Nonprofit’s success enhances African-American relations with law enforcements by Neva Legallet

Windchimes and ceramic statues adorn a front yard in the Golden Gate Villages apartments of Marin City, with colorful decorations spilling onto the cracked sidewalk outside—a stark contrast to the rest of the nondescript housing units around it. This spot of vibrancy, however, isn’t an eccentric resident, but a highly successful nonprofit called the Phoenix Project. The Phoenix Project was founded by Felecia Gaston under her previously-existing nonprofit, Performing Stars, and aims to create community connections and supportive infrastructure for the African-American community of Marin City, mostly by getting clients off probation and independent.

“The issue between men of color and law enforcement has historically been an ongoing issue over decades, going way back to segregation and Jim Crow. There’s a lot of misunderstanding,” Gaston said. “Law enforcement has impacted these men’s lives over the years, and we need to have some kind of solution.”

Working with local agencies—law enforcement, the probation department, public defenders, the district attorney, the Marin Housing Authority and Marin County Sheriff’s department—Gaston works to break the cycle of incarceration, release, probation and re-incarceration that she says is especially prevalent among African-American males.

“The law enforcement agencies make [the success] happen, and that’s what’s unique about [the Phoenix Project]; you normally don’t get a community-based agency that involves black males and law enforcement working together,” Gaston said. The Phoenix Project is one of few such organizations that has such a tight-knit relationship with law enforcement according to Gaston.

Founder of the Phoenix Project, Felicia Gaston, has integrated various local components, including law enforcement, in order to serve the community through her nonprofit.

Michael Daly, Chief Probation Officer for Marin County, says the relationship between Gaston’s organization and his department has been invaluable.

“It’s a good opportunity to connect with the residents of Marin City for community outreach, as well as with the folks on juvenile and adult probation whereby we can utilize folks who have grown up in that community and are well-trusted, and they work with our probation officers to assist those people currently on adult or juvenile probation,” Daly said.

Addressing such a large-scale problem requires ongoing aid for at-risk youths and males of the area, and Gaston’s work includes supporting these demographics in all aspects of life.

“Some have been in the probation system since they were juveniles, and it became a revolving door. What I found was that an intervention was necessary: making restorative justice available and accessible. If there was more intervention in between they wouldn’t stay in the system,” Gaston said.

This intervention comes in the form of mentors, as the Phoenix Project is based on a mentorship model, and Gaston recruits older community members to work with her clients.

“The men who are the case managers, they’re older than who we’re serving but they’ve also grown up in this community and so they have a positive relationship [from the beginning]; there’s a trust factor,” Gaston said.

Federico Cortez is one such community member who began working for the Phoenix Project after finishing his probation time.

“[Gaston] was a real help to me too. I’ve grown up in Marin City as a low-income minority kid living in public housing all my life. I’m gay, and it was hard growing up where people in my community could see I was gay before I even knew I was,” Cortez said. “I was picked on and teased on, and I grew up fast and rough, and it got me into fights where I had to stick up for myself, and that’s how I ended up in the juvenile system.”

Although Cortez did not utilize the resources of the Phoenix Project before he began volunteering and later working there as an administrative assistant, he says Gaston has provided the same for him that her nonprofit hopes to provide for the larger community: stability.

“I’m off probation now, and I don’t think I could have done it without Felecia. She’s done so much and made my life so much easier and more stable. She’s given me a direction and a positive outlook in an environment I had no control over growing up,” Cortez said.

Strengthening the Phoenix Project’s community connections is its location directly in the housing projects; Gaston says that this makes its resources more accessible to the community.

Located in the heart of the Golden Gate Villages apartments of Marin City, the Phoenix Project is open for walk-ins.

Clients are often walk-in, but the nonprofit will also receive referrals for cases. As an administrative assistant, Cortez determines what “stage” the client is at initially, and he says most come in at Stage One, which focuses on short-term, stability-focused goals like obtaining proper identification such as a driver’s license.

“I walk [clients] through resources I would have and should have taken advantage of myself,” Cortez said. “It helps me [to] expose a whole younger generation to things they don’t know can be taken advantage of.”

From there, long-term goals can range from simply becoming fully independent to attending school and obtaining a GED or degree.

“I think the variety of services and connections are important. We help people obtain security: a driver’s license, a job, an apartment. We work for self-advocacy,” Gaston said.

Gaston’s efforts for her nonprofit have garnered tangible successes, quantifiable in the form of a historic low in probation referrals for the county.

“The relationships built between the Probation Department, the Phoenix Project and its service providers [have] led to a record low amount of persons currently on formal probation in both the juvenile and adult systems,” Daly said in an analysis of the project. “We appreciate the partnership and so does the community. We all benefit.”

Statistics support this assessment as the number of Marin City youths referred to the Juvenile Division of the Marin County Probation Department has significantly decreased from 2009 and 2010, with highs of 76 and 85 respectively, to a low of 10 referrals in 2018 according to a report by the department.

“I’m glad for all the success stories,” Gaston said. “It makes me happy to see that people’s lives are changed with the proper support.”

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