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Marin City’s Phoenix Project marks 15 years (Marin IJ)

Posted on Category Press Coverage

Marlon Washington, left, the chief probation of Marin County, and Rondall Leggett, pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church, present awards during the Phoenix Project’s Black Men Working Award ceremony in Marin City, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

By  | kwaite@marinij.com
PUBLISHED:  | UPDATED: 

By the time Stephen Dean Jr. of Marin City was 18, he had spent the majority of his youth in the juvenile justice system.

“I was 10 the first time, and 17 the last time,” Dean said. “From age 10 to 18, I was only free for two years, and it wasn’t at the same time. The free time added up, like I would be out for like three months, then back. I was like, I can’t give my life away like that.”

Dean, now 28, is one of the many young men who have been supported by the Phoenix Project, the Marin City-based program that targets “at risk” youths and adults and provides services to help rehabilitate and remove barriers to a more positive future.

The program is marking a milestone of 15 years of working to drastically decrease the number of Marin City adults and juveniles in the criminal justice system.

When the program launched in 2009, there were 122 Marin City adults on supervised probation, and in 2023, there were 14, according to the Marin County Probation Department. In 2009, there were 76 Marin City referrals to the juvenile probation division, and in 2023 there were 11.

Felecia Gaston, executive director of the Phoenix Project, said the barriers that prevent Black men, particularly, from having a more positive life range from basic needs such as securing housing and transportation to addressing broader issues like mental health, education help and racial injustice concerns.

Gaston said intervention and assistance needs to involve all aspects of society — housing authorities, food resources, positive role models within the community, law enforcement, employers and legal and financial aids, for example.

“Getting rid of all of that baggage, that’s what the Phoenix Project does,” Gaston said.

When Dean returned from an out-of-state group home for troubled youths at 18, he had twins on the way — and knew something needed to change. However, his past made it hard. He worked with Gaston throughout his youth, often helping set up events.

With support from the Phoenix Project, Dean was able to get his license, get into a school program, get a car to help with transportation to classes and housing, and eventually get a job at the San Jose airport. Dean recently graduated from a firefighter training program and hopes to join CalFire.

“It helped me a lot, because growing up, I was a problem maker in Marin City,” Dean said. “There was a lot of police contact. I came from a rough family. It helped me a lot because I was legit all the way around. It helped me be a more normal person.”

In recent years, the program has expanded to helping women, too. However, women’s needs tend to be focused around emergency assistance, family hardships and intimate partner violence, according to Gaston.

Transportation remains a huge struggle for all. According to a report prepared by a data analyst at Vestwell in New York, nearly 45% of visits to the Phoenix Project from January 2022 to June 2023 were related to transportation; 12% were for legal assistance; about 10% for bills; and almost 9% for housing. Funeral, employment, emergency, education and extracurricular requests make up the rest of the visits.

For example, Gaston said, a mother recently asked for help getting her child moved into a school in Sonoma County. The program was able to get her a car for the journey. Other transportation-related examples include help with car maintenance fees or with tire problems.

The program partners with other organizations for funding, like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Community Action Marin and the Marin Advocates Network. From January 2022 to June 2023, $43,239 in requests were received — more than $16,000 for transportation alone — and $32,430 were granted. The average funding was $176.25 per person.

Gaston said one of the more important ways the program helps those in Marin City is by hosting conversations with law enforcement and Black men to help build understanding and relieve tension between the groups.

“Effective partnerships between law enforcement and community stakeholders are really paramount to effective public safety,” said Marlon Washington, chief probation officer of the Marin County Probation Department. “So it has been a very positive force.”

Washington said nonprofit organizations are often ingrained in the community and help bridge the gap between governmental agencies and the people they are meant to serve.

“We really appreciate this continued partnership because we all benefit,” he said.

The program began in 2009 as a response to a surge in crime, and Gaston said through research she noticed a “revolving door” system where many got in trouble with the law in their youth and, when unable to succeed while on parole due to various barriers, would eventually end up back in the justice system.

Through interventions like mentoring, case management, basic needs assistance, vocational development and life skills training, Gaston said the Phoenix Project has been able to achieve its goal of getting people out of the justice system, providing support and easing burdens on Marin City’s men and women.

“I’m so proud of this program, especially when I see what is happening in other areas in the bay, like Oakland. I’m like wait a minute, you need a Phoenix Project,” Gaston said. “You need to go into where the problems are and set up shop.”

Dean said that at the end of the day, he was the one who had to make the change, who needed to do the work and sit through the classes. However, he said, people like Gaston and the programs like the Phoenix Project helped him navigate the obstacles.

“I always knew she would help me, or try her very best to,” Dean said.

Used with permission by the Marin Independent Journal.
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