Jesse Hamilton, Brownsville, The Campus
State Senator Jesse Hamilton stand with Brownsville youth for the ribbon-cutting of his pilot project, The Campus.

Brownsville’s underserved youth just got a major leg-up: Senator Jesse Hamilton hosted a ribbon cutting-ceremony Friday at P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabaz School to inaugurate The Campus, a technology and wellness center providing career readiness and public health programs targeting teens ages 12-18.

The program is part of an effort to do away with the cycle of poverty and incarceration in Brownsville, and it is the first center of its kind in the United States headquartered at a public housing site.

The Campus comprises a partnership with 50 community organizations to provide a series of after-school courses teaching the in-demand skills for today’s generation to be “globally competitive” in tomorrow’s labor force, explained Sen. Hamilton, who presides over the 20th district of Crown Heights, Brownsville, Park Slope, Sunset Park, Gowanus, Prospect Heights and Flatbush.

The courses are aligned along five tracks: technology; coding and app development; career development and entrepreneurship; health and wellness; violence prevention; and cultural, media and performing arts.

Programming will be held at a number of satellite sites as well as sites designated as part of The Campus – namely, the community center at NYCHA’s affordable housing complex Howard Houses, the Brownsville Library and P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz & The Brooklyn Collaborative Middle School.

The remote-controlled airplane is the flagship project students complete in the technology track after learning how to make a remote-controlled car and boat.

“What we are trying to do is to make sure that our kids do not get into the criminal justice system,” said Hamilton. “We’ve been spending so much money on the back end. Let’s start spending money on the front end.” Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhood, Brownsville logs the second-highest incarceration rate in New York City (96 per 100,000 adults, according to city figures). Latchkey kids with nothing to do after school are more likely to drift into delinquent lifestyles of drugs and crime.

“I hope I never see you in my offices, ever,” quipped NYC Department of Probation Commissioner Ana M. Bermudez to the P.S. 298 students, adding that the department will take a parallel approach to The Campus by focusing on rehabilitative education for juveniles under probation. “We need to be able to have people not be defined by the worst moment of their life,” she said.

Senator Jesse Hamilton mingles with the students and staff of P.S. 298

Hamilton’s cause has garnered copious backing from elected officials: Brooklyn BP Eric Adams committed $500,000 to purchase educational tools and equipment like 3D printers and robotics kits to support science, technology arts, engineering and math education; Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins also committed funds to hire a full-time director to run The Campus.

Councilman Rafael L. Espinal, who went to school in Brownsville, said that the classrooms often lacked resources.

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker pooled $125,000 to upgrade the Howard Houses Community Center with new flooring and cubicles. At one point, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office flagged P.S. 298 as one of 178 underperforming institutions in New York State. In 2011, the Department of Education threatened to shutter the school, along with six others.

“But today – and not just today – we are showing the governor’s office and all of the individuals at the state education department that we are number one,” Walker told the students. “And we will remain number one no matter what type of labels they try to put on us.”

A coding class led by Digital Girl Inc. founded by two women to increase the number of women in STEM fields

After the ribbon-cutting, Sen. Hamilton organized a guided tour of the campus for parents, press, and the public to crash the first “pop-up” classes as the first official day of programming for The Campus. In an upstairs computer lab, Digital Girl Inc. founders Michelle Gall and Toni Robinson demonstrated how to write “looped” code (repeating a certain function until a desired outcome is reached) using the sandbox video game, Minecraft.

A storytelling class in full swing

Meanwhile, a storytelling class by literacy-promoting non-profit Green Earth Poets Cafe tasked students with creating a personal narrative by drawing mind maps of the things and people in their lives they hold most dear.

In a meditation workshop titled ‘I Am Enough’, founder of Social Work Diva, La Shawn M. Paul, instructed students in her lilting voice to close their eyes and picture themselves as a rosebush, imagining its leaves, flowers, and other features, such as whether the plant was well-tended or unkempt.

Social worker La Shawn M. Paul advises a student during a meditation class

“I then ask them to draw the rosebush they’ve envisioned. It can reveal a lot about how a child feels about themselves and what’s going on in their lives,” she explained. A drawing by one little boy whose rosebush was under siege by an evil Cyclops eventually revealed to Paul that he was being bullied by some of the older students at his school. 

The Campus opened exactly one month after the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Rysheen Ervin, just steps away from the Howard Houses Community Center.

The crime, which took place just minutes before a Campus stakeholders meeting, strengthened the resolve of those involved to fulfill on the mission of The Campus. “When I look at these young people behind me I see myself growing up,” said Sen. Hamilton. “So I want to make sure that they all have the opportunity to be the leaders of tomorrow.”

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Kindra Cooper

Kindra Cooper is a freelance journalist and copy editor. She hails from Indonesia, where she wrote features for The Jakarta Post, Indonesia's largest English-language newspaper. Once in New York, she covered...

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