How Jill Eisenhard Empowers Red Hook Teens To Create Change In Others' Lives As Well As Their Own

Stepping into a group meeting about participatory budgeting at the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) in early November, Jill Eisenhard overheard a high school student complaining about having trouble getting an ID he needed for school. To him, it was impossible. The RHI full-time staffer leading the group was ready to find a solution, and told him: "What do we need to do to make this happen? This is very possible." Jill Eisenhard, founder and director of the Red Hook Initiative, beamed with pride, remembering when she had a very similar conversation with the staffer when the staffer was still a student.

RHI isn't your ordinary after-school youth center. Along with homework help and activities ranging from dance classes to a technology club, students learn how to teach their peers about sexual health, counsel one another, and motivate change in their Brooklyn community. Eisenhard is at the helm of it all, with a mission to help the Red Hook neighborhood, where almost 70 percent of the population lives in public housing, according to The New York Times, overcome systemic poverty by empowering its teenagers. "We're saying, 'You aren't just coming here to receive services, you're coming here to be the ones creating the change,'" Eisenhard tells Bustle.

(Eisenhard and Frances Medina, a former RHI participant who has started her own business)

Working predominantly with teens from the Red Hook Houses, a nearby public housing complex, Eisenhard created three programs at RHI — for middle schoolers, high schoolers, and young adults — with the goal that students will start the program in middle school and stay through their early 20s. "We offer them the opportunity they need to break the cycle of poverty," Eisenhard, 40, says. "Ultimately that's working toward high school graduation and then college or job training." Along with academic accountability, students get help applying to college and summer internships, and if they want to work right out of high school, they are offered paid workforce training at a local business.

Eisenhard believes breaking the cycle of poverty requires much more than just academic help and encouragement though, which is why RHI empowers teens by working to instill a sense of self-worth and creating opportunities to carry out their own ideas for improving their neighborhood. "People can only be as strong as the community in which they live," Eisenhard tells Bustle. High school students are trained to be peer health educators and peer counselors, enabling them to teach workshops about sexual health and emotional health issues, escort peers to medical appointments, and provide one-on-one counseling.

Eisenhard tries to teach every student that they possess the qualities to be a leader — they just need the confidence to act on their leadership skills. She realized one RHI high schooler, Frank, had gained that confidence in himself when he began introducing himself as a community leader, rather than as a RHI student leader. Frank took an internship with New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca's office, and at a recent program presenting RHI's work to people from around the country, he introduced himself as a liaison between Red Hook and the city council — Eisenhard had to remind him that he's also an RHI student leader. Rather than feeling dissed though, she was glad he viewed himself as a strong presence in the community.

(Eisenhard speaks about the importance of RHI's work in the neighborhood)

The idea of empowering people within the community to make a difference, rather than having an outsider coming in to do the work, came to Eisenhard when she began working in Red Hook. Before RHI, Eisenhard started the Red Hook Health Initiative in 2002 while working as a health educator at the Long Island College Hospital (which has since closed). Eisenhard doesn't live in Red Hook, but was drawn to the neighborhood's women because every time she went to Red Hook to teach women's health, she says, everyone was engaged and responsive. Since Eisenhard was purely a health educator, not a nurse or doctor, she thought, "Wouldn't it be better if I could teach 10 to 15 women who could teach their own community?" So, the Red Hook Health Initiative did exactly that.

In 2006, it transformed into RHI, breaking off from the hospital and becoming an independent nonprofit with a wider focus of helping people in the neighborhood improve their lives and their community. Even though the center's goals expanded, Eisenhard kept her approach of inspiring change from within. "Social change is going to start with people who have the strongest tie to the neighborhood," she says.

The most notable example of RHI's approach to community work is its Red Hook WIFI initiative, which provides a free web connection for residents and businesses. Because the mesh network (a system of routers that beam WIFI above the streets through small plastic boxes) can be accessed by everyone, it's reaching people far beyond RHI's walls and helping close the digital divide for those without Internet access. While a closed mesh network can't support all Internet activities, it does allow users to communicate within the area, find essential services, and look for jobs. Spearheaded by a Red Hook native with RHI's help, and now serving as a training ground for young adults interested in careers in tech, the initiative embodies Eisenhard's mission.

On top of all this, RHI is conducting research around access to education, highlighting the need for more educational services in Red Hook. Part of Eisenhard's job as executive director is making sure all of the center's research and programs directly tie to its vision of helping young adults create change, and that means involving students in every project. "In almost every case, young people are guiding the research or presentation or process, so I think that's part of what makes us unique," Eisenhard says. For instance, students created and administered an education survey for people in the community, and after analyzing the results, presented their findings to the Department of Education themselves.

Eisenhard's work has already touched hundreds of lives in Red Hook, and as she continues to expand RHI's reach, her commitment remains to the teens utilizing the center.

"Given the choice between going out and raising money and being in a room with 10 teenagers working on ways to improve their community," Eisenhard says. "I would choose to be in that room any day."

Images: Courtesy of Jill Eisenhard/Mary Rabun for Bustle (1); Courtesy of Jill Eisenhard (3)