The Empowering Effect of The Rockaway Youth Task Force : Far Rockaway to Harvard

What do you do when you to want make a change, but you don’t know where to start?

Why are our streets dirty? Why are police sirens a frequent sound at night? Why does my community have the reputation of ­being a “bad” neighborhood? How do I fix this?

All Rockaway Youth Task Force members find themselves asking these questions, whether they are conscious of it or not. Our environment instilled a desire within us to search for the answers and change the narrative of our community. We were aware of problems that we wanted to address, but we had no idea how to tackle them. We could no longer look the other way while our community cried out for help, but as young men and women of color, there weren’t many places for us to go in order to start tackling Rockaway’s problems. So we turned to RYTF.

As I look back on my journey with RYTF, it becomes more and more clear what my peers and I were looking for: empowerment.

That’s where the orange shirts come in. Empowerment is a big theme within RYTF. Take it from the mission statement: “The mission of the Rockaway Youth Task Force is to empower youth in our local communities through civic engagement and volunteer opportunities.”

Our execution of the mission happens in several steps. First, members of the task force are taught that in order to solve a problem we must first understand it. We cannot destroy a weed by cutting the leaves. We must search for root causes that produce the symptoms we see in our community.

As members, we are taught about oppressive systems such as the school-to-prison pipeline. We learn and are shown evidence of institutionalized stereotypes and their manifestations within our society. We are exposed to the social structures that create and sustain the problems in communities like ours.

Once we have developed this knowledge base, we can take steps to begin fixing the problems that we witnessed in our community. We learn the about the instrumentalities and outlets through which we, as youth, can enact change.

RYTF strongly believes that political policy has the power to change our community. Thus, every member of the Rockaway Youth Task Force is expected to know and develop a rapport with the Rockaway Peninsula’s elected city officials. If eligible, we are expected to vote because voting is immensely powerful in the hands of civically conscious youth. Finally, we are expected to know and understand the government institutions that surround us. We must know about the relevance of a community board and the role that they play in local government. We must be able to identify different city departments and know which ones to appeal to for specific issues.

Furthermore, we learn about those instruments of change that are specific to our communities. Members are introduced to different non-profits and organizations that are active throughout the Rockaways. Members are continuously delving into the civic sphere of our community. We learn about mobilized bodies of community residents that work for the benefit of Rockaway, such as block associations and tenant groups.

With the knowledge of root causes, access to outlets of change, and a passion for our community, we are sent into field to develop our skills and to make an impact. We learn about outreach and public speaking by talking directly to Rockaway residents about community issues. We learn about the keys to successful campaigns by actually designing and executing campaigns such as voter registration drives.

So how does this culminate? Well, let’s look at myself as an example. I can proudly say that as a member of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, I’ve organized voting campaigns to help bolster civic power within the Rockaways. I’ve helped to organize a successful farmers market that makes fresh produce available to an underserved population. I’ve physically participated in the building of a 1 ½ acre community garden in order to revitalize a food desert. I’ve partnered with other organizations to bring awareness to climate change. I’ve helped to allocate over two million dollars of City budget to help the public school system of which I am a product. Through my experience with RYTF, I’ve become a leader in my community. I’ve become a symbol of my community and I am a living testament to the immense potential of Rockaway’s youth.

It’s in the creation of orange shirted leaders, where empowerment by RYTF truly finds its crux.

The knowledge of what I stand for and what I represent, the exposure to the instrumentalities with which to enact change, and my overall sense of empowerment is the most significant thing that I have gained from my time with RYTF. As a current student at Harvard University, I recognize RYTF’s presence in every action I take on my educational journey. Every class, every assignment, every personal connection, every conversation with a professor, takes on a new meaning because I stand with the knowledge that I have enacted change in the past and have the ability to enact change in the future.

This effect becomes increasingly significant in an institution such as Harvard, where my classmates include accomplished scientists, world class athletes, and internationally recognized mathematicians. In such an environment, my work with RYTF helps to keep me grounded in that it serves as an indicator that I have earned my place in such an illustrious class as well as a reminder of why I am here in the first place. I serve in order to better my community and other community’s like mine and my experience with RYTF gave me the tools to do so.

So yeah, RYTF empowered me. It’s as simple as that.