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Leadership Talks Archive

September 29, 2006

"The Brotherhood/Sister Sol"

Welcome to Leadership Talks with Khary Lazarre-White and Cidra Sebastien, Co-Directors of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol.. Questions and answers will appear below starting at 1pm EST on Friday, September 29, 2006. You may need to hit refresh periodically during the interview to see the latest responses. Read background

Can you tell me more about BHSS programs?

Cidra Sebastien
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol provides comprehensive services to Black
and Latino youth, 200 young people, who range in age from six to twenty-one. From our brownstone in West Harlem our full time staff of fifteen provides the support, guidance and resources that all youth need. We
are seeking to help young people not only survive the oppressive
conditions faced in our communities, but to excel, for we believe we
must raise the bar. We can no longer allow our children, to quote
James Baldwin, to make peace with mediocrity. We have set the bar
high and believe in support and guidance, but also discipline and high
expectations. We offer a four to six year intensive rites of passage
program where members define what it means to be men/women,
brothers/sisters, and leaders in their community. These definitions
serve as the governing tenets of our organization, the guidelines that
our youth seek to live up to as they pursue more conscious lives. Our
work is inspired by our Ten Point Curriculum: one that is based on
such issues as Pan African & Latino History, Leadership Development,
Sexism & Misogyny, Drugs & Substance Abuse and Educational
Achievement. We provide thorough five day a week after school care,
school and home counseling, summer camps, job training, college
preparation, employment opportunities, activist training, a community garden stewards program, and free legal representation. We continually seek to expose our young people to new opportunities through
wilderness retreats, cultural performances, college tours, and month long intensive study programs to Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, Mexico, Morocco, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Brazil.

Portland, Oregon
Portland Schools were recently evaluated for rations of high school students who graduate. The study found that one out of three black students graduate.

As a volunteer mentor(who dropped of high school,but recently graduated from college) to these students what is the most valuable help i can give to encourage their faith and ability in themselves to achieve large and small goals?

Thank you for your time.
Anna Jean

Cidra Sebastien

Foremost, it’s important to provide continual support so that she is able to build a relationship with them so that you can really build to be an advocate for them.

Secondly, you will have to build a plan with the young person and work backwards and from where they hope to be and help to create a plan for them to provide direction. Mentoring is more than words…it’s about providing direction.

Washington, DC
What have been the strengths and the drawbacks of working in a shared leadership team?

Khary Lazarre-White

Great strength is differing opinion and skillsets and having a group pf people who try to think outside the box for create solutions---Also, work can be very draining and very tough and intense. To share ups and downs with other people, to draw strength and support for other people is essential as well. An organization that has leadership that reflects its membership and staff has different genders and generations represented in the leadership team –that makes it much stronger,.

One of the negatives is that it takes longer to respond to requests and needs because you have to build consensus and people have to discuss their requests and needs.

San Diego
Please provide a brief personal history and how you came to social justice work.

Cidra Sebastien
There are three things that brought me into social justice work. My parents, reading and travel.
My mother is a social worker and my father is a musician and teacher. From all the stories I've heard them shared with each other and the lessons they've imparted on my sister, brother and I, they influence my interest in helping to save what I cared about in this world and change what I thought needed to get better. "Social justice" didn't come into my vocabulary or thinking until I ventured to my mother's side of the bookshelf one day and picked up the autobiography of Assata Shakur. At the point, I started to listen and observe what was going on around me - in my school, on my block, on the news - more critically.
My mother encouraged me to finish reading the book and both my parents let me know they'd keep getting more books if I wanted.

When I was about ten, there was a lot going on about South Africa on the news. I didn't quite fully understand what was going on but I recognized the unrest and call for protest and liberation which I connected to my reading of Assata so I knew it was something big. My parents explained that we were going to stop using certain products at home to join in this protest against what was happening in South Africa. In school, our chorus was learning the South African anthem in Zulu. All these events and newspaper articles crystallized for me when on the morning of my eleventh birthday. I woke up to join in a global celebration - Nelson Mandela was being released from prison. I was impressed by him - he came out cool and graceful, not as I imagined someone would come out of jail after 27 years because they were standing against something as wrong as apartheid. I continued to pay attention to him and what was going on in that country.

My mother has always been a resourceful scout for my siblings and I, always finding activities that matched our interest. When I was about fourteen, she enrolled me a in summer program for young people who wanted to learn about the media and social justice. From that experience, I came into a network of 20s and 30s year olds who were artists, educators, organizers, and activists who influenced me a great deal. I became on of the first members of a freedom school for young women of color in Brooklyn (Sista II Sista) and then an international study program which led to my first travel experience to a country in Africa, South Africa. Having the opportunity to travel to the home of Nelson Mandela and learning more about his life and others involved in the anti-apartheid movement, made me realize I want to be about of a movement that with bring about positive change in the lives of others.

Wilahoochie, AL
What are your plans for the future of the organization?

Cidra Sebastien

One of the big things working on now is physical expansion of org. Own brownstone in Harlem, and next to 3 lot community garden and lot next door is parking lot. Want to use parking lot to use space to server young people way BHSS wants, and provide more space for staff. Also would care for community garden and commit to local environment. Would have 5 lot space in which we were doing work with young people on environmental issues and building leadership with our youth.

The second piece is our Liberating Voices and Liberating Minds Institute. It’s a training experience for educators and youth workers in meeting the needs and addressing issues of Black and Latino students. Over the summer BHSS worked with a high school in Bronx and will be working with groups in Chicago, Berkeley, and Boston. For more information see our website at www.brotherhood-sistersol.org.

I just visited your website and was intrigued by your use of poetry andwriting workshops. Can you talk a little about how you present poetry to the young people with whom you work? Who are some of the poets you use as inspiration/models?

Khary Lazarre-White
The core of our poetry work comes from a group called Lyrical Circle. Lyrical Circle started from a 13 and a 17-yr old member who approached us and said they needed a space for poetry. Our poetry workshops go hand-in-hand with the general youth development as the major art form focused on since our inception which is creative writing. We use this as a tool to help young people develop their voice and weigh in on personal and world issues. We often say that young people are the most often discussed and least heard from constituency. So in that vacuum, we push our young people to speak out on a wide range of issues to develop their voice. Lyrical Circle represents the highest representation of that in the organization. They write about issues of poverty, violence, and drugs…they write about the war in Sudan and Iraq.

They write about racial and sexual identity, they write about their dreams for the world in very hopeful poems. This program runs from 2 things: mentorship and youth development as with all other programs. That is combined with the poetry development that is central to Lyrical Circle. They focus on hip-hop artists…the new generation of spoken word artists like those who created Def poetry. And then they focus on those who came from the artist movements of the 60s like Marri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Miguel Algarín, Sekou Sundiata, and they are also inspired by spoken word artists of today like Sarah Jones and Will Power. But at the end of the day, Lyrical Circle are the baddest poets in the land.

I truly believe in the collaborative changes of staff like you have done. Have you thought of supporting agencies in other states to use this same model.
I am in Savannah, Ga. and would love to utilize this framework for our community and youth to truly transform like you have effectively.

Aleta Toure

Cidra Sebastien
We don’t expect to franchise our model—we’re not looking to create McDonald’s like expansion of our programs. We want to reach others where they are based on what their communities need. We don’t think there will be other BHSS branches in other cities; rather, we would like to see other communities using our communities applying our model and curriculum. The Liberating Voices Liberating Minds Institute is our way to reach this goal. We will be traveling to 5-7 cities this year to facilitate these trainings.

How much would you each describe your leadership styles and have they changed over the years depending on your work?

Cidra Sebastien
I understand there is a time to lead and a time to follow and a good leader whose concerned about creating a space for other leaders to grow knows when it's time for them to step up or step back. This was a lesson I learned as I took on more leadership responsibilities and from the people I began to collaborate with. I like to make sure everyone is on the same page, has what the need to do their thing and knows they have my support.

Columbus, OH
What would you like the general public to know about your organization’s work?

Cidra Sebastien
We don’t do it by ourselves---we work with a whole staff of leaders who are excellent in their field. We also work with youth, and these youth are leaders in their schools and their communities as well as in our organization. By recognizing the 3 of us, our entire community is recognized by how we lead and how we support one another.

What would you say is the biggest challenge of using the "Directors Challenge" as a leadership style of your organization. How have you dealt with this challenge?

Khary Lazarre-White
As we mentioned before, one of the biggest challenges of our Director's Circle is meeting the requests and needs in a timely manner due to building consensus in our decision-making.

To address this challenge, we conduct meetings every 2 weeks to raise concerns and issues that come up within our programs and our organization.

Also, we will, at times, delegate our decision-making authority to one member of the Director's Circle which addresses some needs and requests in a more timely manner.

Augusta, Maine
How do we keep staff and ourselves from burning out?

Khary Lazarre-White
We work hard here at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. We provide comprehensive service to our members and 24/7 access. We deal with our young people's family, personal, school and developmental issues. We are seeking to counter the effects of poverty, miseducation, racism and sexism, and low expectations. When a youth joins our organization they join our family. This kind of work takes a great deal out of people. We recognize this and so we provide ample vacation time and mandatory personal days. We are cognizant of people personal lives - allowing people to work differing schedules and days so that they can have more time with children or pursue other endeavors, including further education. We try to have celebrations throughout the year, staff dinners and outings of different kinds. We also believe in working in partnerships as well - we have co-facilitators for all programs so that we can share the emotional and spiritual load. To give every day, to serve as a mentor, teacher, older sibling, life coach, disciplinarian, at parent at times is very difficult and at times trying work - and yet it is the most liberating and fulfilling thing a person can do. To be of service for our people - to seek transforming change and equality every day is energizing work. We build a sense of family here at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol - not mere words but a true sense of family. We believe that this sense of comraderie, of shared work, or familial support, is key to sustaining people. People want to work at BHSS because they feel transformed by the work - excited and personally moved. Finally, we hire all people for one position but also allow them to pursue and develop new programs at BHSS, work that they may have wanted to do at another organization but didn't have the freedom to pursue - this freedom and ability to grow ensures that our staff stay with BHSS over many years.



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