By Dwight Bachman
Public Relations Officer, Eastern Connecticut State University
Hartford – Ever since he was a little boy growing up in Hartford’s North End, Andrews Woods has had dreams and ambitions. Like most all boys, Woods loved and participated in sports, but unlike lots kids who want to be super star athletes as the only way out of the hood, Woods, found his envisioned himself as an entrepreneur and someone dedicated to service.
Woods a proud lifelong resident of Hartford’s north end, lived his first 13 years in Bellevue Square Housing Project (“The Brick Yard”), and later moved to the Blue Hills Neighborhood of Hartford. He attended Arsenal School Elementary School, was then bussed to West Hartford Schools through Project Concern in the late 1960’s, and later graduated from Weaver High School Class in 1979.
Long concerned about the economic and educational neglect and disinvestment in communities like the North End of Hartford, Woods enrolled in Springfield College as an undergrad, then later at UConn’s School of Social Work (1998) to earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work, with an emphasis on public policy.
While studying at UConn, he secured an internship with former State Representative Kenneth Green at the Legislative Office Building (LOB). Under Green’s supervision, Woods learned how to identify and recommend public policy, programs and funding streams to improve the lives of young people address, advocate for change in his community and create mechanisms to develop and implement programs to address complex issues. He and Green also organized and convened youth summits in collaboration with Lewis Fox Middle School, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, the Greater Hartford Association of Black Social Workers, the NAACP and many other organizations, in an effort to learn from those they were seeking to support.
With Green’s mentorship and nurturing, Wood’s mind roamed back into the history of people who came before him—Frederick Douglas, W. E. B. DuBois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hammer, Shirley Shisolm, Jesse Jackson and many others. Something Dr. King said crystalized Woods’ life purpose: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?” Woods said to himself that he does not want his children or future generations asking, ‘What did you do to help change the situation?’ We need to let children know we care about them. We don’t have time to waste. We must act. The alternative is unacceptable.”
Woods looked around at the conditions of his neighborhood. His zip code—06120—the North End of Hartford, is home to nearly 25,000 people. 70 percent African American and West Indian and 20 percent Latino, hard-working men and women raising children, making on average less than $15,000 a year. That’s a poverty rate of more than 45 percent, compared to the state rate of 10 percent.
What shook Woods up most is that he learned that more than 6,000 young people living in Hartford’s North End don’t have a high school diploma and are not working. Woods says “This disconnect from education and employment is multi-generational, and can be broadly felt not only by the youth, but by their families and our community as a whole.” The North End also has the highest crime rate in the city; over the past 18 years, more than 820 people were murdered in the North End of Hartford.
“The annual cost to put and keep a child in detention is, at least, $135,000. It cost less than $5,000 for a child to be in an after-school program. For economic reasons alone, ending violence is a no-brainer, the health of the individual, family and community notwithstanding,” said Woods.
Twenty years ago, in 1998, Woods founded Hartford Communities That Care (HCTC), a non-profit organization designed and committed to creating and supporting non-violent and drug-free communities in which youth and families can thrive. In partnership with the Johnson Stewart Community Cent, Parker Memorial Community Center, and the Fred. D. Wish and John C. Clark Jr. Elementary Schools, he established Hartford’s Northeast Neighborhood Violence Free Zone.
Rep. Green admires Wood’s focus and action. “It was an honor having Andrew as in intern at the Connecticut General Assembly, where we began our vision of providing support to our youth. Through the Youth Summit Forums, we were able to empower young people in charting their own destiny. HCTC is an outgrowth and extremely constructive and effective institution, resulting directly from our work together,” said Green.
In Spring of 1999, 14 year old Aqaun Salmon was shot and killed by a Hartford Police officer. Woods says the killing was Hartford’s “Ferguson moment,” when tempers were flaring and faith, civic, political and the business community were concerned that there might be a riot if the investigation of this incident was handled poorly.
Concerned about the students at Lewis Fox Middle School, Woods answered the call from Principal Barbara Maybin and Vice Principal Angela Thomas at Lewis Fox Middle School to come and help the students process what had happened, and to come up with something proactive and positive for students to do in light of the tragic death of their peer.
To support the students at Lewis Fox Middle School, Woods called on City Councilman Steve Harris for the initial funding to help create the Stump the Violence Youth Leadership Academy at Fox Middle. With these resources, Woods would train a cohort of 7th graders from Ms. Morrison’s class to be peer leaders/peer educators who would examine the issues facing their peers, and come up with public policy, program and funding recommendations to address the issues facing their them and the broader community.
For nearly a decade later, youth involved in “Stump” would eventually travel to over twenty-two states, present before law makers City Hall, the LOB and Congress and would garner support and funding from St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, the Interdenominational Ministerial, Greater Hartford Alliance of Black Social Workers, the Greater Hartford NAACP and a host of local business and private donors.
Unfortunately, by the summer of 2002 middle and high school students begin to engage in gun play and by close of 2003 more than thirty (31) youth under the age of eighteen had been shot in Hartford, the vast majority in Hartford’s North End community.
It was then that Woods, along with Carl Hardrick approached former Mayor Eddie Perez and Councilwoman rJo Winch to secure support to address the high rates of youth violence. The mayor quickly convened a task force, appointing Woods and Chuck Cummings, a city social worker, to co-chair the task force to come up with recommendations to prevent and reduce gun violence among school aged youth.
An outgrowth of this task force was the creation of the Youth Engagement and Violence Intervention Initiative (YEVI). The YEVI program was modeled after the Chicago-based Operation Cease Fire Model, and identified 110 high-risk youth in need of mentoring, academic support, crisis intervention, trauma services and case management services.
The YEVI program result in a 90 percent reduction of school aged shootings over an 18 month period, thanks to HCTC’s partnership with the legendary social worker Winston Johnson of the Hartford Public Schools, the Hartford Police Department, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center and the Men of Color Initiative, founded by the Reverends Cornell Lewis and Pastor James Lane of the North End Church of Christ.
Concurrent with the establishment of YEVI, was the formalization of the Hartford Crisis Response, a Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Program (HBVIP) in partnership with St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. At the time (2004), this HBVIP was ranked 6th best in the nation. Now, there are more than thirty (30) HBVIP’s operating in the nation. To date, this program has served over 560 fatal and non-fatal victims of gun violence in Hartford, connecting them to a range of services including mental health, medical, housing, education, employment, legal, financial assistance and other victims service needs.
In 2004, Mayor Perez accepted a grant and technical assistance from Purdue Pharma to implement the Communities That Care (CTC) prevention planning system. This nationally recognized model was designed to organize the community around a prevention framework approach, and to formalize the previous efforts of Woods, Green, Harris into an organization that would be committed to addressing the prevention, intervention and advocacy interest of young people and their families. Here, residents like Hattie Harris, Tori Hamilton and students like Jennifer Mendenhall stepped up to serve as initial board members. Eventually, the Hartford YEVI model and approach would be rebranded and named Peacebuiders, which it’s still in full operation today.
Paul Cicero, a lieutenant in Hartford Police Department’s Major Crimes Division Cold Case Unit, said he is impressed with Woods’ passion. “His eagerness to assist and persistent motivation have made him an absolute critical part of our daily operations. His work with St. Francis Hospital and the local community groups that he engages with daily is a constant reminder of his tenacity and eagerness to help all that he can. Andrew’s love for the city, as well as the community that he serves, in my opinion is unparalleled. I’m impressed and proud of the work that Andrew does, and I look forward to many more years of partnership with the Hartford Police Department,” said Cicero.
In 2006, Woods was recruited along with four Stump the Violence Youth Leaders (Khiree Smith, Dyllan Leonard, Chad Ricketts, and Joseph Wilkerson) to launch the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) National Youth Leadership Initiative. Today, CADCA’s NYLI has trained thousands of young people to be peer leaders/ peer educators, youth coalition members and change agents fighting to prevent drug use and violence in communities across the globe.
In 2009, Congressman John Larson secured federal funding from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to expand the Stump the Violence Youth Leadership Academy. The program was implemented at Rawson Elementary School and effectively served more than 80 students in this after-school and day-time program.
Woods says his team just wants fairness in funding in the same way other cities garner response to a crisis. After more than 20 children and six adults were shot and killed in Sandy Hook in 2012, more than 20 foundations were set up to support for community healing. Woods believes that zip code 06120 warrants the same kind of response to prevent violence from continually happening on Hartford’s North End.
Governor Dannel P. Malloy agreed, appointing Woods to serve on three state commissions to examine gun laws, urban violence, victims’ rights and privacy, to create recommendations to prevent and reduce violence and support crime victims in the State of Connecticut and it’s urban cities. During this time, Woods and Carl Hardrick convinced state law makers to fund programs and services across the state to address urban violence, resulting in a $3.5 million allocation to programs specifically targeted to programs in urban areas. To date, these urban violence prevention funds are still in place.
At this time, Woods also persuaded the Governor to fund a Violence Free Zone (VFZ) Coalition in the “06120” Hartford zip code, which was honored. Providing resources to fund an afterschool program at Fred D. Wish Elementary School, a mentoring program for youth exposed to gun violence/trauma, block watch organizing and to hire intervention specialist to work in four of North Hartford’s K-8 schools.
In Fall of 2014, Woods and the VFZ Coalition was able to convince the Governor to establish the nation’s first Commission on Youth and Urban Violence, something that had not been done since the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, giving rise to the Kerner Commission. The Governor’s Commission on Youth and Urban Violence was announced on March 24, 2015, and convened to identify risk factors that result in the incidence of violence in high-crime communities and to recommend meaningful policies and evidence-based programs designed to reduce violence.
Earlier, in January 2015, Woods and the VFZ Coalition agreed to accept a contract from the City of Hartford to incorporate President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Initiative into the VFZ Coalition activities, and to use these funds to establish an MBK Youth Leadership Academy and an MBK Action Plan to address the unique challenges of boys and young men of color in Hartford.
By the Fall of 2015, Woods and Steve Harris, Kyle Anderson and Reverend Samuel Saylor partnered with Congressman John Larson (CT-1) to co-organize a delegation of African-American service providers, residents and youth to convene at the White House, Congress and federal agencies to advocate for violence prevention and intervention resources. Armed with the initial MBK Action Plan or “06120” Action as presented, the coalition was optimistic after leaving Washington and believing that their organizations and programs stood a shoot at potential funding opportunities. But, by January 2016, Hartford’s new Mayor Bronin and his administration decided that MBK would best serve Hartford if it was placed within City Hall and administered by the City of Hartford.
This decision led to the eventual demise of the MBK efforts that were originally established, where agencies of color were factored into the program and funding considerations of a community action plan. Also, the VFZ Coalition was effectively dismantled, sending a chilling message throughout the North End community, that North End residents should not dare decide to organize themselves or think critically about the issues that impact them. Since then, there has been no know MBK program created by the City of Hartford, and to many North End residents, the mayor’s decision killed the program.
Nevertheless, HCTC has launched a new Youth Leadership Academy in partnership with the NAACP and the IMA, an academy that can be traced back to the day’s when he and Kenneth Green decided to teach young people about leadership. It is an academy which is a direct spin-off of the MBK Youth Leadership Institute and an outgrowth of Stump the Violence.
In 2016, with the help of HCTC board member JoAnn Price, Michael Smith, strategic advisor for the Obama Foundation and acting director of the MBK Alliance, flew in from Washington D.C. to thank Woods, his staff and board of directors for the work they do, and to encourage them to continue educating young people.
“I support HCTC because this death by senseless violence can deeply wound a community in so many ways,” said Price. “We simply cannot accept this as normal in our community. We have far too many very bright, eager-to-learn children and young people in our community. We can’t let Hartford become a war zone. We have to cheer our children and young people on. We have to celebrate their every achievement, big or small. We have to teach them all the good things we ourselves know in order to smooth the way for them. Andrew is doing a marvelous job. We should all support him.”
Today, Woods and his team— a dedicated team of HCTC youth leaders—come together on weekends to mentor and train youth in the HCTC Youth Leadership Academy, Every Saturday, for four hours, sometimes more, they challenge youth to put to teach young people how important it is to put hard work into learning and understanding public policy issues, and to learn how advocate for change.
HCTC staff members Eddie Brown, Natalie Langies, Ken Ashworth and Angela Washington prepare the workshops, and serve as mentors and coaches to young people.
Woods and his team also tutor elementary school children with their homework. “We work real hard to improve the academic skills of these very bright young people, and hence, their leadership skills” said Woods. “I tell them ‘What I see when I look at you is not all you are. It is only what you have become so far.” The goal is to inspire young people, and hope they run with that inspiration.“
Wood’s team also tries to enhance their social lives to become leaders. “Our mentors engage them in some tough, complex and supportive dialogue. Some of these young people have to endured more than any of us had to deal with at that age.”
“We must never sell our young people short,” said Davis. “Some students love the incisive conversations and the interaction and training so much that they re-enroll for more leadership training. It is a testament to how dedicated they are to developing their minds and ensuring their future success.”
Darlene Robertson-Childs, who lost her son Charles to gun violence, was a special guest speaker at one meeting. Students listened attentively as this mother, with an undying spirit to forge change in honor of her son, bravely discussed “Effective Ways to Help Neighbors, Family and Friends Impacted by Violence.” Other speakers have discussed topics such as “Historical Forms of Violence and Trauma,” “Youth Voice: The Intersection Between Education, Poverty, Violence and Trauma,” and many other topics
Students also make public presentations before their public audiences. They discuss poverty, violence and trauma. Through this kind of self-expression and teamwork, they develop critical thinking and communication skills, skills necessary for their performance in the workplace of tomorrow.
Many of the young people in the academy have excelled in learning leadership skills and research. Stump Youth leaders Khiree Smith, who Woods has mentored Smith since Smith was in seventh grade at Fox Middle School, along with Joseph Wilkerson, Chad Ricketts and Dylan Leonard, who were recruited to co-design and launch the CADCA National Youth Leadership Initiative.
Today, Smith is a sterling example of HCTC’s impact on young people. Smith is a global change agent, youth philanthropist, international public speaker, Hampton University alumnus and recently finished law school at Georgetown University. Three years ago, Smith, who helped develop CADCA, traveled to Abu Dhabi and Dubai to present at the first Global Forum on Drug Abuse. Woods traveled to the nation’s capital to hear Smith deliver the keynote address at CADCA’s 28th National Leadership Forum.
HCTC has partnered with numerous organizations oncluding the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Greater Hartford NAACP, the Woodson Center, the Young Educate To Succeed, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, the Institute for Community Research in in the Principles of Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) and countless volunteers and supporters who want African American children succeed.
On March 24, 2018, Woods partnered with the Wilson Gray YMCA’s Y-Achievers Program to bring more than 55 youth and chaperones to the March for our Lives Rally in Washington, DC. The youth traveled to DC to support the Parkland 17, and to also raise awareness of the everyday gun violence that impacts children and families in urban areas like Hartford.
On March26, 2018, the youth from the Youth Leadership Academy presented their research findings and policy recommendations to the Hartford City Council. They were recognized by the City Council for their great work and received citations, and their recommendations were referred to the Quality of Life and Public Safety Committee, where the youth will soon meet with council members to dive deeper into the policy recommendations.
Several months ago, HCTC also launched a clinical group practice at HCTC, to offer office and home-based therapy to those needing this service. Thanks to Clinical Director Rosanne Ellis-Demby, LCSW, HCTC has several dedicated, seasoned and passionate therapists who are driven to provide quality support to individual, groups and families.
Nursing interns from St. Joseph’s University also help, offering a full week of professional development training for young people in the after-school program. Students learn professionalism in the workplace, class and program management, how to manage curriculum and how to sharpen their own skills for r success in the workplace.
Woods is much more than a tenacious, caring, successful office administrator developing programs and securing funding to stop senseless violence. His calling compels him to leave not only his office, but his bed at night. A day in the life of Andrew Woods will find him bouncing between a homicide on the South End and a double shooting on the North End of town. He responds to police calls and hospital emergencies. He climbs dark staircases at 3 a.m. to find children missing from home.
All hours of any night, he responds, to be there for the young person and his or her family,to offer comfort and to help relieve the pain and suffering families. He recently rushed to a street corner where someone has been shot. In another incident, he arrived to find a 17-year old Hartford teen stabbed, and who had killed his uncle. The young man was hearing voices. Elsewhere, another 17-year old had stabbed and killed his own brother.
Woods recently told his Facebook friends, “I just left a family that could use your prayers. Their teenage son got into an argument and altercation with his older brother, who died.” By the end of last year, Woods and Carl Hardrick, a crisis intervention specialist, had personally responded to and supported more than 560 victims of gun violence in Hartford. Recently, they responded to three fatal car crashes in ten days in Hartford’s North End. Trying to get control of reckless violence in the community is not easy. Not very many people can do it. Woods is an unusual man, dealing with crime day in and day out. But Woods is refreshingly different.
Like everyone, our senses occasionally need to be sun swept or moon lit. We all need some delicious harmony in our lives—something light and breezy, and fresh and wholesome. Something soothing and aromatic. Maybe, a waterfall. To keep his head clear, Woods works out each morning, and often goes for a walk along the river or a nearby lake to inhale some of “God’s glory. To cool out, he goes out to dinner or see a play. Recently, it was Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between The World and Me” at the Apollo in Harlem. Several months ago, it was the “The Color Purple” at the Bushnell. Other times, he catches the 55-minute ferry ride to Block Island to relax, or just walk through a museum to enjoy the beauty of expression, culture and history.
HCTC’s trained staff also continue to systematically addressed trauma-related mental health. Its clinically-trained staff has assisted families affected by violence, physical and mental. HCTC has served 112 school-aged youth in after school academic support programs and helped and trained more than 90 faith-based organizations, and civic members who have been victims of violent crimes.
Today, HCTC is boldly marching forward. It continues to establish relationships and develop partnerships and crisis response teams to prevent violence and support crime victims. Under the leadership of UConn History Professor Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar, UConn also began partnering with HCTC, sending its students to Hartford to mentor middle and high school students and to help prepare them for college.
Much work is being done by a lot of people. More and more people are gathering. Former State Representative Kenneth Green is proud. He says he saw something special in Woods— the desire to make a positive difference in the community. Legendary television news reporter Lew Brown wholeheartedly concurs. He notes that Woods and HCTC are comprehensive in their approach to solving crime in the North End. Paraphrasing the lyrics of Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come, Brown said:
“The positive winds of change are blowing with intensity in Hartford, actively fast tracking civil and human rights in many quarters of the city by ‘any means necessary. Andrew Woods is an integral part of this force for upgrading the quality of life. Woods’ HCTC, based on empirical, well-researched evidence, has determined that too many Hartford residents have been traumatized by horrible tragic events. Woods, his pristine board of directors consisting of laudable people from the fields of finance, business, philanthropic and public sectors, along with his supporters, including parents, grandparents, community activists, police and politicians, have become real change agents from down here on the ground, where everything is funky and real, to the halls of the municipal building, to academe, the state house and the halls of Congress.”
“This violence free zone simply needs caring partners,” said Woods. “If we seriously invest in our children and young people, we can make some serous life changes in the way young people think about themselves. There is no time to lose. HCTC is the opportunity I believe serious people have been waiting for.”
Woods say service is the hallmark of his prominent, distinguished, highly respected board of directors and all the agencies and offices with whom his team is collaborating. He says people struggling can turn to HCTC with confidence that the organization will work hard to make something positive happen in their lives. He encourages people who want to help HCTC to write or call, and to also tell the people you vote for to support HCTC efforts to support victims/families of gun violence.
“You can count on us at HCTC to deliver” said Woods. “Our standards are high. Our values are indestructible. We don’t cut corners on trying to achieve excellence. We will never let up or give up. We leave no stone unturned as we look for exciting new ways to help young people grow. We are doing some amazing things. We are turning people’s lives around. Our young people are flourishing with towering achievements. We are here to serve. Service is free, and it’s rewards are deeply satisfying and great. Come get in on the fun!”
To learn more about HCTC, call 860) 209-8957 or visit (www.hartfordctc.org)