Maybe you’ve heard the motivational tale about the kid who was throwing starfish back into the ocean so they wouldn’t drown, when someone happened by and asked why he bothered to help the starfish, when they would just wash ashore again. In this story, the kid answers by saying that being thrown back into the ocean matters for that one starfish.
Deputy Suffolk County Police Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis has little use for such motivational tales. In her world, those starfish learn to walk back into the ocean on their own five arms.
Ms. Lewis was in Riverside Tuesday night to explain her work on the Council of Thought and Action, a series of support groups she’s started in Hempstead, Wyandanch and North Bellport.
In COTA meetings, she explained, community members including ex-convicts, police officers and community leaders, sit down in a room and talk, as equals about their plans to build a better life.
“COTA has no resources,” she said. “All you have is a conversation.”
Rennaisance Downtowns, the developers who helped to organize the Riverside Rediscovered community group that has been working to revitalize Riverside, has helped to hire numerous people who’ve worked to get their life on track through COTA groups in other neighborhoods.
“This gives them a way out. What Riverside needs is a way out,” said Renaissance Downtowns Vice President Sean McLean, who is leading the redevelopment effort in Riverside. “We have the bones with which we can build stuff. Now our job is picking everybody up.”
“Before you develop buildings, you need to develop people,” agreed Ms. Lewis.
Ms. Lewis said COTA came out of efforts by the Suffolk County Police Department to become more responsive and engaged in communities through their Community Response Bureau, whose officers participate in communities in many ways, from going door to door after a homicide to forming mothers clubs and providing cooking classes for middle school kids in neighborhoods where there’s nothing for teenagers to do.
For example, she said there are no youth programs in Wyandanch for kids over the age of 12.
“That’s a recipe for criminality,” she said, but added that when kids in the neighborhood were surveyed about their interests, what most of them wanted to do was learn how to cook.
They also host a Spanish-language program called Vamos a Hablar, through community spaces like schools, where undocumented families can share their concerns in a place where they feel safe.
“Undocumented people won’t tell when someone does something to them,” she said. “A lot of things happen to them that they don’t even know is a crime.”
COTA grew out of this movement, along with the police department’s work to understand their own biases and cultural misunderstandings.
“The language of COTA is corporate language,” she said, explaining that the first thing that COTA participants do is write a three-page corporate plan for their life. “Business language is comfortable language because it’s impersonal.”
“The five people you speak to the most is your board,” she said. “You are the president.”
After hearing that introduction, she said, many participants begin wondering if they are talking to the wrong five people. The participants then outline their goals for jobs, careers, relationships and their life.
Ms. Lewis said once their initial corporate plan is created, COTA members examine the “rocks in their backpack” — the narratives they tell themselves or that were told to them growing up that keep them from reaching their goals, as well as their own patterns of behavior that keep them from realizing their dreams.
Throughout the discussions, participants are encouraged to live up to their highest ideals.
“We tell them to be the man or woman you needed,” she said, adding that the number one emotion she’s seen from people who’ve been through prison is hopelessness.
“COTA teaches hope,” she said. “What I tell people is, ‘you deserve a better life than this.'”
COTA members help each other find union apprenticeships, volunteer opportunities in trades that lead to good jobs, as well as help with education, particularly in fields like drug and alcohol counseling, where they can use their own difficult experiences to help other people.
Ms. Lewis said the process starts with seeing clearly that the people that you may see hanging out on streetcorners are a community resource. What they need, she said, is a place where they can be treated as equals.
“The COTA room is like a house of mirrors,” she said. “You see where you’ve been and where you’re going. COTA members know we’re COTA and we are somebody. Good advice can come from anywhere.”
If members of Riverside Rediscovered are interested in forming a COTA group, Ms. Lewis said she’ll come back to train community members on facilitating meetings and preparing corporate plans.
“People who are constantly struggling are constantly in emergency mode,” she said. “It’s like having your brain rewired. COTA makes you look at your program. It says ‘you were born with a good purpose, but the rocks in your backpack crushed your wings.'”