fully bilingual (Spanish-English) mobile harm reduction and syringe services program that strives for drug user health and mobilization. Tamara is also part of the What Would an HIV Doula Do collective, a community of people joined in response to the ongoing AIDS Crisis.