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.
“[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.