The Syracuse Program That’s Working to Rewrite the South Side Narrative

Story and photos by Ellie Coggins

The South Side Communication Center Youth Program bustles with energy on a Wednesday afternoon. Handmade inspirational posters and art projects decorate the walls, along with historical photos of famous black people and a rack filled with Essence magazines. Eight kids are there that day, ranging from age 10 to 18. Some are finishing up their dinners around the living room’s communal table while talking and laughing with each other. A few younger kids start a loud game of Uno. One checks out the various homegrown herbs that adorn the windowsills behind the front desk. Meanwhile, Rachielle Scrivens, coordinator of the center, keeps a watchful eye over them.

To the rest of the community and the kids at the center, she’s better known as Miss Rachielle. She’s all smiles as she describes her kids and the youth program she has been overseeing since 2014. These kids mean a lot to Scrivens, who has known some of them since they were babies, and the kids seem to love her too, as they include her in playing games or sharing what they learned at school. Yet they know Scrivens is serious, too. She demands respect from her kids, calling them out if they’re being rude to their friends or acting lazy about school because she knows they’re better than that.

“What I do here is try to deactivate what the teachers have told you before,” Scrivens reminds the kids. “You are worth it.”

Miss Rachielle
Miss Rachielle, center, records each speaker who comes to the center.

Encouragement and inspiration are the focus of the South Side Communication Center Youth Program. Weekdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., kids from local middle and high schools come to the center. They eat dinner, play games, and get help on homework. They also learn about topics not normally taught in school, such as how to grow and sell herbs, sew, and do photography.

Scrivens’ current program at the center is a series of black speakers. She feels it’s vital that the kids hear from people who come from similar backgrounds and look like them. Bimonthly from October through May, speakers will come talk to the kids from a whole range of professions, from writers to business owners.

All the speakers share one thing in common – they didn’t always do the right thing, but they worked to turn their lives around. That’s why Scrivens records each speaker and asks them tough questions and to be totally transparent about their lives while answering. She wants the kids to see them for who they are, the good and the bad, and learn from their stories.

“I think a lot of the time they don’t get to meet the real people that have gone through it and come out on the other side,” Scrivens says of the kids. “The speakers are real people, not like watching on TV. The kids can talk to them, touch them, relate to them.”

The first speaker of the series is Lanessa Chaplin, an attorney focusing on fighting racial injustices in the Syracuse area. She doesn’t stand in front of the kids, give handouts, or use legal jargon. Rather, she sits with the kids at the table and starts by asking everyone their name and getting to know them before sharing her story.

“I was a kid from the South Side,” Chaplin tells the kids, and eight sets of eyes raptly focus on her. “I was a kid with a bad rep and a big mouth.”

South Side
Lanessa Chaplin, center, speaks to the kids about her journey from South Side kid to lawyer.

For Chaplin, it wasn’t an easy journey getting to where she is today. Her family had to work hard to make ends meet, and college wasn’t presented to her as an option. Guidance counselors told her that her attitude — one that used to get her into fights — wasn’t suited for college despite her near-perfect grades. Chaplin spent several years working various jobs before attending Onondaga Community College, originally to become a paralegal. After taking a law class, she realized that she could be an attorney.

“When I thought of a lawyer, I thought of a white man,” Chaplin says. “At the time, I was just a little black girl wanting to be a lawyer. No one’s going to believe me when I tell them I’m going to law school. When they hear where I came from, they’re going to be like, ‘yeah, right.’”

Between jobs and school, it took Chaplin 10 years to earn her law degree. But it wasn’t just getting her degree that took time. “Most of it was getting the confidence to know I could do it,” she says.

The kids are attentive throughout her talk, writing down questions on slips of paper that Scrivens gave them. Most of the kids had never even met an attorney, let alone a black female attorney from the South Side.

“The reason why I’m telling you this story isn’t because I want to tell you my life,” Chaplin says, looking the kids in the eyes. “The reason I’m telling you this is because when you’re traveling along in your path, you don’t have to know what you want to be at the end of the path. All you have to know is you want to be better today than you were yesterday. And keep moving forward.”

Two weeks later, a smaller group of kids sit around the same table to listen to Waliek Betts, owner and designer of All Money Spends, a clothing store a few doors down from the center. Before he became a business owner, Betts got in trouble for gambling and drugs.

“Not listening to people trying to help, my elders, was the problem,” Betts tells the kids on why he found himself in jail. “There’s no glory in it.”

Once out of jail, he put his love for fashion and design into creating All Money Spends. “Making my first shirt,” he reflects, “was the first step to doing something right.”

At the end of telling his story, Betts asks the kids to share what they want to do when they grow up. Their dreams are big. Answers range from veterinarian to artist, songwriter to chef, lawyer to football player. “All those things are possible,” Betts assures them.

After Betts’ speech, Scrivens asks everyone to grab their coats to go on a little trip. Some were surprised and excited to get out, while others grumbled about the rainy, cold weather. Attitudes shifted once they found themselves walking over to All Money Spends. Shirts are neatly stacked along white shelves, and Betts begins handing out shirts to the kids for free. Their excitement is palpable, as they hold up their new shirts and peruse the other clothes Betts has designed.

“I’m coming back for a fit,” one girl says. Betts laughs and says that they’re all welcome back to his shop.

The kids are also enthusiastic when Scrivens and Betts announce the entrepreneurship program they’re going to partner on – the kids will help design, market, and sell shirts with the help of Betts. It’s another step in providing guidance, teaching a new lesson, and helping the kids discover their passions.

“It’s an opportunity for the kids to be themselves,” Scrivens says humbly. “I hope it opens their world and gives them something to dream about.”