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  • Writer's pictureCaterina Sullivan

ReConnect | Brooklyn

Updated: Nov 4, 2018

Image credit: Caterina Sullivan

I close my book and smooth out my sundress. 2pm on a Wednesday in Brooklyn. My toe is tapping to the beat of Drake singing One Dance over the radio. Although it’s September and fall has technically begun, it’s warm, and the sun is beaming in through the windows, brightening the pale wood which lines the interior of ReConnect Cafe.

Last year, when I was living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I swore I wouldn’t stay anywhere else in New York. As impressive as the glitz and glamour of Manhattan may be, I enjoy a sense of belonging when visiting a place. “Belonging” doesn’t even begin to describe my emotional attachment to Bed-Stuy.

The streets always smell like food. Fried food, Mexican food, Caribbean food. Silence is something rare in Bed-Stuy. Whether it’s music blasting from someone’s house or someone’s car or the sounds of construction, sirens or people yelling at one another on the street, breaths of silence are few and far between. Yep, this is as close to home as I believe I will ever feel in the States. And cafés like ReConnect are what make Bed-Stuy the vibrant and enthralling place it is today.

I’m currently one of two people here. I’ve just had a bite of lunch: an energy juice with apple, spinach, kale, parsley and ginger and a turkey and hummus croissant – light and delicious.

Image credit: Caterina Sullivan

I’ve been making eyes at these incredible chocolate chip cookies since I first stepped foot in the café. And have decided to take the plunge. Even if it means a few extra minutes at gym this evening.

A group of young men are outside. I can’t distinguish what they’re saying, but they’re all smiling and laughing. One has a basketball he’s bouncing as he paces in a very cool and casual manner out the front of the café. Occasionally, they poke their head in and ask the guy behind the counter for some water as it’s hot outside. Some even come in an sit inside for a while to cool down. They’re all talking with one another about this and that. I hear snippets of a conversation about a romance problem. Every now and then, someone sings a line or two of what ever hip-hop song is coming over the radio.

This is the vibe of ReConnect Café. Located on Tompkins Ave between Vernon and Willoughby, the laid back feel is what wins the hearts of the locals. Only five things are listed on the menu. A croissant, two bagels and two sandwiches. The key is in the simplicity. It’s not meant to be a big fancy cafe with a list of items to choose from. The purpose of this cafe is to provide inexpensive and good food to locals and to create social change in the area.

Image credit: Caterina Sullivan

Yes, that’s right. Social change.

In walks Jim, the co-founder of the café. We shake hands and he takes a seat. It’s not until halfway through the conversation that I find out Jim is actually a Passionist priest. His very chilled-out, laid-back personality throws me a little. Different to any of the priests I’ve ever met.

The other co-founder of the café, Efrain, sits outside and chats to locals as they pass by. Every now and then they’ll stop and take a seat next to him and do what people in Brooklyn do best – watch the world go by and appreciate life.

And what’s not to appreciate? What was once a community enveloped in the snares of poverty is starting to transform. When Jim moved to Bed-Stuy in 1997, nearly the whole population was living in relative poverty. “It’s changed a lot since then,” he explains. The area has become more diverse, and while a third of people still live in poverty and over half the children live under the poverty line, Bed-Stuy has improved dramatically over the last 20 years.

Jim starts telling me about the project. The café is only one piece of the ReConnect jigsaw puzzle. They also run a bakery and a graphics store. “In this neighbourhood, violence, drugs, incarceration and death are the only choices on the menu for a lot of young men. The typical reaction is to start programs. So they offer programs to “fix” these issues.” But Jim explains how unnatural the model of ‘programs’ is. “No one wants to be told we need to go away somewhere to be fixed.” From my time in Bed-Stuy, I know it’s not the youth who have problems; it’s what’s happening around them which is causing them to make certain life choices.

Image credit: Caterina Sullivan

“A term people use for these young men is ‘disconnected youth’,” Jim explains. “But I don’t like describing people by their deficits. I would say these young people are living on the margins.”

Jim explained what young people need is not a three month program but skills and training. Out of the 68 men who have been employed at ReConnect, 71% of them have remained employed. “This just shows you that it’s not that they don’t want to work; it’s that this particular economy is not favourable for young people to start working.” Many of the stores are family businesses and don’t necessarily hire young people.

I comment on how innovative the concept is.

“It’s not innovative at all,” says Jim. “If people want to get out of an illegal economy, you have to create a legal economy,” he explains.

“I think the problem we are facing in the achievement of an ambitious program like the Global Goals is that sometimes we try to think too creatively,” I explain to Jim. “Sometimes the innovation lies in coming back to basics.” We go back and forth for a few minutes discussing this concept further.

“The idea came about when I saw kids selling drugs on the street corner. I don’t like to boil the theory behind ReConnect down to this, but I had a thought that if these kids could sell drugs on the street corner, they could sell apples too,” Jim says with a slight chuckle. “That’s where it all really began.”

The fit-out for the café only cost US$40,000 and is by far their best business. “That’s not to say the other aspects of ReConnect aren’t successful,” Jim informs me. “Our graphics business is growing with the help of volunteer mentors.” ReConnect also benefits form New York’s City Money, a wage subsidy program.

“What I’m most excited about is our education program,” Jim tells me, with a sparkle in his eye to reflect the passion in his voice. The education program provides a scholarship for 60 university or college credits for young men who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to attend school to receive some higher education. There are opportunities to specialise in areas such as social service and business. Run through Jesuit universities, the education program is making great progress. “It’s set-up as a distance learning classroom, so there is no cost other than an onsite teacher.”

When asked about whether or not he’d seen many setbacks, Jim said, “Of course, we’ve had our ups and downs. But this is working, so we keep going. One thing we’ve found is that people who need this model aren’t aggressive in finding a job, so we don’t have a heap of people knocking at the door. We’re trying to seduce people to think differently, and it’s not easy.”

Image credit: Caterina Sullivan

“We need to create a culture of professionalism,” Jim explains. When asked about the reasons behind the success of the program, Jim uses one phrase in particular. “Faithful relationships.” Many of these young people have been let down throughout their life. They need to be able to trust who they’re working with. “Their thoughts centre around ‘Who’s there when I fall down? Who’s there after a three month program?'”

Jim and I then start talking about how this model might be replicated in Australia.

“You’re working to achieve the Global Goals. Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth is the first one which springs to mind – but that is affecting all the other goals,” I say to Jim. ReConnect is working towards Goal 1: No Poverty, Goal 2: Zero Hunger, Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being, Goal 4: Quality Education, Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities, Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals all at once.

With up to 24 young male Bed-Stuy residents between the ages of 17 and 24 employed at any one time, ReConnect is making a tangible difference in the community. “This model could definitely be replicated in Australia; it’s very simple, and if you’ve got the right people to support you, it will be a success.”

Conscious of an interview he has scheduled with another young man, not in work and not in school looking for a chance to give himself an opportunity to succeed, I thank Jim for his time. We vow to keep in touch and I vow to return to the café – especially for those magically addictive chocolate chip cookies.

This article was originally published on the Global Goals Australia Campaign website.


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