'Invest in Your Participants': Deborah Barrows of Community Partners in Action


 'Invest in Your Participants': Deborah Barrows of Community Partners in Action

'Invest in Your Participants': Deborah Barrows of Community Partners in Action

On any given day, the Hartford Community Court sentences 35 to 40 people to perform community restitution as part of their sentences. Deborah Barrows has helped create the court's robust community service program by harnessing relationships developed during her long career, including 28 years with the Hartford Police Department. In this New Thinking podcast, which was recorded at Community Justice 2016, Barrows discusses how to build community partnerships, the importance of treating program participants with respect, and how she helped launch "Footwear with Care," an initiative that provides free shoes to participants in need.

Deborah Barrows, program manager of Community Partners in Action, talks about strategies for building community partnerships during a panel on community service at Community Justice 2016.Deborah Barrows, program manager of Community Partners in Action, talks about strategies for building community partnerships during a panel on community service at Community Justice 2016.

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DEBORAH BARROWS: You want real community service? Invest in your participants, listen to them, value them. People don't want to be there but I thank you for coming. What? Thank you so much for coming. I appreciate you being here.

ROB WOLF: Hi, I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation and I am in Chicago at Community Justice 2016, where there are over 400 people from dozens of states, 6 countries, I think over 100 jurisdictions, who are here to learn and talk about different aspects of community justice and court reform. Right now I'm speaking with one of the invited speakers and also an attendee at the conference, Deborah Barrows, who is the program manager of Community Partners in Action, which is an organization that's been contracted by Hartford Community Court to provide the community service which is an essential component of the Hartford Community Court and of many community courts. So, Deborah, I wanted to start off asking you maybe you could actually explain Community Partners in Action? What is your relationship to the court as a community based organization?

BARROWS: Thank you, and thank you so much for this opportunity. It's exciting to be here. This is wonderful. I've learned so very much. Community Partners in Action as a non-profit agency has been around over 100 years and we work with individuals that have been involved in a criminal justice system to help them get re-integrated into the community and doing so, under that umbrella, there are re-entry services. There is a program that deals with women that have been incarcerated and help get them back into the society. There's a component of basic need, so there's a lot of different programs under that umbrella.

WOLF: Your particular role there is to work with the court and provide kinds of community restitution or community service projects that defendants are sentenced to?

BARROWS: That is correct. Once an individual, it has been determined that an individual will serve community service, that is where we take over and I oversee the community service component. I have a staff of 7 individuals, 5 of which are in the field as supervisors, and we take our participants out on a daily basis.

WOLF: Well, so tell me about some of the work you do because you guys put out a newsletter and the descriptions of the kinds of community service you do, the range of it, the number of different things that you do is kind of unusual. You've really been successful in terms of being creative with your community service. I know you, in addition to a community garden, you're involved in some environmental restoration projects along the river. You work with a Jewish cemetery to help them maintain the cemetery. A lot of interesting things, so maybe you could explain and give some examples of the kind of community service you're doing, and maybe offer some insight into how you've developed such a robust program?

BARROWS: I think what I need to step back at is for 28 years I wore a hat with law enforcement, with the City of Hartford police department, so I was a police officer operating a police cruiser and I managed to have some supervisory roles. It became very evident then that we needed to do things differently. We needed to develop partnerships and collaborations with all of the different entities, all of the different organizations within the community. So, when I was fortunate enough to be offered this position as program manager of community service, my predecessor was gone so I had no one to really show me the ropes. So, I reflected back on those partnerships and back on those collaborations, and thought, my goodness, what a great idea to reach out to those individuals and say, "Hey, remember me. Here I am. I now have individuals who I want to have become re-energized and re-invested in the community. I still have my police associations, my clergy and all the different agencies, so let's develop this collaboration and really do what we can to make Hartford the beautiful place that we want it to be.” I attend community meetings. I stay involved in the community. We have neighborhood revitalization zone meetings. In doing so, I'm going to individuals, I'm saying, "Listen. On any given day I have between 35 and 40 people who are mandated to give back, so let's really make this work." I find myself meeting with individuals, representatives, from the Jewish cemetery who say, "Hey. We need help." Absolutely. I find myself meeting with Riverfront Recapture. We have presence along the river. We have presence in many of Hartford's beautiful parks.

WOLF: So, what kind of- give some examples of what it is the defendants are then doing in this scenario?

BARROWS: We are doing at Ebony Horse Women which is a therapeutic equestrian center. We are working with horses. It's also an educational component of course. We're doing some gardening. We are working along the riverfront and just cleaning the river, getting it ready for the Dragon Races and cleaning out the trails, doing some gardening there. We have a presence in the parks. We were just cleaning out the playgrounds and making it beautiful. Of course we have a presence on the streets. So, just these collaborations and for me, it's being able to say, "Listen. I don't have all the answers and until we come together and have this conversation about how all of us can fit in, how all of us contribute and value the people that are involved, that's when we make the real difference."

WOLF: Have you had resistance when you approach someone and say, "Oh, I've got some defendants here. They can help." Are some people, "Well, I don't know. Is that safe?" I mean, I imagine people in addition to the union issue, I imagine there's a whole range of questions or concerns that might come up depending on the kind of work you're talking about.

BARROWS: Absolutely it is, and we sit down and work though that. I think dialogue and communication is key, and letting people know what we bring to the table. We are here to do this. This is what we're offering. Ultimately, everyone wants people to get reconnected. This is part of their community also. They may be offenders. They may be drug dealers. They may be prostitutes but for people they deserve the right to be valued, to be respected and they are part of our community.

WOLF: I imagine, as you said, it's educational in some context. Some of the defendants perhaps have never-

BARROWS: Oh my goodness, yes.

WOLF: Interacted with a horse before, or been aware that the river is an environmental concern and that it's polluted or there's trash along the river and that it makes a difference to clean it up.

BARROWS: Hartford is such a rich, rich, diverse city in its history, so each time our participants go out to these sites, there is an individual to sit and talk with them about the meaningfulness of their work, and validating them as people so when they go up to the riverfront there's someone to talk about the river and its connection. When you go to the Jewish cemetery there's someone to talk about the richness in the cemetery. It's one of the oldest, most beautiful cemeteries around. Just getting that education, a lot of people have not gone anywhere other than their little front door, so they really don't know. Being able to do some of these things under this non-profit organization that's helped people get back into society is just amazing.


WOLF: It sounds like your experience, formally as a police officer and at the police department, gives you a unique perspective. I mean, you spoke of the relationships that you'd already had in the community and the ideas that you'd already developed in your career as a police officer. I imagine that gives you a different kind of stature or credibility. When you're approaching people they feel, well she's not putting us in danger. I mean, she's someone who's very knowledgeable about the law and justice, and accountability.

BARROWS: As a police officer or as an in any field, you're only as good as your listening. If you're an active listener and you can really tune into what people's needs are and what the community's needs are, then that can just enhance you in your role in whatever it is that you want to do. Being a police officer, I was not the one who had all the answers. I was the one that was generally able to listen. I was looking at intervention and prevention years before it was taught, because I knew that we had arrested everyone. It just didn't work. I would sit in my cruiser on the corner and I would have made an arrest of someone, and by the time I'm sitting here doing my paper the person would come by, "Hey, Officer Brown." I'm like whoa. To me, I wasn't finished with my paper.

WOLF:   Meaning they were already released from –

BARROWS: Yes, they were already released. It was not working. There was something else. The individuals that were standing on the corner. The answer was not to arrest them. Why are they standing on the corner? What can we do? Do I need to collaborate with employment agencies? Is it a mental health issue? Who do I need to collaborate with? I took those things and I'm doing the same thing as a program manager overseeing community service. The individuals that work under me- I'm no nonsense. I believe in treating people the way that they deserve to be treated because that's when you really get your value, you get your work. Community service is only as good as the individuals that are involved in it, so if you don't engage and invest them in the work, you're not getting anything. You want real community service? Invest in your participants, listen to them, value them. People don't want to be there but I thank them. Thank you for coming. What? Thank you so much for coming. I appreciate you being here. This is going to be a great experience. People are coming in that are homeless. If you look down and someone needs some shoes, offer them a pair of shoes. You see someone has tattered clothing, offer them some clothing. Take them aside, treat them with dignity and respect. Someone comes to the window and says they're hungry, okay I understand the importance of community service but you have a food pantry. It's okay to go get them a cup of coffee, a little bit of water and something to eat. Let them know that you care about them as a person and you value them as a person. That's what Community Partners in Action does so very well.

WOLF: I know you started something related to a program specifically about footwear because many clients don't have adequate shoes. Maybe you wanted to share a little bit about that program as well?

BARROWS: It's funny. I talk about it and the tears flow down my eyes because I think about where it started. Individuals come in and they don't have adequate footwear. We want to hold them accountable. We want them to perform community service but we've got to address their needs. Their needs have got to be addressed. If it's sub-zero degree weather, they can't go out without a coat. They can't go out without adequate footwear. So, we had a small contingent of shoes and footwear there. In trying to look at better ways, we're always looking at how to cultivate relationships, how to do things better. An individual, there is a police officer that is housed at city hall and he works with individuals- the shelters release everybody early in the morning and the individuals, they meander around all day long. There is an individual who works for another organization who works with people released from the shelter and he goes under the bridges and tries to get people from living under the bridges to come and get the services they need. So, somehow we all talk, and we all communicate. I'm thinking small and that's another thing. Whatever your vision and your dreams are don't think small, think big because big becomes reality. I'm thinking small. I'm saying, you know what? I can use a few pair of shoes. I can use a resource card that people can wear where they can get a hot meal, a shower. So, I happen to talk with the officer. I happen to talk with the other individual. We convene a meeting. I call the chief of police who's a friend of mine. Chief Rovella, why don't you come in for a minute. Let's talk about this footwear thing and thus, we have a couple of volunteers that came in and now we have something called Footwear with Care. Started last week where the Hartford Police Department provided two cruisers, two officers, one of them the city hall officer, and the individual who owns a sneaker store in West Hartford. She was able to secure donations from several different vendors, The Northface, Sockanese, New Balance, and all of these sneakers were stuffed into these police cars. In addition, a second piece of it was utilizing the media. For this particular day, people were allowed to come down, you take a picture of the cruiser, you take a picture with the officer, but bring a pair of gently worn sneakers. Clothing is always available. Footwear is not. So, we have another hundred and something pairs of sneakers that were donated. People that came by that didn't bring sneakers wanted to make donations, so it's that collaboration. It's the police. It's the shelters. It's the hospital, the podiatrists. It's just great. It's the churches.

WOLF: It's amazing what you can do when you bring a few-

BARROWS: It is amazing.

WOLF: Caring people together to focus, concentrate on a problem or issue and the solutions you come up with.

BARROWS: It's amazing the number of individuals who want to make a difference. There are a lot of people out there who we don't tap into their energy who want to make a difference, that want to do something and are just waiting on being asked.

WOLF: Well, sounds like there's some good advice there for anyone who wants to replicate what you're doing. Think big. Don't have small dreams.

BARROWS: Don't have small dreams.

WOLF:   Go out and ask people who maybe want to help.

BARROWS: And care. We had a situation a few weeks back where an individual came in. He was in a shelter. He had ended up going and using the bathroom at a private facility and ended up getting arrested. He came to court and he was nodding. He was obviously under the influence of something and he's nodding back and forth. I'm at the window at that particular time and I'm talking to him, and I'm talking to him. "Well, I got this ticket, and this and that." I validated his feelings. "I hear that you should have not gotten a ticket. However, you were someplace where you should not have been." "Well, you know, nobody cares. I have this problem. I'm using 10 bags a day." I said, "We have services here. There's some resources here." I said, "They're immediate." I said, "I have a social worker here. I have individuals here that will talk to you. I could get you some help. If you want a bed, they will get you a bed immediately." We're talking and of course they're crying and they're nodding, and you know, we talked for about 20, 25 minutes and then they leave. Came back 2 weeks later. "Where's Ms. B?" So, they come and get me. How you doing Sir? How are you? "Well, I'm not too good. I OD’d." I said, "What do you mean?" "They had to give me Narcan. I almost died." So, I said, "Well tell me about that. Let's go get some coffee. Let's talk about that." At that point I'm not a social worker, but I don't have time to go grab the social worker because I have this conversation. I have this dialogue.

WOLF: That's the listening you were talking about?

BARROWS: Yes, yes. The immediate thing is of course, go get the social- but I can't. I have him right now. "Well, tell me about that experience?" "Well, you know, they tell me they had to resuscitate me and you know ... " I let him talk and he went on, and, "I'm ready. I know I need to get some help but I can't go today. I just can't go today." "Tell me more."

WOLF:   Wow.

BARROWS: Talk for another 15 minutes. Left. Came back a week later, "Where's Ms. B?" Thank goodness I was there. "I'm ready now. I'm ready now." It was just wonderful.

WOLF: Well, that is remarkable.

BARROWS: To make a difference.

WOLF: There's a lot in that story.

BARROWS: Just something so small, just listening.

WOLF: Being patient, and letting people on their own schedule in this instance.

BARROWS: Each one of us can make a difference. Each one of us can save a life and there are lives to be saved. I don't have all the answers.

WOLF: Well thank you very much for taking the time to share your experience.

BARROWS: Thank you.

WOLF:   I've been speaking with Deborah Barrows, the program manager of Community Partners in Action, which provides the community service component at the Hartford, Connecticut Community Court and we've been chatting together at Community Justice 2016, the international summit on community justice here in Chicago. (music) I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. You can find out more about the conference. You can find out more about Hartford Community Court. We'll also provide a link to Community Partners in Action on our website, and thank you very much for listening.



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