By Krystin Gollihue
“We in the nonprofit sector are tackling some of the most difficult issues of our time,” says Khary Lazarre-White, co-founder and executive director of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis), a youth development organization based in Harlem that aims to cultivate a theory of change among disadvantaged youth. Issues such as poverty, prejudice, and inequality are so pervasive and affect children in such disproportionate ways that it is necessary for organizations like Bro/Sis to also sustain themselves on a model that continues year after year. Through recessions, through doubts, and through the difficult and complicated work of changing minds as well as changing policy, Bro/Sis has survived in knowing that one can’t end poverty in just one year.
Khary calls Bro/Sis’s model the development of a “political will” through storytelling. Youth get the opportunity to tell their own narrative in the context of a political education; their stories are not about poverty in an abstract sense, but about the individual child who experiences poverty, is affected by these issues, has thought critically about their experiences, and has been given the opportunity to change that narrative on a grand scale. The goal is to creating programming that allows for young people to tell the story of “what it is to grow up economically poor, Black and brown in this country, to be educated in poor schools, to be in communities that are inundated with drugs and violence, but to overcome that.” That ability to take back the narrative of who they are develops a strong sense of empowerment within young people that allows them to “form a moral and ethical code – who they are as young people – helps them become leaders and social change makers” in a cycle that continues to fight poverty decade after decade. These youth then end up seeking out roles in their communities and abroad, continuing the narrative that young people can bring about social justice by simply telling the stories of who they are and what they have experienced.
Khary began The Brotherhood with co-founder Jason Warwin while the two were seniors at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where a large number of disaffected young men had little opportunity to develop their own stories or political will. Their model was to provide support, guidance, love, and education to Black and Latino youth who came from economically distressed areas. In 1995, they settled in East Harlem, where Jason went to high school, and in 1998, incorporated young women into their services.
After 21 years, Bro/Sis now provides out-of-school and holistic programming, the most foundational of which is Rites of Passage. This program lasts 4-6 years and develops youth through three stages: Brotherhood/Sisterhood Building, Critical Thinking/Knowledge of Self/Global Awareness, and the culminating Rite of Passage. In the beginning, youth come together to form bonds between each other and a chapter leader, an on-call mentor who serves as a resource and source of acceptance. They then develop problem-solving skills by learning about topics such as social justice, history, and political education. Through this stage, they go on outings and create works of art including writing, visual pieces, and documentaries that are collected by their chapter leaders and that have garnered national attention. The final stage of the program results in an Oath of Dedication that describes the individual’s beliefs and values, and these young people then begin to take on leadership roles themselves in Bro/Sis. Throughout all 4 to 6 years is the idea that youth members are given a space to reflect their experiences back onto the world in a variety of media.
In addition to Bro/Sis’s direct programming, youth members have been an integral part of policy change in New York through their stories. By having the ability to take back the narrative of what it means to be underserved, Bro/Sis has served in many advisory capacities in the fight towards fair policing practices in NYC. Khary says that the young people “were a pivotal part that movement, they were centrally involved. They were named witnesses, named litigates, they created documentaries to tell the story of what it felt like to be in what was essentially a police state.”
Dr. David Milch of the Milch Family Foundation, a group aimed at supporting medical and arts initiatives in New York City and nationally, says that these stories are part of a larger “personal narrative” among young people. “We have a way in which we view ourselves and our place in the world and how the world views us,” and as the son of Holocaust refugees, he has a deep understanding of how a personal narrative can change and be changed by a person’s surroundings. That capacity to tell stories is one of the reasons why his philanthropy supports Bro/Sis and their arts initiatives. “Storytelling is one of the themes of our family foundation,” Dr. Milch says, and it is how “kids are brought into the dialog” in policy and in the issues that affect their daily lives.
Both Khary and Dr. Milch feel that one of the ongoing questions that Bro/Sis and other organizations must grapple with is how to continue telling the story, building a political will, and creating a personal narrative that empowers young people. Dr. Milch says that at the end of the day, “all these great intentions fizzle out if the funding stalls out, and many nonprofits simply don’t know how to sustain funding.” Especially when it comes to complex issues like poverty and inequality, sustainable funding is integral to breaking the cycle of injustice. “Why is it so hard?” Khary asks. “Because every year, we have to raise the money. A national foundation will support us for three years and move on to a new focus. But guess what? We’re not going to end poverty in three years.”
Bro/Sis’s national support is in many ways so thorough and effective because their supporters can see how effectively the stories of Bro/Sis members have brought about change. While Bro/Sis’s graduation rate is double the surrounding areas and teenage pregnancy among Bro/Sis members is negligible compared to Harlem’s, it is the fact that the young people have shown their stories to be important, to be heard, and to be change-making that defines Bro/Sis’s success. By building a political will through education, mentorship, experiential learning and reflecting, and storytelling itself, Bro/Sis has held the support of foundations like the Milch Family for long enough to begin changing the view.
Born and raised in New York City, Khary Lazarre-White is a social entrepreneur, educator, non-profit executive, writer and attorney. In 1995, at the age of 21, Khary co-founded The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a nationally renowned non-profit youth organization based in Harlem, New York. Over the last 19 years Khary has been recognized for his leadership in providing some of the most innovative and highly successful practices in the nation. Khary has edited several publications of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol and contributed assorted curriculum workshops and pedagogical writings to these collections.
Dr. David M. Milch is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and has been a principal of Bermil Industries since 1980, a closely held corporation controlled by the Milch Family. He is Founder and Vice Chairman of Allium Medical and is an active philanthropist, participating in a number of charitable organizations including The Brotherhood-Sister Sol, Middle East Forum, The American-Israel Friendship League, The New Group, The Metropolitan Foundation, Jazz Foundation of America, Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth, and more. These activities are funded and advised via The Dr. David M. Milch Foundation and its Ars Veritas initiative.
Krystin Gollihue is a current doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at NC State University.