The creators of a nonprofit helping foster youth age out of the system, and a program to better launch young adults leaving lockups are among five New Yorkers awarded a prestigious local prize for their innovation.
The David Prize, announced today, is an annual award given to five New Yorkers whose progressive work has had an impact. Each recipient is awarded $200,000 with no strings attached.
This year’s prize winners serving foster youth and the previously incarcerated included Mr. Five Mualimm-ak, founder of the Youth Anti Prison Project, which provides housing and job training, and Felicia Wilson, whose community-based practices include everything from mentorship to nurturing literacy. Wilson’s group, What About Us Inc., urges young people to become “the artisan of your own story.”
The other prize recipients are Fela Barclift, founder of Little Sun People — a preschool in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that features an Afrocentric curriculum to boost self-esteem and positive identity; Jaime-Jin Lewis, whose in-home child care centers offer low-income parents access to necessary resources; and Cesar Vargas, who provides legal counsel to immigrants and their families serving in the military.
Finalists for the David Prize — chosen from roughly 5,000 applicants — are selected by a
Mualimm-ak has been dealing with jails and prisons for most of his life. In an interview with The Imprint, he described the time he spent locked up, half of that time in solitary confinement. Mualimm-ak said he wants to use his experience to stop the cycle of incarceration, specifically among young people.
In 2016, he created the Youth Anti Prison Project to provide mentors to youth who have committed crimes and are serving their sentences under supervision in their communities. His program uses restorative justice practices, interactive learning and community-building skills. Participants receive housing and food security, professional and personal development and job training.
Mualimm-ak said he will use the money from the prize to scale this initiative, by opening two new homes in the Bronx to serve roughly two dozen youth ages 18 to 25.
As a formerly incarcerated youth, Mualimm-ak is all-too-familiar with the challenges they face — above all the financial instability that makes it difficult to re-enter society. Most are left to fend for themselves, he said. When left to their own devices and no real structure, young adults can fall back into negative habits, which leads them back into the corrections system.
“The majority of our youth don’t have a stable home, don’t have the socioeconomic income to support themselves,” Mualimm-ak said. “They are disenfranchised, but looked at as an adult.”
Wilson, too, comes to her work from lived experience. At the age of 4, her mother died of a drug overdose, she said in an interview. She entered New York City’s foster care system, moving through an astounding 63 foster homes throughout her young life, she said.
Once she aged out of the system at 21, she found that her new journey was an even bigger struggle. Wilson enrolled as a full-time student at John J. College of Criminal Justice but without family and lacking resources from the government agency that raised her, she never had enough resources to fully support herself.
Her survival techniques at the time are the skills she drew on as founder of What About Us Inc., a Brooklyn-based nonprofit serving 15 foster youth 16 and older citywide. The organization provides mentoring relationships, financial literacy help, professional development and independent living help.
“I had to really build a community of support around me, so when things got rough and tough, I had someone to go to,” said Wilson. She emphasized that support can come from many circles, beyond a child’s blood relatives. It can be a mentor or a church member — “basically anyone can give an opportunity to better someone’s life.”
Wilson said she understands that most youth aging out of foster care have dealt with an abundance of trauma — and they typically want to get as far away from “the system” as possible. At times that means withdrawing, even from vital community resources available to assist them.
With the prize money, Wilson plans to expand her organization, particularly her mentorship program. She also plans to bring on foster care alumni as consultants, helping their mentees transition successfully into adulthood.