All posts by Walt Shepperd

Walt Shepperd
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Teen Cast and Crew needed for Media Unit Stage Tour

Forty years ago I was producing Alive in Syracuse, a community based weekly broadcast for WIXT-Channel 9. Bill Morris, who later built the LeMoyne College drama program to a level of national prominence, was Program Director at the SouthWest Community Center. He had experienced great success in staging two Ed Bullins plays with seven teens of color (for the record, one was a 42 year old recently released from incarceration who couldn’t find employment, but could pass for 18) and asked if I would get them on television for one show to keep their motivation up until he could figure out his next production.

The group met twice each week on the SWCC stage—none of them ever absent or late—to script and rehearse a half hour drama on aspirations. On the September Monday evening they were scheduled to tape at the Shopping Town studio, however, none of them showed up. I knew where they’d be, hanging out at a Kennedy Street playground. They could tell I was livid as I got out of the car, and began chorusing, “It was real? It was real?” They quickly explained their friends’ reaction to their boasting about their coming appearance on television.

The Media Unit Executive Director, Walt Shepperd and Syracuse Common Council member Khalid Bey

The Media Unit Executive Director, Walt Shepperd and Syracuse Common Council member Khalid Bey

“No one’s gonna put you on television,” they quoted their friends’ dismissal. “Ain’t none of us on television.”  Indeed, at that time, few people of color graced America’s television screens.

They Had to Believe

At the playground they pressed me for another chance. When they finally taped their show, Larry Williams, now based at SWCC working for the city to deter turf crew members from negative behavior, announced, “We will be back.” They didn’t want to quit, and produced four other programs that season.

The next year Morris applied to the City-County Youth Bureau for funds to continue the activity of the Model Neighborhood Facility Television Workshop, but was told they would not be available for a project composed only of black city residents. So I called Bob Capone, with whom I had taught at Madison Junior High School, who had moved on to become principal at Jamesville-DeWitt High School. He allowed me to show program tapes to all the J-D juniors, and seven suburban Caucasian students applied for membership in what had become the Media Unit.

The following year the Cable came to town, and the Media Unit has been producing Rough Times Live weekly ever since.

Auditions for the Coming Stage Tour

In 1996 the Media Unit won several awards, including one from the NAACP for community service, for an original music theater performance, From the Back of the Bus, about the impact of racism on American teens. Performances were requested for Jackson, Mississippi; Louisville, Kentucky; New York City and Portland, Maine.

Black Problem, White Problem

Black Problem, White Problem

Two summers ago, with instances of racism flashing almost nightly on the news, the Media Unit reprised From the Back of the Bus for the teen group’s annual summer performance tour in collaboration with the Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs, with Centro donating buses to bring black and white youth groups together for donated theater space at Syracuse Stage, with performances followed by Dialog Circles on race, racism and racial healing conducted for InterFaith Works by Media Unit alum Derrick Dorsey, now a member of the Syracuse Board of Education and Executive Director of the local Boys and Girls Clubs.

This season, in collaboration with Prevention Network, the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company, Seeds of Peace, Reach CNY and the Syracuse Coalition for Rights and Responsibilities, the Media Unit will be extending the tour to Central New York colleges as well as repeat performances requested by area youth centers. The goal for the group will be success at a statewide competition booked for the BeVard Theater in the Oncenter August 11 and 12. The dream is for a tour finale performance in Ferguson, Missouri.

Auditions for this season will be held Saturdays, October 31 and November 7.

Teen Cast and Crew Needed

 Auditions are open to teens, ages 13 to 17, of all shapes, sizes, colors and conditions. Auditioners must call 478-8648 for an appointment. For cast, auditioners must sing A Change Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, obtain a monologue from the Media Unit studio at 327 Montgomery Street and learn a dance at the audition session. Crew positions are open for teens who demonstrate experience with sound, lighting, or video camera work and editing. A positive and respectful attitude is absolutely essential. The season will include a six week paid summer job.


Baby Boomers Back In The ‘Hood

After a season in exile from its home turf, the Baby Boomers (over 40) Basketball League took the SouthWest Community Center court Sunday, December 7, two weeks behind schedule. “We lost our home crowd,” league coordinator Ed Mitchell reflected on last season’s location, McChesney Park on the city’s north side. He attributed this year’s delay to negotiations on funding for the 17-week schedule. Unlike last year, when discussions about cash broke down, everyone involved wants to see the current seven teams balling Sundays as SWCC.

“We’re still working out the funding,” noted League co-coordinator Jesse Brantley, “but (SWCC Executive Director) Sharon Owens is the main one in making it happen.” Mitchell agreed on Owens’ support for keeping BBBL’s 17th season in the ‘hood.

This season’s opener displayed the Baby Boomers’ tradition of keeping it funky, as behind-the-back and no look passes proliferated, and Keith Rowser set up almost on the 3-point line to launch his free throws. Missing, however, key elements of the competition’s cultural expression, were the raucous crescendos boomed from the sound system of DJ Joe Parks during pre-game, half time and time outs, and the sumptuous soul spread from the kitchen of Marisha Heard.

Mitchell and Brantley vehemently promised the return of both for regular appearances.

Also missing was the presence of Howard Triche, a headliner at Corcoran High School and Syracuse University who logged time in the National Basketball Association. His impact on the BBBL over the past decade has been such that his teammates on the eight time champion Showtime (formerly Ballard Construction) have had to endure being known as “Howard ‘n them.” Speculation hovers that work obligations will limit Triche to alternate weeks playing this season.

Showtime’s line-up for the opener was also missing Pony Bullock, former Nottingham star who has retired from league play. But Bobby Chestnut, a standout at LeMoyne, is back for another run, as is Julius “Pops” Anderson, who has been announcing his retirement for the past three years. “This year it’s real,” he observed after Showtime’s opening loss to the B&B Lounge. “The wife said so.”

Anderson contributed continual hustle, scoring 20 points and bringing Showtime within three points with eleven seconds left in the game, but B&B converted foul shots to log a 68-63 victory. B&B also benefited from the presence of Lazarus Sims, former SU stalwart, who saw action as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, who scored 19.

Korin’s Cleaning Service beat Hairport Barbershop 55-44 in the day’s opening game. The All City Ballin’ Pharoahs beat International 51-40 in the afternoon’s finale.

The Baby Boomers are appealing for help in meeting the financial needs of staging the league this season. Contributions should be sent to Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility, 401 South Avenue, Syracuse NY 13204, attention Ed Mitchell.

Boomers Ballin’ Downtown

Before the opening of the Baby Boomers Basketball League two years ago, Julius “Pops” Anderson announced his decision to retire at the end of that season. His Ballard Construction team (now Showtime) had won several championships at the Southwest Community Center, and, at 51, he was concerned about the chance of possible injury. When a broken wrist hampered him during Showtime’s loss to the Flav Unit in the league’s championship finals, however, his decision was deterred. He would return for one last run, he insisted, to go out a winner. Showtime did indeed conquer the Flav Unit in this season’s final last March, but there may be a one more, one time, once for “Pops”.

Anderson is currently trying to organize a 40 and Over League at the Downtown YMCA to run Monday evenings from May 19 to July 14, with a structure similar to that which the BBBL maintained for 15 years at SWCC until moving to McChesney Park last season. He emphasizes, “The league is for competition, exercise and having fun.” Registration fee for each team is $175, and each team pays $30 each game for the referees. Deadline for filing a team roster is Friday, May 9. Those interested should contact the Y’s Sports Director Alena Anthony at 474-6851, extension 342. Anderson says there is room for probably two more teams.

He says his Showtime roster is already in, including former SU star and NBAer Howard Triche, Nottingham High School and SUNY standout Pony Bullock and LeMoyne alum Bobby Chestnut, with the addition of 6-8 LeMoyne vet Jimmy Cunningham. The Flave Unit is also signed up, according to Anderson, as well as a squad composed of members of the BBBL’s Battle Force and B&B Lounge, and two teams from a Jamesville-DeWitt rec league.

Local Public Housing Celebrates 75 Years

George Stroman III remembers learning to tie his shoe at Benderson Heights off West Colvin Street, one of Syracuse Housing Authority’s 16 complexes, before moving into Pioneer Homes off East Adams Street, one of the first five such projects in the United States. In a brick row house he learned to avoid serious trouble through sports–basketball at Wilson Park, baseball at YEOP on New Street and flag football with Sherman Park. “It was fun growing up,” he says now, “but hard. There was danger. Gang members came to the games.” Encountering conflict he could not avoid, he dropped out of Corcoran High School, but in 2007 he found the Media Unit, Central New York’s performance and production program for teens in television and stage, at a CNY Works jobs fair. He passed the GED, enrolled in Onondaga Community College’s Electronic Media program and graduated last semester.

George Stroman III

George Stroman III

Working full time as the Media Unit’s production coordinator, Stroman has spent the past month editing videotape reflecting the past 75 years of Syracuse Housing Authority activity into and eight minute presentation for an anticipated audience of 700 at the SHA’s Gala Milestone celebration, Friday, April 4, at 5 p.m., at the Pirro Convention Center. Former television anchor Jackie Robinson will serve as Emcee, with dinner music from Ronnie Leigh, and an after dinner get down boogie session with the Black Lites. Tickets for the event, including a choice of dinner entrees, are $75, and are available by calling Theresa at 470-4210. Special ticket programs have extended attendance opportunities to 250 low-income residents of SHA complexes, as well as donations of formal attire.

“We’re celebrating the success of a transition which many housing authorities across the country have not been able to achieve,” reflects Bill Simmons, SHA Executive Director since 2007. With the old way, we had become a social service agency, providing staff, programming and resources for tenant needs, especially elderly and youth.” Massive cuts in federal funding, and the requirement of establishing an Audit Management approach to operations by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development were met with a local Rent to Own strategy and partnerships with the Syracuse Police Department, Syracuse City School District, Center for Community Alternatives, the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs and the County Department of Social Services to meet those tenant needs.

In Search of a Non-Violent Movement

They called it Freedom Summer. It was 1964. The previous spring I had recruited several of them, touring weekends on Upstate campuses for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee—young, mostly Caucasian, idealistic, or romantic, or looking for adventure. They were told they would be teachers in Freedom Schools, mentoring students of color whose learning had been limited by the state’s separate and unequal public schools. They were told their efforts would contribute to breaking the system of segregation in Mississippi, the most entrenched of the states of the former Confederacy.

They were told of domestic servants who lost their jobs, sharecroppers who lost their land, community activists who had lost their lives trying to register to vote, and the need to break the media silence on such incidents. They were not told of the strategic assumption of those who planned the Summer Program, that if one of the neophytes was killed, especially a scion of a recognized political or corporate family, that silence could be broken. When one did die, in the company of a native Mississippi black teen and a Congress on Racial Equality staff member, a national media focus was assured.


Urban CNY
Sr. Editor, Walt Shepperd

Having taught English for a year and a half in the junior high school serving the then contiguous neighborhood for Syracuse’s community of color, the 15th Ward—in the context of a Ford Foundation Project preparing the black students to be bussed to schools in Caucasian neighborhoods—I was considered knowledgeable enough in the techniques then current in a strategy dubbed Compensatory Education to provide training for the summer volunteers. I conducted workshops at the Oxford, Ohio orientation session, where the volunteers also role played the beatings they could anticipate from Mississippi law enforcement and Ku Klux Klan members, who were often the same people.

When it became known that my teaching experience had been preceded by six months writing for a New York City daily newspaper, some of those planning the summer program assumed that I would be spending the summer not only helping to administer the ersatz school system, but also feeding the flow of information to whatever media outlets might be receptive. Writing assignments were offered by publications ranging from Columbia Journalism Review to Scholastic Teacher.

Madison School

While I had no intentions of accompanying the volunteers South, the idyllic isolation of the Western College campus, waking to the purity of Fannie Lou Hamer singing barefoot on the lawn, how she got up that morning with her mind stayed on freedom, the sense of immediacy shared at hearing of the disappearance of the three who would later be found dead at a construction site, all merged to craft a unique spirituality. Evening sessions by a fireplace with walls hung with portraits of the college presidents drew defining inspiration from quiet narratives on the history of civil rights from Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph.

Without conscious decision I returned to Syracuse to tell my then wife I was going to Mississippi. She responded calmly that she would go too. We closed down our apartment and packed a trailer as if for a permanent move, although traveling to the Summer Program’s main office in Jackson separately, since our status as an inter-racial couple was then illegal in that state. While there, we were pressured to declare our marriage publicly to force a court challenge to the miscegenation law, but, knowing we would be jailed for the attempt, we chose to remain focused on contributing to the day-to-day operations of the Council of Federated Organizations headquarters with an ironic Lynch Street address.

Although I have long considered the Mississippi Freedom Summer (actually we stayed through Thanksgiving to see what Dr. King had called “the Beloved Community” deteriorate from ideological bickering) to be seminal to my life experience, I never had a total understanding of what I had gotten myself into until I read Taylor Branch’s trilogy on America in the King years. In Pillar of Fire, covering 1963 to 1965, the research provides a fascinating big picture of events not fully understood even to those who experienced them.

And while the shift in consciousness among those who remained in the state after the volunteers had returned to their college careers, moved focus from the interracial harmony of the Freedom Summer to the nationalism of the Black Power Movement, Stokely Carmichael’s admonition for Caucasians to go fight for freedom in their own back yards rang especially true for me. I returned to Syracuse to join the efforts of the Community Action Training Center, the largest organizing project of American’s War on Poverty.




U.A.D. attempts a come back

In the late Nineties, U.A.D., a local band featuring four part r’n’b harmonies with a focus on the Motown sound, established a tradition of Valentine concerts, eventually expanding to include Mother’s Days. Five years ago, however, with Larry Mathis, the group’s leader spending time developing a second performance group, the tradition faded. “We grew up on romance,” Mathis recalls now. “Back in the Seventies, Me and Ike {Wynn, a U.A.D. original, now Mathis’ partner in the group’s production} used to go to a club called The Place on Tallman and South Avenue. We were mesmerized by these groups that came through and just personified romance. We want to bring that back. We especially want to bring it to the younger generation.”

To launch the comeback, U.A.D.—the initials signifying Uplites, Avatar and Destiny, bands Mathis and Wynn sang with back in the day—will host a Valentine’s Day concert at the City Hall Atrium, 223 East Washington Street,  Friday, February, 14 from 7 to 11 p.m. As an opening act, Mathis has signed Soul Mine Band, a group led by former U.A.D. singer Rick Linzy. Returning to their tradition, roses will be handed out to the first 35 female attendees. Also in tradition, U.A.D. will be outfitted in matching attire from Bergan’s Urban Fashions. Capacity at the Atrium is 140, so tickets are on advance sale only, and are available for $20 at Bergan’s, 323 South Salina Street or by calling 882-4888.
“For us,” Mathis reflects, “Motown is endless music that tells stories. The stories have meaning as far as how to treat someone, how to be as a person. It reminds us of the Doo Wop days, when there was community, when everybody was on the corner singing.” With memories of opening for such headliners as Brass Construction and Crown Heights Affair, Mathis wants the Valentine performance to put the local music scene on notice that U.A.D. is back, ready and deserving of inclusion on the annual civic playbills from Juneteenth to A Taste of Syracuse. And to show that the comeback is already established as more than a one-shot deal, Mathis has booked the Palace Theater for a May 17 gig, and signed the equally soulful Billionaires as opening act.

Baby Boomers ballin’ in a different hood

When his B&B Lounge team lost in the semi-finals of last year’s Baby Boomers (over 40) Basketball League playoffs, former Henninger High School and Syracuse University standout Lazarus Sims said he would definitely be back on the Southwest Community Center court this season. “This is my neighborhood,” he said then.

The current Binghamton University coach debuted this season December 8, as B&B lost to Show Time, but it wasn’t on the turf which has hosted BBBL action for the past 15 years. This year’s games are being played at McChesney Park, on the Northside behind Grant School, 2300 Grant Boulevard.

McChesney Park the new location for Baby Boomers (over 40) Basketball League

“It was a money issue with the building,” explains Show Time’s Julius “Pops” Anderson, who has played on eight league championship teams and had announced that last year would be his last run. “I think they wanted us to come up with $8,000 (for utilities) beyond the $600 registration fee each team was already paying.” During the season the players chip in each game to cover the $40 charge for each of two referees.

The relocation was facilitated by Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs’ Jesse Brantley, who plays for B&B Lounge.

“As far as the players,” Anderson projected on the effect of the move before the games began, “I don’t think it would. But on family and friends (spectators) I think it would, a great deal.”

So far, however, Anderson and Brantley have been pleasantly surprised. “It’s going well so far,” Brantley observes. “The crowd didn’t waver. We might be missing a few from the community who came because the building (SWCC) was open, but most folks drove anyway.”

That assessment is shared by Howard Triche, who teamed with Anderson for a state championship at Corcoran High School before toiling for SU and in the NBA. The two combined for BBBL championships with Ballard Construction, but Triche missed last year’s finals with a knee injury. He did run the floor for Show Time’s victory over B&B, but, now 49, he says he may need surgery. What’s important for Triche is being back in shape for the following year. “My goal,” he reflects, “is at 50 to still be able to dunk.”

Anderson, 52, has rescinded his decision to bow out of league play, having broken his wrist in last year’s loss in the finals to Flav Unit, maintaining that even without Triche he can go out a winner this year, with teammates including former Nottingham High School star Pony Bullock and former LeMoyne College standout Bobby Chestnut.

One serious difference resulting from the move is the absence of the finger lickin’ soul food spreads which provided a major attraction at Southwest.

 “It won’t stop the guys from playing,” Triche notes of the relocation. “They’ll whine for awhile, but they want the competition. They’ve played against each other going back to the playgrounds and in school. It keeps people coming back because they want to see what they can still do, even though they’re bodies don’t always let them. In the first few games they tend to see how out of shape they are.”

One attraction that still remains, the 16 game Sunday schedules are open to the public free of charge. Another is the ascorbic courtside commentary, especially on questionable calls by the officials, provided loudly by league co-founder and coordinator Ed Mitchell, as he operates the electronic scoreboard and game clock.

 This is an updated version of an article which appeared in the Syracuse New Times. Walt Shepperd is a three time winner of the New York Press Association’s Writer of the Year Award, and Executive Producer of the national award winning Media Unit.

City Scuffle:Derrick Dorsey seeks dialog on the School Board

Born in Syracuse, raised in Pioneer Homes, Derrick Dorsey recalls a moment in 9th grade at Corcoran High School when his math teacher pulled him aside. “He knew I was a leader and knew that I could make a difference in the classroom setting. It took him five minutes to do that. It was a life changing experience for me.” Now 45, Dorsey points to the encounter as a driving force in his campaign as a Democrat for a seat on the Syracuse Board of Education. “What I’d like to do is create that environment in our school district,” he notes, “a thriving school district which encompasses teachers, educators meeting with parents, meeting with community leaders, meeting with administrators.”

At the time of that jolt of inspiration, Dorsey remembers, he was thinking about getting a job at Carrier like his dad. “I wasn’t thinking college at that point,” he says. “But after that I was thinking college. I was kind of hoping through my athletic ability that I would receive a scholarship of some nature. But at that point I was also thinking that I could receive something through academics.” Both converged at SUNY Fredonia, where he garnered All-American honors in track and field. He feels he has been making a difference in this community for the past 20 years, currently as director of the Inter-Faith Works Community Wide Dialog on Ending Racism.

Dorsey believes that dialog belongs in the city school district curriculum. “Bullet five on Superintendent Contreras’s strategic plan is engaging community organizations and agencies, looking for those resources in the community that could help advancing the school district’s agenda: Great Expectations. In the community wide dialog we partner up city and suburban schools at the high school level to talk about four key concepts: institutional and structural racism, stereotypes, white privilege and allies. Allies to me is the most important. How do you step in and interrupt the racial joke, interrupt bullying, not meeting with violence, but meeting with tools in your tool box that defuse the situation?”

He realizes, however, that to experience such an intervention, youth must be reached in the school setting, and more than 50 percent of Syracuse students drop out before graduation. “Parent engagement,” he maintains will impact the drop-out rate. “Parent involvement. I know Monique Wright-Williams is doing some great things with Parent University. It’s creative ideas like that that will allow us to engage parents to realize that they are not adversaries, but teammates of the educators. I co-chair the Code of Conduct Committee for the district and suspension rates is something we’re looking into. What are the things in terms of intervention, before we get to the consequence of them losing instruction time? Are there tools educators need in their tool box to help them with classroom management.”

Dorsey believes he would bring a skill to the Board that doesn’t exist now. “It’s the skill of dialog,” he says, “and that’s what I do for a living. And that is everyone is valued, everyone is allowed a voice, and everyone gets an opportunity to not only be heard, but hear. Without setting up ground rules it’s using the process of dialog to make effective change, and using the process of dialog to address conflict. After what he calls several intimate conversations with George Weiss, the founder of Say Yes, Dorsey feels, “The program takes the hopelessness out of academia for people who look like me. Growing up in Pioneer Homes I knew I didn’t have the resources to go on to college. Not by my parents paying for it. But if I had something in place that said if you can get accepted to an institution on your own merit, that we’re going to pay for your education, that’s hope.”

Dorsey also points to physical needs. “We need classes that are wire ready, wifi ready. We need smart boards in every classroom. There is no reason for us to say we have great expectations for all of our students when we don’t have the resources to level the playing field.” He feels a county-wide school district creating wide spread diversity could foster the sharing of resources and level the playing field, but politically would be a huge challenge. “You would ask a lot of people to give up what they have and a lot of school districts are satisfied with what they have.”

Reprinted with permission from the Syracuse New Times. Walt Shepperd was named Writer of the Year three times by the New York Press Association.

Southwest Community Center Director Reaches Out to Community

Sharon Owens succeeded Jesse Dowdell in May

A new coat of paint was only the surface indication of the rebranding at the Southwest Community Center being forged by the agency’s new executive director. Distribution of an annual report, and the announcement that it was the first such document produced by the center since its founding in 1975, made clear that business there would be conducted in a very different manner.

After growing up in Geneva and graduating from Syracuse University in 1985, Owens—who succeeded Jesse Dowdell in May—went to work in youth programming at the Dunbar Center. Three years later, she became teen center coordinator at Southwest.

“It felt like I had come full circle,” she says of her new position. “Intelligent Young Minds, established back then, is still a program at the center. Some of the adults I run into now came through that program.”

She also runs into mothers she counseled at Early Head Start, where she did administrative work, as well. Told Walt Dixie needed a consultant at Jubilee Homes, after six months she settled in as deputy director. In 2010, when Mayor Stephanie Miner began forming a new administration, someone—Owens still doesn’t know who—recommended her for deputy commissioner of the newly formed Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. Miner appointed her to the Southwest board of directors.

“Jesse started talking about retirement about two years ago,” Owens recalls. “Of course, nobody believed him. He had been here so long. The job was posted in January of this year. I knew it would be a good fit for me. Through my career I had amassed a global approach to community service. At the city {Miner’s administration}, it was the icing on the cake, because I was able to develop relations citywide and understand government processes.”

Her first priority is an assessment of the role of the center in the immediate neighborhood and the larger community it serves.

When Jesse Dowdell first took the job, he closed the center for an extensive cleanup.

What’s the first thing you did?

The first thing I did was come in here May 1, put my bag down, and started a series of 12-hour days to see all the components of the agency, the traffic flow here, how things run, the relation between programs here and agencies that run them like and Parks and Rec and Onondaga County Library. My commitment to the board was a 100-day assessment: Where we are, what we need to change and what’s working.

Is there any expansion contemplated in that assessment?

It is a community center for multifaceted purposes. My vision—coming from a very different career road, community service—now needs to incorporate the business aspect, as well. We’re gearing up to go to a fast-track summer program, closing the doors for youth programming so we can prepare the staff and orient parents.

You started working with youth here almost three decades ago. How are they different now?

My generation was told it was the worst generation the previous generation had ever seen. Every generation deals with a different dynamic in this society. There’s more violence now, more guns, stronger and more abundant drugs available. So we have to create new approaches, but I think some old-school things still work. If a young person feels protected and cared about, and you build the trust factor, that will always work, like what you do at the Media Unit {writer Walt Shepperd is the executive director of the teen program}, and what Rufus Morris does at the School of the Arts.

Adults sometimes say all the kids want to do is rap and sing and dance. Well, if that’s what they want to do, how do we take that and use it to teach social skills and learning principles? Let’s use what they like to engage as mental health tools. How do you express how you’re feeling? How do you express what’s in your mind without feeling like you’re being psychoanalyzed? For young people, poetry is an amazing way for doing that.

Can the Southwest Community Center work with the gangs?

I have to do it with partners. I have to do it with programs like Truce. Obviously, I have to do it with {Police Chief Frank Fowler}, and I’ve met with the chief. I have to do it by being accountable ourselves for programming here. You have to give out excellence to expect excellence. I can’t do it in isolation. One thing that is my mantra is, we are the experts when it comes to our population and our community. But we are not the experts for every service that we need. So I’ve got to develop those partnerships. In the 1980s, I remember the building being chuck-full of agencies: Huntington, Bishop Foery, PEACE Inc. I want to recapture that.

Whatever happened to the emphasis on AIDS?

We still have the FACES program, but it has taken a financial hit because the funding came from the state. As the state has retrenched and prioritized its funding, we’re still here, we’re still engaged in the community for AIDS. The other thing about the agency is I’m embarking on a rebranding of the organization, the Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility. We’ve got a $4 million budget, and probably 60 percent of that is the family planning program. We’ve taken severe hits over the last three years. A lot of state money went away. A large majority of our funding was state funding.

I want to begin to emphasize the amazing reproductive health component of the agency, and support it and get that information out. That program operates three clinics, two in the city and one in North Syracuse. The other major aspect of this organization is this facility. I’m beginning to use new language, change of language, change of mind, change of expectations. Really referring to Southwest Community Center as Southwest Community Center campus. The campus. What is a campus? A campus is a community, where you learn, live, work and play.

So what’s the epicenter? What’s going on inside the walls of this building? The outer ring? What’s going on in the footprint of this building? Then bringing in the even larger outer ring of the community surrounding the building, really encompassing the influence of the neighborhood on the center and the influence of the center on the neighborhood.

With such severe funding cuts, and such increasing competition, do you reach a point where traditional foundations and state and county funds are no longer available?

We have to go to private industry. The good-hearted nature of everyday folks who would like to contribute is limited as they are just trying to make it. Looking to my board, bringing on people who can do long-range strategic planning and identify funding sources that are not so dependent on public funds. We have to. The word collaboration has gotten watered down in recent years, but we’re looking at some strategic alliances so that we can survive.

What did Jesse Dowdell leave you with that you are really pleased with?

I’m real pleased with staff here who are really committed. What Jesse has left here is a camaraderie with the community. One of the first things I did was draft a letter for people who live, work or play in the vicinity of this building, saying who I am. I’m looking to be a good neighbor to you, how can you contribute? We’re looking for volunteers, people who have ideas, people who have resources: monetary, in-kind, equipment, supplies.

What connection do you see for Southwest Community Center with the larger Syracuse community?

You have to combat perception.

When I met with the staff I said, “We are combating perception.” When there are 10 young people outside in front of this building, not doing anything other than normal teen stuff, it’s the perception of anyone coming up or down the street. Part of that perception is real. A priority of mine is assuring people that they are safe here.

Reprinted with permission from the Syracuse New Times. Walt Shepperd was named Writer of the Year three times by the New York Press Association.

South West Community Center’s Jessie Dowdell: Urban Legend

After 26 years at the helm of the Southwest Community Center (SWCC), Jesse Dowdell is stepping down at the end of April. “We’re ready for change,” he observes, maintaining that the services provided by the multipurpose agency will remain the same, but that a new person will take the operation to a new level. He is confident that even at a time of economic crunch in the human service industry, the new leadership will inherit a solid infrastructure, built over almost three decades of consistency and attention to detail. At 68, he is proud of the results of his “meaning what I say, and doing it.” But it wasn’t easy.

An example he cites is the planters on the sidewalk in front of the facility at 401 South Ave.. When he took over leadership from the Rev. Larry Briggs, the only other executive director SWCC has had, he studied urban forestry to determine what plants and flowers would survive the heavily trafficked street. At first those planted on a Friday would be ripped up by the next Monday.

“Poor people are so used to nothing,” he notes, “that when they get nice things they don’t know how to take care of them.” He told his staffers to just keep planting, and eventually the planters became a point of pride for the neighborhood.

Opened in 1975, the SWCC offers a full range of services responding to the needs of pre-schoolers to senior citizens including the areas of education, health, employment, culture, recreation and the legal system. Over 38 years a Family Planning program has focused on expanding and improving reproductive health care for individuals who have traditionally been excluded from the health care system. FACES, an HIV/AIDS awareness program, provides prevention education, condom distribution and free rapid testing. Mainstream promotes living skill for the developmentally disabled. Several youth programs focus on education and the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse and violence. An Onondaga County Public Library branch at the center promotes reading.

Born in Auburn, Ala., Dowdell grew up on Syracuse’s South Side, and was a standout athlete at Syracuse’s then- Vocational High School, located inside Blodgett School, now the West Side Academy, 312 Oswego St. He attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology locally from Empire State College. He was an elementary school teacher in the Syracuse City School District when the SWCC post opened up, and got a major boost of encouragement from former superintendent of schools, the late Sidney Johnson, to take the job.

He anticipates a return to teaching after retiring from the center, perhaps at a charter school. “Whatever we’ve done here,” he reflects, “I hope we’ve done it with a touch of class.” A farewell event has been scheduled for King + King Architects, 358 W. Jefferson St., with a wine tasting on Saturday, April 20, 6 to 9 p.m.

The ticket price for the farewell event is to be determined. Tickets will be available from the Southwest Community Center at 671-5802.

Q: What was it like when you first came to Southwest Community Center, and what’s it like now?

A: I came here in an interim situation in October 1986 and they gave me the job May 1, 1987. Then, we were not doing very much. The annual budget was about $280,000. Very few people were using the facility. The place was a mess. So we shut the doors and cleaned it up. That was the first thing we did. But a whole lot of stuff has happened between then and now. Today I think we’re in a place where we have the infrastructure to support the activity for any direction that this organization wants to move in.

Q: Is this just a service providing institution, or are there other things, too?

A: There is more than just providing services. This is a place that the community can look up to and be proud of, look for services, look for referrals or come and get warm, come and get something to eat, come and get a condom, or come and just get a good conversation. You can get a workout. The place has become, in my mind, the hub of the community. Nothing really happens in this community that does not pass through this organization.

Q: There are actually two communities involved, one the immediate neighborhood, the other a larger community. Can you characterize those two and the differences?

A: The difference is that in the immediate community we bring credibility. That’s where our service delivery is most important. When I walked in here 25 years ago, {the immediate neighborhood} was a very transit community. What it has become since then, because of efforts made by this community center and this organization, is a clean meeting place where we could talk about planning for the community. Since then, we are not so transit any more.

A lot of the services we were delivering in 1987 were geared toward a transit community, and the services we’re dealing with today are more family-oriented. We have a large reproduction health program. Our reproduction health program is far reaching. We also run a clinic in North Syracuse and one on Slocum Avenue. We have AIDS programs for people infected or affected by the HIV virus. We reach way beyond our immediate community.

Q: You mentioned a $280,000 budget when you started here. Now the budget is $1.35 million.

A: But that’s down in the last four years.

Five years ago, we were up to $6 million. So we’ve been up and we’ve been down. Even with that, today, I think we’re doing very, very well.

Q: What factors affect the economy of the center?

A: Initially this was a building for service deliverers to come in and provide the services. During my tenure here, we decided that we wanted to get into providing the direct services because we had a vested interest in seeing a good solid service delivered. These outsiders come in, they don’t care whether people come to access the services or not, they know they’re going to get paid. We see it a little differently. People that live in the community, people who have a vested interest in the community, should be the service deliverer because then you’re going to get a better product.

This economic crunch really started with everybody else about four years ago. For us it started about five years ago. All of a sudden we were out there, but working with our banking partners; when the crunch hit we were well on down the recovery road. Right now we have a line of credit with our bank that we haven’t used in two years.

When Nancy Larraine Hoffmann lost that election for the 49th {state Senate} District it cost us a lot of money. She was a friend of the organization. We had money we could use at our discretion. She supported our youth activities. I’ll bet it cost us anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 a year.

When she went away those dollars went away. But then New York state people decided to do things differently, Onondaga County decided to do things differently. We’ve gotten phased out in a lot of different ways.

Q: Critics of your operation have suggested the center should devote space to retail outlets, a mini-mall for the neighborhood, a place to create jobs.

A: I don’t think it needs to be a mall. One of the things that I’m really, really proud of is that I’ve managed to continue to be who I am rather than who everybody else thinks I should be. I say that to say that everybody has some idea as to what this place needs to be, that everyone can do my job better than me. I don’t envision a mall, but I do envision employment. We had programs with the state and federal Labor Departments. We’d like to work closely with CNY Works. I’d love to see them with a satellite site. Those are the sort of things the new person is going to want to take a good look at.

Most people who pass through our doors, most males particularly, have had an encounter with the criminal justice system. That encounter certainly is an inhibitor when it comes down to them looking for places to work. I think this would be a wonderful place to have some sort of employment re-entry program for people re-entering the community, because this is the first place they come. That would give the new person something to do.

Q: One thing that’s obvious observing the center over time is a constancy of staff. How do you keep staff at jobs that are potentially very stressful?

A: We have people who have been here since the place opened. These people are committed. They are community folks. We’re about growing community.

My finance person walked in here as an intern from BOCES. When that internship was over she asked for a job. We gave her a little bookkeeping job and got her to Onondaga Community College. She took the accounting program and passed it with honors. We got her into Le Moyne College, one of the best accounting programs in the area. She graduated with honors, while raising a family and working at the center. Now she runs my finance department.

My director of operations came in here as a switchboard operator. She is responsible for keeping this place clean. In my mind, black folks or poor people are so used to settling for less that cleanliness is not something very high on their priority list. Well, it’s high on ours. It gives our constituency a sense of “well, maybe they do know what they’re doing.”

Q: One of your greatest challenges is dealing with youth. Outside this neighborhood people have an image of them mostly playing sports, dropping out of school, being in gangs. What’s the reality with youth, and how do you deal with their issues?

A: Those are issues that we deal with, but we have some good kids. We have kids working on master’s programs, working on Ph.Ds. But we also have that element that has not done very well, that the streets have won out with. There’s not a whole hell of a lot that we’ve done about that, but there is something in my mind that we seriously need to address.

Attitude toward education in our community is not the way it was when I grew up in this community. When I grew up in this community, education was the key. That was how you were going to have a better life. Everybody talked about it. They would say to me, “Yeah, you’re a good athlete, but what about the books?” A lot of our kids these days do not have that external pressure being put on them. Poor people have gotten to the point where they just don’t see the need for education. They’re looking for instant gratification, which isn’t there anymore. I have a theory about that. In the old days, when we were kids growing up around here, anybody, if they could go to one of these plants, could get a good job and they didn’t need the high school education. That changed. Those factory jobs are not here.

The gang factor has impacted here, and I think we’ve dealt with it fairly well. Six or seven years ago when all of a sudden Syracuse realized they had gang problems, we were having serious problems over on the corner of Hudson and Bellevue, where kids were hanging out, shots were being fired on a regular basis. When we had resources thanks to the likes of Nancy Larraine Hoffmann, we went over there every other week and cooked hot dogs and talked with those kids consistently.

Q: One study finds Syracuse the fifth most segregated city of its size. How do racial attitudes in this area affect you and your operation?

A: It does. It does. That’s been a major problem. I’m a strong-willed person, and I think that’s been part of our success. But there’s a lot of people I’ve rubbed the wrong way, and because I’ve rubbed them the wrong way they decide they’re not going to cooperate with this organization. Whether that’s personal or racial, I think that’s bullshit.

This is one of the only gateways into the city that they have not put very much effort into, trying to make it better. Look at the other gateways. Look at North Salina, East Genesee, West Fayette. Is that because we don’t have an economic engine to work around? I ask myself all the time: Is it by design? Is it racial? Sometimes I think it may very well be.

This story originally printed February 6, 2013 Syracuse New Times, reprinted with permission.