For nearly 15 years New Earth, a nonprofit organization, has served incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth throughout Southern California.
New Earth provides youth offenders in juvenile halls, group homes and probation camps with a support system and mentorship program. The organization also has a reentry center that caters to the needs of youths ages 13-25 upon their release.
“Our first program was just really a poetry program,” Harry Grammer, founder of New Earth, told the San Quentin News. “We wanted to give opportunities to young people that were incarcerated, a way to express themselves in places where there is no expression.”
This program became the “Fluent Love of Words” (FLOW,) where creative writing, spoken word and poetry workshops helped the youth express their lives through writing.
Within the FLOW program the young people record their poetry to the musical “beats” they create. The students then learn how to edit and engineer their own CDs. When the class is completed, the students hold a showcase and perform in front of their peers and facility staff.
These workshops are held in different detention centers throughout the Los Angeles and Orange County areas. The program is also in Camp Gonzales, Camp Miller and Pacific Lodge Boys Home.
Grammer was once a troubled youth himself – including an arrest at 16 and five years of juvenile probation – an experience that inspired him to become a youth advocate.
“I was bumping my head around until I got into my late 20s,” said Grammer. “I became a teenaged father and started turning my life around. I even spent a short time homeless.”
Being homeless is how Grammer came up with the name New Earth for his organization. He said he was living in a tent on the beach and sleeping on the earth.
“I wanted a New Earth for myself, I wanted a new life for myself,” said Grammer, “so the name New Earth. I attached it to the organization and now it’s turning into something bigger.”
Grammer moved New Earth beyond the prison walls and built a support system for youths returning home.
“There’s a high recidivism rate in Los Angeles,” said Grammer. “I had gone to my ninth funeral of students that were in my classes. You start to realize great programs in jails just aren’t enough to make a real big impact as needed.”
Upon release, the young people can go to the New Earth Arts & Leadership Center located in Culver City. The youth receive a case manager and a variety of services such as career and job training, a high school education, music production and a gardening program.
The center provides young people counseling and trauma support, transportation to the center, financial literacy and parenting classes. They also can receive clothing, baby supplies and two daily meals.
Grammer and his staff also go to the youth homes and counsel them with their families.
“We give them a full wrap-around because they need someone in their life that they have built a relationship with and really cares,” said Grammer. “In some instances parents weren’t present in their lives. Over a period of time, we saw that we could do more for these young people.”
With this kind of dedication and commitment, Grammer was selected by the Obama Foundation to join its inaugural 2018 Fellows class. Grammer is one of 20 “Obama Fellows” chosen from more than 20,000 applicants from 191 countries. The Obama Foundation will provide the Fellows with hands-on training and a network that will help take their work to the next level, according to a news release.
“It’s an incredible honor,” said Grammer. “At the same time I see the scope of the seriousness of this position, being a voice for the folks here in our communities. It’s a great responsibility.”
One of these next level projects New Earth is taking on is converting a former juvenile detention facility in Malibu into a vocational trade center and a partial reentry program.
“Nowhere in history have we heard of a prison being shut down and then turned into something that’s going to be good for the community, so this will be a big deal for us,” said Grammer. “It will be a residential program. It will not be a diversion program. People won’t be sentenced there. There will be an application process like any other college.”
It will be a 10-month program. The requirements are that they be system-involved in some way such as: probation, homeless, former foster care. At the end of the certification process, the students will be placed in jobs.
The Obama Foundation is interested in supporting and putting resources into this project, which will happen over the next three years, said Grammer.
Grammer understands the challenges that he faces—from dealing with bureaucracy, navigating funding and educating the public about the juvenile justice system. But he also has a message for incarcerated adults:
“First and foremost, keep your head up, get through it,” said Grammer. “We need you back in the community. Our communities aren’t going to turn around unless our elders come together and say ‘hey, you know what, let’s turn this gang thing around, let’s turn this crime thing around. Give our young people the right guidance and move in the right direction.”
Lee Mengistu, University of California at Berkeley Student, contributed to this story