Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Hurricanes, Justice Reform, and Community Peace Building

Author: 420 Times
Created: 12 September, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
6 min read

Once again our nation watches riveted as hurricanes and floods threaten our towns and cities, our coastlines and water supplies.

Emergency management at every level of government learned from the pain of Hurricane Katrina that planning and pre-locating supplies and vehicles saves lives.

Technology improvements allow for better communication among the different agencies and volunteers that respond to disasters.

After twenty months and 70,000 miles traveling America as an independent candidate for President of the United States, I often heard about broken agencies that damaged people’s lives. I often responded with steps an organizational psychologist and strategic planner such as myself might take to fix our broken federal agencies.

From my experiences, I learned to always tell this story about 450 young people on probation before talking wonky strategies for reinventing broken agencies.

The story takes a wide view of young people on probation helping neighborhoods clean up after Super Storm Sandy.

For those organizing recoveries after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, lessons from Sandy reveal the depth of untapped community resources and the levels of recovery and healing that emerge when people join together to solve shared problems.

In the summer of 2013, the New York City Department of Probation expanded its Weekend Recovery Assistance Program (WRAP) by enrolling nearly 450 young people on probation in summer jobs to help city neighborhoods damaged by Super Storm Sandy.

A very organized effort, the Department reached out to neighborhood groups and non-profit organizations to identify specific needs and locations.

The Department was 2 ½ years into a new model that provided a continuum of services available to everyone on probation through local partnerships that became known as the Neighborhood Opportunity Networks (NeONs).

Every young person in the summer program passed a risk assessment, so the truly dangerous did not qualify. Private foundations contributed funds to hire coaches and pay stipends to the young workers.

The 450 were divided into teams of eight to ten youth, two coaches, and one probation officer.

Assigned to specific streets, they met every morning to talk about the day’s work and every afternoon to talk about what went well and the challenges encountered.

The teams mostly tore out water-damaged insulation and drywall; organized materials for repairs and renovations; or prepared and served food in a disaster relief kitchen.

Week one gave these young people on probation invaluable experiences in teamwork and planning. When the job is to tear down wet drywall and tear out soaked insulation, you need a plan for where the wet and ruined materials go. This takes planning and dedication. Everyone has to understand the plan.

Week two revealed the grinding impact of poverty and lousy schools. The young teams often had trouble navigating doorways while managing drywall. A probation executive later estimated that less that ten of 450 young people had ever used a tape measure.

They could not understand the fractions on the tape measure.

And teams in the disaster relief kitchens could not follow recipes and multiply ¼ cup of chopped carrots per person for 125 people expected for lunch. Few had ever opened a bag of raw carrots for peeling and chopping.

Yes, the coaches took time out for every-day lessons in fractions and multiplication, and reminded teams that when problems arise, talk it out or take it to the team meeting.

Homeowners, exhausted and traumatized, genuinely appreciated the strong and energetic teams showing up to help day after day. Gratitude flowed into tears and hugs.

Law enforcement assigned to the project talked differently with the young people. When they saw teamwork from supposed “juvenile delinquents,” they learned names and new respect for the young workers.

The community as a whole changed their view of government. Neighborhoods that never trusted government to do the right thing now saw that at least one government agency – the city’s Department of Probation – listened, understood and supported local needs.

The community leaders and non-profit organizations that helped plan the project found that success strengthened their network of partnerships.

Did it work? That summer program provided resources, support and opportunities so people on probation could learn new skills and discover new behaviors.

Nationwide, re-arrest rates are around 66%. In Probation’s 2013 summer program, re-arrests sank to 11%.

The reinvestment of cost savings from successful justice reform efforts relies on complicated analyses including numbers of reduced jail beds. An informal analysis suggested the 2013 summer work program was the equivalent of investing $400 million in Sandy-damaged neighborhoods.

Behind the scenes, in the 2 ½ years before this summer program began, the new Commissioner and his executive team turned an abusive system that damaged lives into a healthy system that changed lives for the better:

A new leader with a transformational message insisted staff treat people on probation with respect and help them build on their strengths.

A new mission guided staff activities: Positive change happens through meaningful education, employment, health services, family engagement and civic participation.

Partnerships with local providers created the signature model for services and coordination through Neighborhood Opportunity Networks (NeONs).

Training for probation officers and supervisors now included mentoring, understanding addiction, adolescent development and building community partnerships.

Communication ramped up within the Department, with community programs and leaders, and across city agencies including health and mental health, education, job training, police, criminal and family courts.

Large and well-designed town hall meetings provided citizen input to strategies for helping people probation.

New performance measures emphasized “productive engagement” of clients in school, training or a job. Budgets changed to allocate more money to training and services.

Innovation flourished in the new culture. Improvement Teams composed of staff from different parts of the Department and sometimes from other agencies met as “tiger teams” for focused and intense problem solving on issues such as getting identification cards for youth on probation.

Mechanisms of coordination cemented changes including written agreements with political stakeholders; neighborhood citizen advisory committees; and the Deputy Mayor’s cross-agency leadership committee.

To me, the probation story is more than a checklist to manage an emergency or change agencies with a new mandate for action. The story shows the activities of justice reform turned into multiple dimensions of neighborhood healing and peace-building.


Solutions for the complicated problem of disaster recovery fit together as an architecture for recovery with layers of new jobs and new skills, programs and partnerships, clear citizen input through well-designed town hall meetings, supported with coaching and expanded by innovation, and all touched by the power of face-to-face dialog.

Disaster recovery reveals the cooperative spirit of America and the deep resources of all our communities, while enabling opportunities for learning and healing in ways as yet unknown.

Our hearts and prayers go out to all those affected by the hurricanes and floods, droughts and fires of our new climate reality.

Author's note: Elements of this article previously appeared as A Science of Peacemaking: 2015, Building Peace is Deeply Connected to Transforming Government and a plan for Justice Reform.

Photo Source: AP