The New Directions Youth Project was an after-school program that AFSC ran from 1994-2003. Twice a week for the entire school year, it brought together 12 high school students who’d had a first-time brush with the law. They were matched with 10 mentors from the same community who were considered “successful.” The court-referred youngsters experienced a curriculum-based program including dialogue on making healthy choices, substance abuse and its consequences, alternatives to violence, a chance to talk about their experiences while in detention, and numerous trips to New York and New Jersey cultural and historical sites.
The project resulted in participation in a beautiful training documentary on juvenile justice called “Book Not Bars,” produced by Columbia’s Witness Program and the Ella Baker Center; “Our Children’s House” testimonies of these youngsters that helped result in the removal of the director of the Essex County Detention Facility; and a play also called “Our Children’s House,” which is used in a Maplewood, N.J., high school annually as a teaching tool.
As AFSC emphasizes work with young people, there may be many lessons drawn from the successes and failures of this program.