Harry Grammer is one of the first 20 Obama Foundation Fellows and the Founder and President of New Earth, an organization committed to reducing youth incarceration in California. New Earth provides mentor-based arts, educational, and vocational programs that empower youth to transform their lives and realize their full potential as contributing members of our community. Harry shares with us his own experience with incarceration as a youth, how he found his way to this work, and the bold, new approach that he and New Earth are taking to keep kids out of the prison system.
- New Earth
- F.L.O.W. (Fluent Love of Words)
- Annenberg Foundation
- Status Offenses
- Congressman Cardenas
- Urban Peace Institute
- YJC (Youth Justice Coalition)
- LA Youth UpRising
- Anti-Recidivism Coalition
- Greta Thunberg
- Geoffrey Canada
- Harlem Children’s Zone
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
- Saul Williams
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John Bwarie: Harry, thanks so much for sitting down and talking with us about community.
Harry Grammer: Thank you, John.
John Bwarie: Tell us just a bit about the work you’re doing professionally right now.
Harry Grammer: Okay, sure. So, as many know, and as many don’t know, Los Angeles has had an issue and a problem with incarcerating a lot of kids here over the last 30 years.
John Bwarie: And you say a lot, how many are we talking about.
Harry Grammer: I’m talking about… well, at the height of it, we were seeing 30,000 in one year.
John Bwarie: Wow.
Harry Grammer: That was about five or six years ago. We were seeing a heavy amount of young people going through and being processed and some would go home, but some would stay, and when you stay in L.A. and you’re sort of sentenced, or adjudicated, you’re sent to probation camps. And these camps kind of sprinkle out on the borders of Los Angeles, Malibu, Lancaster, San Dimas, we have them out, there’s camps out in Pomona. And these young people live out their sentences, it would be anywhere from six months to a year, sometimes even more depending on what they’re charged with, so-
John Bwarie: And the age range of these-
Harry Grammer: Age range… age range is 13, 18 year olds who are picked up for various reasons and a lot of times they’re picked up for what’s called status offenses and I can talk a little bit about more about that a little later, but we saw the need to begin to just engage with the young people in some way that were incarcerated because there were so many and it felt as if the support that was needed was not arriving and we were also looking at 86% recidivism rate. So that means a young person would go in, come out within two to six months they’d back in again, so there was obviously a problem. So, in order to engage with young people to find out what’s going on, tell me your story and we began a program called FLOW, which stands for the Fluent Love of Words and flow is a writing program in a expressive, creative writing program that help young people to tell their stories through poem and through spoken word.
Harry Grammer: And we had been doing FLOW in foster care group homes for a little while and we saw the need to stretch it over into incarceration and we did, and so that… we began in 2004, this was 16 years ago, we began our program with just helping young people to tell their story, helping them to sort of locate in their own lives where are they? Where am I? What is… what’s going on? And it turned into poems they didn’t share it and then from sharing those poems and those writings with each other, they begin to connect and they begin to make sense of their lives. And that grew because few years later I realized that great programs in jail like the FLOW program is and was, did not stop young people from coming back, didn’t stop young people from still dying in their communities, so we knew we needed to do more.
John Bwarie: If FLOW was not solving what you saw as being the problem, what was it doing as a foundation?
Harry Grammer: So at the foundation it was giving young people an opportunity to have an outlet and have a way to experience and to learn more about themselves through a writing process. So, it was not there to stop someone from coming back, it was there to help that young person in their journey of their lives make more sense of what’s going on, help them to make better choices when they got out because they were telling their stories, but it didn’t necessarily stop kids from coming back into jail.
John Bwarie: And where did it come from? Why did you start FLOW? Why was that where you started?
Harry Grammer: So, when I was young, you know, I’ve used writing and creative writing just to break out of my own little world that I was in. I grew up, I wasn’t… I spent five years on juvenile probation myself. I was involved with gangs when I was young, I was a teenage father and I didn’t quite have the mentorship around to help guide me to my next chapters in life, to take me through that rites of passage. So I would go within and I would begin to write and begin to try to make sense of it myself and I fell in love with spoken word.
Harry Grammer: I had a friend of mine take me to a cafe and in that… at that cafe I heard this poet and I can’t remember the name of the poet, today I just remember he had this really humongous Afro and he was just dope man, and he began to just flow with like it sounded like rap, but it wasn’t rap, there was no beat and it was just this way he was talking about his life and I began to do that. I began to write in that way and found power in it for me and it helped me through some hard times, I thought possibly this sort of modality I found for myself would be useful for the young people who were going through what it looked to be the exact same thing I was going through as a 17 and 18 year old.
John Bwarie: And so you did that and you found that it did affect them, but it wasn’t doing… you felt there was more you could be doing.
Harry Grammer: Yes.
John Bwarie: So, what was your next step?
Harry Grammer: So, my next step was to… and I’ll say that my next step came from not knowing what to do, just do something.
John Bwarie: Got it.
Harry Grammer: I think a lot of nonprofit, community based nonprofits people start with passion, they’ve got a dollar and a dream and they just don’t know what to do, we didn’t come from formal nonprofit management school, we just know we want to do something. So my next natural step was to, if young people are leaving these facilities and then they’re kind of getting lost when they get back home, my natural step was to meet them at the front door when they were released and then from that point I would take them to whatever was needed, so I know what they needed beforehand and I know that hey, I need to get you registered into a new school, I need to get you to the DMV to get your ID, right? Because you don’t even have ID. I know that your mother’s at home right now and she’s got three other mouths to feed and she probably doesn’t have enough for groceries for a new fourth mouth to be coming home, so let’s go to the grocery store and let’s load up and take some groceries home for your mom when you get home at least something to start with.
John Bwarie: So it’s kind of like case management without a formal program.
Harry Grammer: Right.
John Bwarie: Because there is… to clarify, there is no case management for these guys when they leave?
Harry Grammer: Not necessarily, not necessarily. I mean there’s probation department considers the work that they do case management and I think in a sense it is case management, I think there’s more that’s needed, I think there’s this care management also that needs to be included while you’re doing case management, that’s really close and when a probation officer has a caseload of 60 kids, you know what I mean? It’s really tough. So, I would take this on saying you know what? I would fill those gaps. I would make sure that they check in with their probation officer in time. I would make sure they’re making their probation officer appointments because a lot of young people were going back into the system because they weren’t going to their appointments.
Harry Grammer: So I would do whatever it takes. There was a time when I… this young man named Michael I was working with, he couldn’t really go back home because his parents, one, didn’t really want him there because he was really deeply gang entrenched and they thought that having him home was not safe for the family, and then also because he just didn’t get along with his parents, he didn’t get along with dad, his dad was an alcoholic. So, I had taken him home and I had… his mom had invited me on his first night home to sit and have dinner with him so then I can help sort of create a bond, or create some sort of safe landing back into the house with Michael.
Harry Grammer: And we had dinner they let… they placed me at the head of the table and they said Harry, help us, help us work this out right now. And the dad was drinking and there was something that happened at the table, I can’t remember exactly what happened, but there was a moment where Michael and his dad began to sort of get aggressive with each other from across the table. And then next thing I knew I saw his dad who was about five foot two reach across the table, come off of his feet and try to swing to hit Michael. And I’m sitting right at the head of the table and I’m watching what’s going on I said, oh my God, this is intense, so I grabbed dad, I sat dad down. Michael is now up ready to box with his father and mom is crying, the baby sister is in her high chair crying and there’s this chaoticness going on, I grabbed dad, I take dad back to the room, I sit him down, calm him down for a moment and I go back out and I do the same with Michael.
Harry Grammer: And Michael, I didn’t feel they’d be okay in the house and so I took Michael away. And I told Michael, I said Michael, you know the problem… the problem was that this violence that’s happening in this house it’s just a little too much. I said you fight with your mother, you fight with your father this has to stop and the story goes on a little further and to the point where eventually Michael got a little aggressive with his parents one night, I got a call from his mother told me what happened and she said this is continuing and continuing, Michael’s the aggressor really, the dad’s just trying to defend, and I told Michael, I said look, if I hear about this again, I think you and I this relationship may not be working and I think I might have to pull back.
Harry Grammer: Well, it happened again and I pulled back, and I got a call three months later from his mom and said, Michael just enrolled in junior college here. So she said, I think something’s happening here, she’s like I’ll keep you updated. And then about a year later she calls me and invites me back over for dinner and I… actually, two years later, I drive to Long Beach where they lived and I got there and I see a new car in the driveway. I knock on the door, Michael comes to the door. Michael shaved his head, he was from the neighborhood there and just how they wear their hair. Michael came, he had a full head of hair and a huge smile and then the dad walks up and dad’s got a big smile. And I said what happened? He said this happened, and he showed me that Michael had gotten his high school diploma from the community college and then Michael also had finished his AA at that community college.
Harry Grammer: Then he showed me pictures of Michael in Japan. So Michael had gotten an exchange program and he went for a 90 day exchange program to Japan, so he exchanged and he was in Japan. Michael looked like a different person. Michael looked completely cultured and like he had traveled the world, he did not look like the same person that I had last seen about two years prior. And Michael went to the… Michael went to his room to go grab his guitar because now he plays the guitar and when I go to the room I see his father mouth, you did that, you did that. I was like no, you did that, you guys did that, but there was something in there where it’s just the mentorship has to be… I think the mentorship has to be a listening mentorship for young people… with young people. You got to know when to step up, you got to know when to pull away, you got to know if it’s safe to pull away. It’s not always safe to leave a situation like that, but you have to know when and you’ve got to be able to step in and do what you need to do.
John Bwarie: How did you come up with that approach? How did you know? And a lot of it’s a little bit of intuitive I get when they pull back or keep going, but what was… what brought you to that point where you had the experience and the training to do that at that point and did you? I mean that’s-
Harry Grammer: No, I think the intuitive part was most of it. I think that was the beginning of the journey of sort of what we do at New Earth now. I think there’s… I think we lead with what I call accompaniment, to walk alongside someone while they’re actually working out what it is to be an adult because we work with mostly emerging adults 16 or 17, 18 and these are young people who are starting, they have a lot of questions, they’re dealing with turmoil in their communities, they’re dealing with turmoil in their homes, they don’t really have that strong foundation of education in what do I do next? How do I become an adult because they’ve been incarcerated, or they’ve been going through the foster system since they were young, so there’s this sense of you can’t force because as soon as you begin to force, there begins to be this push back because no one wants to be forced and it’s a sensitive journey.
Harry Grammer: They’ve experienced trauma, they’ve experienced people trying to force them through a process before whether it be a teacher, or a police officer, or a probation officer, or a foster parent who’s impatient and so patience is actually at the foundation of the work that we do. And I knew that we had… I knew that for Michael this wasn’t going to be a thing that happened right away. I knew that I did… I think I did all I could on my end and it had to sink in all the time that he spent at the juvenile probation camp, even the time afterwards with his parents, I had to trust that I left some nuggets with him enough to where some things will start to sink in and then our relationship and our bond was that strong that he see that, hey, if Harry stepped back, I really need to start to reflect because Harry was right there with me and luckily he did, so to speak.
John Bwarie: So you’ve been at this work for more than 15 years.
Harry Grammer: Yeah.
John Bwarie: How do you think about building a community of the individuals you’re serving? These are volatile times, even if life is perfect, being 16, 17 is tough. Even if you don’t have the challenges and the trauma that maybe some of these individuals that you’re working with directly have experienced, how do you build? How do you look at community around that population? If they’re coming from a community where they’re belonging, whether it’s a gang or a group of peers that may not have the right path and you’re trying to bring them to a different community, maybe it’s a family community, maybe it’s the new earth community. How do you leverage that? How do you approach that?
Harry Grammer: I think first I’ll just say that most of the kids we encounter first are incarcerated, so they’re in a seated location where we get to ask a lot of questions and we get to just kind of build rapport and discover what some of their desires are.
John Bwarie: Do you lump them… I’ll just jump in. Do you lump them if they’re in that probation camp or that detention facility, they’re part of that group or do they really still retain individual approaches to the issues they’re dealing with? Do they get this… I don’t want to say assimilated, but do they become part of that incarcerated culture at that age in that situation?
Harry Grammer: Yeah, quickly. And that’s the sad thing about it is that they have to adjust. There’s just… it’s survival of the fittest in many different ways. It’s not always with violence, but just being… at that age, going through adolescence to just be the outcasts is painful enough. So if it’s not you have to be part of this group because if not you’re going to get hurt, it’s going to be you got to be part of this group because if not, you’re just going to be an outcast here and you’ve got to be… you’re going to be here for six months and just it’s going to be painful for you. We’ll tease you, we’ll do all the things that sometimes young men do is they bully, right? So, they have to assimilate really quickly. So, what we try and do is we try to take that assimilation and build community that’s separate from that culture and we spend a lot of time during the day, during the school hours of the probation camp, we have programs that run and then we also have programs that run after hours, so after school until the time they take showers and go to bed.
John Bwarie: And describe their ability to choose, I mean, maybe a lot of people haven’t been exposed to detention facilities or probation camps for youth. What’s their level of oh, I want to go to the new earth program or I don’t, or do they watch TV? What is it that they’re doing? Is it very structured? Is it rigid?
Harry Grammer: Depends on which… depends on which facility you go to. Some facilities have more programs than others, some have none at all.
John Bwarie: Wow.
Harry Grammer: And so when we go to a facility and there’s just no programming happening and you bring music or writing, an expression program inside it’s like bringing water to the desert.
John Bwarie: Wow.
Harry Grammer: Many times and it still happens, many times in the past we’d have classes and we’d have half the facility in the class and they would shut the classes down because there’s just too many kids, it’s too… it looks too unruly from the outside to the guards, to the probation, staff that’s there that says you know what? We don’t… we never have 20 to 25 kids anywhere at one time in here, now with one instructor we don’t know what’s going to happen. So, we’ve had those issues in the past, but we try to create this separate community of trust, of relationship, a lot of these kids come from near the same neighborhoods, they’re not separate so many of them are within five miles of where they live. The primary location where young people are being picked up from is South Central Los Angeles.
Harry Grammer: So, they’re in South Central and no matter if they’re black or they’re brown they’re coming out of South Central Los Angeles and some from the East Los Angeles as well. So you’ve got these kids who think that they’re different, they think that they’re separate, they think that they’re from different gangs, but actually when you get them talking they realize wow, I went through that. Oh yeah, my mom’s a single mom. Oh yeah, my homies… my homie got shot this week, that week, this… so they start to find out that they are all the same.
John Bwarie: So how much… and that’s so true about any group when you bring people together and they start talking, you start to find those commonalities. How much of it is focused on the individual versus the group as a group share, the ability of being vulnerable in front of peers or others?
Harry Grammer: I think in our FLOW program it’s an opportunity to write because there’s also a performance element of it, right?
John Bwarie: Right.
Harry Grammer: So you are writing to perform your piece, but we’re doing group think, we’re writing and we’re having conversations, we’re building, we’re talking about a topic or a theme together, we’re having discussions before we even go into our individual piece. So it’s in those discussions that we find these commonalities and then it’s in the expression of it that it becomes something personal for you. It becomes your way of speaking your story out to an audience in the room at that moment of 20 other individuals and you’re able to give that away and it’s in the giving away of your stories, it’s in releasing that story and someone else receiving it is where there’s healing.
Harry Grammer: The healing happens in that process of being able to speak and be heard, so that builds this relationship and it builds bonds and I get stories all the time from young people that I work with, the young men that I work with who after they’re released they’ll run into a person who was the enemy before they went in and they’ll see each other in the street and their problem is no longer existed. They see each other and they remember each other, they talk about FLOW, they talk about the experiences that they had and their stories and it breaks that up, I don’t think… I think when someone’s an enemy with someone else’s because they don’t see him as an equal, they don’t see him as someone who’s experienced the same things that you have experienced and I think breaking that up is going to be probably one of the solutions of getting down to a nonviolent Los Angeles.
John Bwarie: And so what’s next? We talked about the ability for you to get in and give expression, but that’s not stopping them from coming back, it’s not cutting the cycle of recidivism. What are you guys working on, or what have you been working on that’s taken that to the next level?
Harry Grammer: So, what we’ve been working on is… since the birth, there’s always been a vision since the beginning and it’s we have four pillars that we operate on. Those four pillars are education, expression, environment and jobs, right? So, these four things are things that we are focused on within our program and so with that we want to continue to build up opportunities for young people when with work. We’ve learned that education, meaning just finishing your high school diploma, thinking about moving on into higher education because that’s important that we continue to learn, not necessarily go to school to what Paulo Freire calls banking education where we’re being banked education from this education system and things are being banked inside so then we can spit them out later, but more of a conscious… consciousness that’s being developed just from the process of learning and just being critical thinkers.
Harry Grammer: So education is a big part of it. Employment, young people that we work with have never had jobs before. 16, 17, 18, 19 years old never held a real job and their community and their families sometimes think this kid’s not going to go anywhere in life. So when you show up at home with a paycheck for the first time, how do you think your parents are going to see you then, right? And you’re getting the job training, you maybe have a work shirt or you’re showing that look, I am moving into this world as an adult and I’m learning what it is to be responsible. It’s huge for restoring the dignity for young people, so we find that extraordinarily important. Artistic expression, artistic expression does not necessarily mean fine arts.
Harry Grammer: Artistic expression is the expression of you through some sort of medium that produces something beautiful in front of you. So for example, I think even though it’s athletic, I think surfing can be done in a very artistic and beautiful way. We have writers and poets, we have musicians, we got kids that come through our program, we have a beat… we have a beat making program now too and we also have a DJ program. So we’re teaching kids how to DJ, we’re teaching kids how to make beats and produce and the effect of making something shows that hey, I have something tangible here to offer the world, that’s important. Even… we also have, I mentioned in environment, right? We have garden programs. Even growing a strawberry sometimes is profoundly… makes a profound effect on young people because they say you know what, I put that seed in the ground, it produced something, now I’m eating it.
Harry Grammer: I created something, that’s a very beautiful expression as well. So, I think we’re going to continue to build up this part of the organization, we’re going to continue to build up opportunities for young people in the communities. We’re partnering up with other organizations and companies that have needs as well and we’re in… for example, we have a program called explorer.org and explore.org is a website. It takes you into the lives and habitats of endangered species and rescue animals all over the world, it’s an online platform. You go in, there’s… I think I believe we get about a million viewers per month in that site. We’ve been running that site for seven, eight years now through the Annenberg Foundation and they… it’s their site, they hired new earth to give jobs to the young people, train them in digital media, in live camera operation, they follow action and it’s a really cool program that we do.
John Bwarie: So you’re actually following animals with cameras, go cameras.
Harry Grammer: Yeah. So if you ever seen the Panda cams on Good Morning America, it’s coming out of new earth. Those are young people running those cameras-
John Bwarie: That’s amazing.
Harry Grammer: That were once incarcerated in one of the LA camps and so, this is something we’ve been doing for years now and explore that org is the biggest platform where these types of cameras are being run. But that is an example of a nonprofit organization, a community based organization thinking outside the box on how they’re going to train young people in work. Provide a living wage job to young people who are… who possibly wouldn’t have earned a living wage job anytime soon because of the records that they have and the backgrounds that they have, and so giving them that opportunity. And then also on top of that, it becomes a funding mechanism for our organization because the social enterprise, so the funding that’s generated by our client, the client pays, generated, we are able to use some of that margin to put it back into the organization for building out other programs. And that’s something that we’ve done… that’s something that we’ve done good for several years now and we want to continue to do that. It helps the organization, it helps the young people, everyone wins in that situation.
John Bwarie: You’ve identified some great solutions, but what seems like an insurmountable problem. You said a couple of years ago, five years ago, 30,000 young people were circling through the probation youth incarceration system here in Los Angeles County alone. Let’s say that’s improved, let’s say cut in a half, I don’t think that’s probably the case, but let’s say it got cut in half, it’s still 15,000 young people this year. How do you meet that challenge?
Harry Grammer: So, I think that’s where we go a little deeper and what I found is… works is when we stop looking at these systems for face right and we start looking deeper into them. What you’ll find in that problem is that 70% of those young people that are being cycled through the system are there for what’s called status offenses, I said I was going to come back to status offenses. And so status offenses are violations of probation that… and kids are arrested for things that adults wouldn’t be normally arrested for. So these are young people who are on probation, who have conditions of probation that they must adhere to, a lot of times what’s on that… those 10 conditions are things like got to be home before curfew.
John Bwarie: Are they standard, or everyone’s different.
Harry Grammer: Everyone’s pretty different, but there’s some standard ones… the judge will add a few extra ones if needed for your particular… for whatever your particular case is, but a lot of times it’s very standard. Standard ones are curfew, go to school, check in with your probation officer, you got to test clean on your drug test. And a lot of times kids don’t meet those four main terms and they’re back in again. Now, when I say they’re back in for dirty drug tests, no one’s asking why? No one is asking if this young person is an addict or if he’s been treated properly and needs more substance use treatment. That’s not being asked what’s being… what it is that-
John Bwarie: It’s binary.
Harry Grammer: Right. Exactly.
John Bwarie: Did you, didn’t you.
Harry Grammer: Did you, didn’t you. No one’s asking if that kid violated his probation because he didn’t go to school because maybe he’s being bullied, or maybe because there’s some problems that are happening inside of the classroom, there’s some rival gang members and he’s just afraid to go to school, no one’s asking that. No one’s asking if he’s out past curfew because he can’t go home because his father came home with a bottle of vodka last night and not only did he drink it and get really drunk, he really hit him with the bottle, you know what I mean? Like there’s no one’s asking these questions and so, we get a lot of kids up and down the state that are incarcerated for things that are avoidable if they had more care and more support after they get out.
John Bwarie: That care management you mentioned.
Harry Grammer: That care management. If that piece was present, we would not have the issues that we have today as far as mass incarceration of young people in the system. And I’ll tell you even one other thing, that 70% status offenses in violation of probation, that’s nationwide. That’s not just here in California, it’s not just here. If we learn and if we can affect policies so much that we take status offenses out of the equation, you will see at least half if not more of the numbers that are going in get cut and we’d have that money that we’re spending because in LA County, it’s 400… about $400,000 a year for a kid that’s locked up here and just imagine us taxpayers are paying that money for someone who was out after curfew, or someone who violated a probation because they didn’t check in with their probation officer, right? We’re paying that, those are avoidable… so look at how much money we free up to really use it towards those who have high needs because there’s still are those who have high needs. They’re the young people who do… who are not safe to have in our communities that need the treatment that they need and we can use those funds towards supporting those young people.
John Bwarie: So what’s the status of trying to make that change to the status offense laws, I guess you’re saying?
Harry Grammer: Yeah. So, on a national level, a few years ago, Congressman Cardenas introduced a bill-
John Bwarie: He is here from the San Fernando Valley.
Harry Grammer: He is from San Fernando Valley. He’s from Panorama city and now he’s a US Congressman. He introduced a bill to eradicate status offenses nationwide. That bill was introduced in 2016 right around the same time we also have our Republican… so, and-
John Bwarie: You trailed off there. 2016 a lot of election changes, the president, we [crosstalk 00:32:09] house-
Harry Grammer: A new mind state. So we’ve a new mind state, so we’ve got to wait that one out a little bit on national level. I think here in California we need to just hit that, we need to go at that a little strong. We need to have people look at that issue a little bit stronger and I think backing up with research and getting folks to the table that can have the conversation around what is it going to take and how if anything, because there’s always a fear that dollars would get shifted that there’s everything, job loss for folks who are in those departments, how do we move things around so then that if there is movement of those dollars from one department to somewhere else, that those dollars be used to support these kids back in the communities?
Harry Grammer: I think what’s going to make the most difference is if we begin to really focus on community based interventions and those that are closest to these young people, those that are in the community that have the knowhow on how to help young people just have the opportunities and the support needed to not miss school, you know, it’s going to be.
John Bwarie: So your nuance is there… this is you could be doing this 25 hours a day and still slow slog to make progress. What are the ways that you find that you can bring people together to accelerate the path forward? What have you done? What experience have you had or what are you working on that brings other partners to the table because you’re a powerful operation no doubt, but we all know that stronger in numbers, strength in numbers, so other organizations, other policymakers, what’s your approach to bringing people together to move some of these huge boulders that are in the way of the success?
Harry Grammer: I think there’s a lot of people thinking about that. There’s organizations, right now there’s a probation oversight committee that has been passed. So last year, the board of supervisors for the first time ever voted that we have an oversight… probation oversight committee that are community members, that now have subpoena power and can walk into facilities and see what’s going on unannounced and there’s the opportunity now to see things in a new light and be able to look at things as they are and then bring that to the table. So the probation oversight committee is really powerful and that’s been designed with what’s been called the probation… it’s called PRIT. Might not want to take this, I’m trying to get the… it’s the Probation Reform Implementation Team, is that Probation Reform Implementation Team, I believe.
Harry Grammer: Anyways, that started the beginning of the POC, which is the Probation Oversight Committee. This group got together, created this, introduced that to the board, the board voted yes, so we have a probation reform happening. There’s also the discussion around moving the probation… moving young people that… the entire incarceration process and product of LA County from the probation department into the department of health services too here in LA County as well. So here in LA there’s been various organizations that have already been working on the ground really, really strong for many years who have been along our side and we’ve been along their side to affect change getting together now under a coalition umbrella called the LA Youth Uprising.
Harry Grammer: There’s organizations in there like YJC Youth Justice Coalition, ARC Anti-Recidivism Coalition, New Earth we’re a part of it as well and then street poets and there’s all these… there’s organizations that have been at the table for a long time, Urban Peace Institute and now having discussions on how we can better together affect policy and change and they… this organization, this coalition has also been largely behind trying to move the probation reform and making sure that things happen to where our young people just don’t end up in that pipeline as they have been for all these years.
John Bwarie: So you’re finding a community here. I also know that you’re part of other communities, you have been recognized as in parts of these cohorts and you’ve spent some time, you were in 2017 recognized as a CNN hero. Is that correct?
Harry Grammer: That’s correct.
John Bwarie: And then in 2018 you became one of the first 20 Obama fellows out of the Obama foundation, but both of those programs put you in a cohort with other people and you interact with other people nationally or internationally that are working to make change. What’s that experience bringing? So you both have the opportunity to connect other people to the challenge of being appear to people who are tackling issues in other spaces or perhaps similar spaces without making yours look like the only issue and theirs look diminished compared to the important work you’re doing. How do you do that? What’s the opportunity in that space and what are the challenges of being held up in a group like that?
Harry Grammer: I’ll tell you one thing. I’m always humbled when I walk into a space with all these folks and just listening and knowing the work that they’re doing in the world, which is just beyond profound. And it also supports me in seeing things from other perspectives for example, being an Obama fellow, there’s only 10 fellows here that from the inaugural group that are from the United States. The other 10 are from abroad. So, listening to the similarities and the differences with issues mostly concerning youth right? From the Philippines and education challenges that they have in the Philippines or the government corruption issues that they have in Hungary and in Mali, Africa. I mean, it all just sort of… once again, you see that we live in a very small world. And so when we are exchanging ideas, we all walk away with a new set of eyes and a new understanding and also maybe even a new set of tools to go home with given that something worked in Mali that can possibly work on the streets of South Central Los Angeles as well, and so it’s been profound in that way.
John Bwarie: Could you sought that out and I don’t mean the recognition because it also is the recognition to be selected, but to find… to put your… I mean, that could be perceived as a distraction, right? That it takes you away from the work you’re doing every day, puts you on a different level and playing with these other folks internationally. Do you put yourself in those uncomfortable or challenging situations? Do you have a family here, you don’t just do this work, right? You’re living your life as Harry Grammer and Harry Grammer, CEO and founder of New Earth and Harry Grammer the poet and Harry Grammer all the other things that you are. The challenge of pushing yourself beyond what you’re already doing. How do you approach that?
Harry Grammer: Yeah, it’s Necessary. Like you just hit me, you hit a sweet spot because that’s necessary. It’s necessary that I push beyond my boundaries because if I don’t, who will? And so I look at it like this, Elon Musk had a quote, they asked him what’s it like to be an entrepreneur? And I think leading a community or leading an organization is sometimes like being an entrepreneur. You’ve got to be thinking different, you’ve got to have big visions, you’ve got to take risks because if not how are you going to move this mission forward? And he said, what’s it like being an entrepreneur? He got asked and he said, well, it’s like chewing glass while staring off into the abyss. And I laughed too the first time I heard him say that because I’m like, God, that’s so right.
Harry Grammer: It’s you have to push past and for a person like me who often the imposter syndrome pops up and says, you’re in this room right now, but you shouldn’t be in this room, you’re not good enough or you’re not big enough or your words won’t matter, these things come up and I think that comes up for almost every leader still today is that we come from a background and we were inferior and we were… there was bunch of stuff going on and now we’re sitting in front of Congress, or now we’re at City Hall and we’re having conversations with the mayor, or we’re sitting in front of the board of supervisors trying to push for a new policy, right? Or something that occur and you don’t… something inside of you wants to stop and just shut down, but there’s this other part of you that isn’t… I think may not even be, it may be something greater than you that sort of leaps out and does it anyway.
Harry Grammer: And I feel that I’ve been in that situation so many times in my life where I had to just… I just showed up with all of my fear hanging out with me right next to me and I just opened my mouth. And what comes next is usually like, what needs to come next and I feel I’m not the one doing it something greater is, and then on the other side I’m like, Oh, who said that? And it’s necessary and I think in order for us to move anything forward that’s important. What’s the young woman’s name? Who’s a 16 years old and she’s pushing the environmental change, the climate change.
John Bwarie: Greta.
Harry Grammer: Greta, right? I mean, I can’t imagine what she has to be dealing with standing up in front of these large groups of people, not having a degree from a reputable university around environmental studies or something and saying what she’s experiencing and what she’s hearing and what she… what’s going on around her and seeing things in a way that many of us don’t see, and then being able to speak and it resonates with people. In order to do that, there has to be something greater coming through us at that moment and it’s got to be incredibly hard and painful sometimes. And to be told no, and to be torn down and for the media to show up and say, oh, you know, scrutinize your words, all of that is tough and so, these are some of the things you got to go through to be real. And then sometimes you may be a leader out of it, sometimes you won’t be, but I think it’s important that we say what we see especially when there’s injustice.
John Bwarie: There’s a lot you’ve done and it was a great success and there’s a lot of recognition, a lot of it was on your shoulders. A lot of people are looking at you and saying, okay, what’s Harry’s next move, what’s he going to do with all this success he’s had? And I say success in a very difficult space. What’s next? What do you look for in the next three to five years for the work of New Earth and your own work?
Harry Grammer: I think one thing that I’ve been really contemplating with and I think our team is also really starting to look at deeper is how do we scale, not outward but inward, right? How do we really begin to set up the systems to do this work even better and more effectively? I know that we’ve built something pretty tremendous over the last years. I think now finding a way to systematize it so that it is duplicatable is where we’re at next. So, I want to start really honing in on how can we do what we do even better and more effectively for the young people that we work with. How can it be duplicated in Chicago, in Seattle, in Miami, how can we recreate it and form it into a model.
John Bwarie: Do you think that, or maybe what part is a better way to ask? Do you think what part of your process cannot be replicated? Meaning do you think the community of Los Angeles youth maybe different than the community of Chicago youth? What makes that community different here versus Chicago, let’s just take LA, Chicago because they’re worlds apart, but we’ve already acknowledged that the world is small. What makes it different? How do you recognize that difference early on?
Harry Grammer: So I think that comes down to listening again, right? That comes back to talking to who you’re with in that space. Yes, the youth here in LA are very different from the young people in Chicago. I grew up in Chicago and I come here and I see a lot of differences in a way that structures of neighborhood and streets and upbringing is very different and Chicago it’s a little bit more conservative in a lot of ways and so, I think what it does is that we talk about systems, we just talk about how do we run an organization? What’s the macro? What’s the micro? And I mentioned it earlier we’re looking at how does working with the young people support the organization? How does the organization support the young people like that, that big model.
Harry Grammer: I think that can be replicated, but inside of the organization, one thing that we just… I think it’s a commonality between all cities with the young people is that we know that they’ve had the experience of poverty and with poverty comes a whole line of traumatic experiences from parenting to substance use and abuse to even your friends dying at an early age. I saw two before… before these 13, I saw two suicides, one I saw in person, one I saw… well one was a friend of mine who didn’t come to school the next day because he hung himself by his bunk bed. So, you start seeing these things happen early in life, so you’re affected, so when we’re going into… when we’re going into the work with these young people, we have to go in with an eye and an ear that this young person has been wounded and there’s wounds there even though they’re not showing it or they are showing it, we have to listen and we have to be patient and they may not want to speak about it and that might be part of the journey.
Harry Grammer: And they may speak about it later and that’d be part of the healing, but it’s a process of listening and being with, accompanying them on their path. It’s like walking through the forest on a trail and you’re standing next to them. You’re not standing in front of them or behind them, you’re riding next to them as they walk this journey and that’s really important. So those are the things… those are the things that I think are duplicable and we hope to really start to understand those things more as well as we begin to further develop and build our system.
John Bwarie: So we’ve had a great conversation. I’m sure we could talk for another two hours about the nuanced information you’ve talked about, but really this idea of accompaniment, the idea about care management and restoring dignity. These are key phrases that you mentioned today and are truly fundamental to understanding the work you do, but not just the work you do, but the people you serve. So I want to thank you Harry for sharing these ideas just at the surface even and that we can dig further in the future. I want to go on though to our lightning round. I’ve got a series of questions for you. I want you to just answer, short answer, whatever first thing, don’t edit, no need to explain.
Harry Grammer: Okay.
John Bwarie: So here we go. Who is a leader who has influenced you in your work?
Harry Grammer: I would say a leader that influenced me in my work is Geoffrey Canada from the Harlem Children’s Zone.
John Bwarie: What book has changed the way you think about the role of community in your work?
Harry Grammer: The role of community is Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
John Bwarie: What is the most common misconception about youth incarceration that you regularly encounter?
Harry Grammer: That young people have done crimes to be in jail and that’s not always the factor, that it’s not always true.
John Bwarie: Whenever you go into a new community or a new group of people, where’s the first place or what’s the first place, or who is the first place you turn to for information about that new place that you’re going to go into you haven’t been a part of before?
Harry Grammer: I’ll try to find a wise elder.
John Bwarie: What poet or poets do you introduce someone if they think poetry isn’t for them.
Harry Grammer: Saul Williams.
John Bwarie: What advice would you give 25 year old you?
Harry Grammer: The advice I would give a 25 year old me would be, it’s a quote from Bob Marley and that is everything’s going to be all right.
John Bwarie: What was the best career decision you ever made?
Harry Grammer: Best career decision I ever made was to choose my wife to be my VP of my organization.
John Bwarie: Nice. And so far, what has been your proudest professional moment?
Harry Grammer: I think it was… I think my proudest professional moment was meeting President Barack Obama and introducing myself and him saying, I know who you are.
John Bwarie: That’s pretty impressive. I’d be proud too. Harry if there was one community, you had to choose one community that you could be a part of or are a part of. What’s that community?
Harry Grammer: I would love to be part of a community that understands the nature and innocence of children, and will do whatever it takes to make sure that innocence isn’t taken away from them.
John Bwarie: Awesome. Thanks Harry. It was great talking with you.
Harry Grammer: Thank you.