Newark-based Independence: A Family of Services is taking on some of the toughest issues our city faces. Here’s how.

givenewarkIndependence: A Family of Services launched as Independence High School in 1971. Now the nonprofit works to create the pathways to success for at-risk and troubled youth and families through innovative programs and services in urban New Jersey. CEO Margaret Woods walks us through the organizations overall mission, plus its specific objectives over the next few years. Independence is one of five Newark nonprofits participating in the GAIN collective.

Andaiye Taylor: What is the primary objective of Independence: A Family of Services?

Margaret Woods: Since 1971, Independence: A Family of Services (IFS) has been at the forefront of working with youth struggling with educational and behavioral issues caused by poverty and unstable homes. Almost all of the youth and families population we serve are from single-parent households, and in foster care or residential programs. They are predominately between the ages of 16 and 18 and over 85% reside in Newark.

Taylor: What are some initiatives that Independence has been involved in within the past two or three years that have made a difference in Newark?

Woods: IFS provide the social services component for the Newark Violence Reduction Initiative aims to reduce Newark’s gang-related shootings by 25 to 30 percent, laying the groundwork for further positive change. Using an innovative approach that has cut urban crime rates across the country, this program is in partnership with IFS, the City of Newark, Newark Police Department, and Rutgers–Newark’s School of Criminal Justice (with support from the Schumann Foundation) is designed to “reconfigure” the street norms.

Specifically, at IFS works with gang members who have been convicted, charged, arrested, or identified as individuals who have committed a crime involving the use of a firearm, are associated with those who have committed these crimes, or are deemed as having the potential of committing these crimes.

The initiative requires all of the participating partners — IFS, police and prosecutors — to focus on the small number of lawbreakers responsible for some of the most violent crimes. In Newark, that’s 1,470 people, less than 1 percent of the city’s 277,000 residents.

Data collected for the project show that, in 2009–10, this tiny fraction of Newark’s population was behind the violence in 73 crime hot spots that cover less than 9 percent of the city’s square mileage—but account for half its shootings.

To reach this group, police and prosecutors summon gang members to a neighborhood meeting and deliver a firm message: the violence must stop, or the whole group—not just the individuals involved in the latest encounter—will face intense scrutiny. Then community members speak, condemning violence and encouraging gang members to choose using a variety of social services to access education, job training, and drug treatment.


Taylor: Ensuring that such social services are readily available to these gang members or anyone who wants them is a key element of the initiative and IFS is the lead partner providing these critical services.

Woods: Focused policing ensures that the cost of violence outweighs its perceived benefits; community pressure makes positive alternatives more attractive and appeals to gang members’ moral sense that it’s inherently wrong to be picking up guns and shooting people. This carrot-and-stick approach reduces crime without filling prisons. By targeting lawbreakers, the model also avoids antagonizing law-abiding citizens with heavy-handed police tactics that treat everyone as a suspect.

Taylor: What initiatives in the next few years will Giving Day contributions help to facilitate?

Woods: IFS uses best practices providing tools and services for gang members to recover from past emotional and psychological trauma related to living in stigmatizing environments (abusive families, underachieving schools or lack of access to productive activities). IFS works hard to create the right course of action for each gang member by breaking the generational cycle of dependency on government assistance, teaching them to be self-sufficient, and live productive lives.

The road to this goal is complex, but achievable, given the right resources and dedication by adults who care (IFS staff). The IFS outreach team coordinates services, and provides case management and supervision of each youth. Although a portion of the team’s time is used to connect with the communities and residents where the youth reside, they also work one-on-one with each youth to ensure progress is made with their plans for a better life.

In addition, IFS coordinates alternative activities to keep youth focused on the life-changing goals such as job training and placement, housing assistance, and participating in sports or recreational activities. In addition, each youth receives referrals for additional resources as needed.

Because of its successful work with NVRI, IFS was selected by PSEG Foundation to provide these services to youth 16 and younger who are involved in violent activities in Newark.

Taylor: If someone supports Independence’s mission but doesn’t have a lot of money to give, what are some meaningful ways they can contribute?

Woods: IFS has many opportunities for volunteering (after passing a background check since they would work with minors) but one of the best ways to support IFS is to spread the word about our organization. Volunteers may help organize clothing (for young adults and teens) and book drives (for children ages 0-11 years old). They can contact Celeste Moore to discuss volunteer opportunities, at 973-372-5601.

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