In One of the Nation’s Poorest Cities, One Organization Sees the ‘Good’
In notoriously poor Syracuse, New York, stats tell the story of “the streets” in any city nationwide. Home to the highest concentration of poverty among African Americans and Latinos in the country, it’s also a testament to racial disparity in the justice system.
Kids with no alternatives tend to turn to the streets for survival, which is frequently a path to incarceration. With no stability or structure at home, recidivism tends to follow for these mostly African American and Latino teens.
In essence, apathy is the real enemy here. It’s a challenge few are willing or even have the resources to take on. Reaching these youth can seem just as hopeless as their situation appears to be.
The struggle is real. But, so is a movement to make the change; to remix those scary numbers no one wants to talk about. The Good Life Youth Foundation is making noise using hip-hop culture as its stage to reach these at-risk youth.
Thanks in large part to the credibility and example of its founder, who is leading the Good Life.
Founder and CEO Hasan Stephens tells his story and talks about the good works of his organization in the Syracuse community.
Back in the Day
They called it Little Vietnam. They called it Cop Killer Central. Hasan Stephens called it home.
It was the worst housing project in the poverty-stricken Bronx, the kind of place where you were either doing drugs or selling them; the kind of place you had to step over a junkie or some feces to get to the elevator. It had a soundtrack of gunfire.
Hasan grew up with three close friends, none of whom made it out. Hasan used education to navigate his way out. His soundtrack was hip-hop.
“Poverty drove what I do with Good Life,” Hasan says. “Because part of the impetus for me creating Good Life was so no other black or brown kid had to experience what I experienced or had to continue living in conditions like I did.
“Education was a gateway for me,” he says.
Hasan used his studies as an alternative to the streets. When he enrolled at one of New York City’s top private schools, he was exposed to an alternative reality.
“That was exactly why I was able to realize there was something more out there,” he says.
By day, he spent time with the haves; the have-nots by night. All the while guided by hip-hop and its core values of anti-violence, anti-drugs and pro-education.
“The kids here in Syracuse don’t get to see those two different worlds. Their reality is rooted in two block radiuses,” Hasan says. “How are we supposed to ask them to dream when they aren’t exposed to anything else?”
College in upstate New York was Hasan’s second awakening, an opportunity to study film and music while honing his chops as an emcee and DJ. He took his love of hip-hop to the radio circuit and began carving out a career as DJ Maestro.
“It opened up the door for me to walk into schools and talk to kids in a different way,” Hasan says. “They looked up to me. They weren’t listening to me like a teacher or a parent, they were listening to me as someone who identified with them and their culture.”
He was onto something.
Identity and Purpose
“The two things kids in Syracuse lack are identity and purpose,” Hasan says. “They don’t understand who they are, they don’t understand where they come from and they have no purpose because they’re disconnected from opportunity, disconnected from access, disconnected from any possibility of being successful.
“We’re telling them they need to go out into the streets and be successful,” he says.
Enter Good Life, the foundation that brings together his two loves of education and hip-hop to provide a positive influence and ultimately change lives.
“We have hip-hop for identity and entrepreneurship for purpose,” he says. “We’re taking their inner talent and inner most-loved extracurricular activities and turning it into a money-making opportunity.”
In other words, a way out.
Good Life makes music figuratively and literally with Syracuse’s most challenging population, one trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline (city schools have some of the highest suspension rates in the U.S.) and plagued with recidivism. The elements of a Hip-Hop song which include intros, outros, hooks and 16 bars. Hasan might use a fun activity like a day at the arcade or field trip of sorts as a “hook.” But, those activities are infused with knowledge: history for context, words of encouragement, finance, and entrepreneurship for success.
“When you’re in the street, you have to know how to adapt. You have to know how to observe your environment and act accordingly for safety,” Hasan says. “Why can’t we take those same inherent skills and make them transferable skills for when they go into a job atmosphere?”.
“We’re talking to them in a language they know. We’re meeting them where they’re at and we’re teaching them that you already have all the skills you need to be successful and here’s how you use them,” he says.
Oh, you want to be an emcee? A DJ? Good Life is a place to grow in the art, while learning the business behind it.
“Hip-hop isn’t just a genre or music, hip-hop is a lifestyle,” Hasan says. “Hip-hop is also incredibly entrepreneurial.
“We have to teach kids to take what’s around them and turn it into money so they can add on to whatever job they have to get out of poverty,” he says.
Good Life delivers that promise in a number of ways, starting with their in-house promotional printing company, a lawncare operation and vending machine enterprise. There are workshops and one-on-one mentorship courtesy of a staff that, like Hasan, have been there, done that.
Onondaga County was dealing with rampant youth recidivism, particularly in three of Syracuse’s poorest zip codes where the rate was as high as 86 percent in 2013. By 2019, that rate had dropped by around 30 percent with an equally significant reduction in African American and Latino offenders.
“The county directly attributes the drop in incarceration and recidivism to the collaborative work we're doing.”
It’s particularly significant when you consider it takes about $150,000 a year to incarcerate one teen. Still, Hasan wants to take that success further. In addition to its work directly with youth offenders, Good Life has a contract with the Syracuse City School District to run motivational speaking engagements.
“Until we have a 100 percent of kids not going to prison, 100 percent of kids doing well in school, 100 percent of kids not in poverty, I can’t feel any gratification,” Hasan says. “That’s why we’re in the work we do and that’s why we do what we do.”
Building the Future
As the vision grows, so does the need for dedicated space. The Hip-Hop Center for Youth Entrepreneurship is that home.
“It’s their space. It’s their building. It speaks to them,” Hasan says. “The building is not just a community center, it’s not just a gathering place for kids. The building is identity. The building is culture. It’s a cultural hub for kids to come into.”
The hip hop culture-infused surroundings will include a café where culinary interests can thrive, a gallery for display and sale of original artwork, and a music studio where teens can explore both the craft and business of the industry. The Center will serve as a hub for collaboration with like-minded organizations and become headquarters for GLF Printing, Good Lawns and Good Eats. Essentially, the Center creates an environment where kids can be comfortable learning and growing.
The design comes from the mind of Sekou Cooke, a Syracuse University professor and leader in hip-hop architecture. He’ll be infusing graffiti, as well as other elements and characteristics of Hip-Hop culture and art form.
Covered with colorful murals intended to inspire, 215 Tully Street is strategically located across the street from a housing project. The building will also include some residential space itself.
It has cost the city of Syracuse upwards of $60 million to incarcerate youth each year. Good Life is asking the community for $6 million, just a fraction of that cost, to build a Center for an organization that is already creating real change.
“Syracuse is kind of a microcosm of the rest of the world and if we can affect change here and deal with these major issues, you can replicate it, take it somewhere else and do it there.”