Carnegie Hall was illuminated Tuesday by the song and words of New Yorkers who are working to keep their rough pasts far behind them.
Tuesday night’s performance was held in the Resnick Education Wing -- a 10th floor space overlooking Seventh Avenue. As the sun set across Central Park, members of the Renaissance Youth Choir performed Rihanna and Michael Jackson songs, poets with Free Verse recounted life on the streets and documentary films screened on topics such as colorism, the struggles of being a single parent and homelessness in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. An audience of about 100 clapped along, and cheered in encouragement after each performer finished up.
The performance wrapped up 12 weeks of classes at South Bronx NeON, a program that allows people on probation, as well as other community members, to take classes in different areas of the arts as a way to promote self-expression, as well as social and career skills.
Tahara Lilly, 32, read a poem about the timeline of her life, recounting getting arrested at 13 for the first time, celebrating her 18th birthday behind bars with Little Debbie cakes and finally getting out when she was 23 and becoming a mother.
Lilly said she wasn’t a poet until she tried to write a few years ago at Free Verse. The poetry workshop is located in the waiting room of the South Bronx NeON on 161st Street, a probation officer check-in and community center, where she was taking GED classes.
“When I finally, actually, really started writing, I started writing about myself and it was a reliever,” Lilly said. “I didn’t know how much I was holding in, and when you finally release it on paper, it be like a breakthrough.”
Lilly, who failed her GED four times, said she’s now working on a collection of poems.
Daniel Clark, now 20, said he had anger problems as a teenager, and started skipping school and getting into trouble. He learned to play the bass about five years ago at a residential school in Dobbs Ferry, and played in the Renaissance Youth Center band on Tuesday.
“It’s the best thing ever,” Clark said of the supportive experience at the music center, which primarily serves Morrisania. “They support me … a lot of people don’t have that connection.”
Clark, who finished high school last year and is hoping to start taking massage therapy classes, said the program keeps him from not having anything to do in the neighborhood, which got him into trouble in the first place.
The programs work, according to Tim Salyer, assistant commissioner for the Department of Probation in the Bronx, because they bring together people who are on probation with other community members, as well as police officers and probation officers involved with the programs.
Of the 7,500 people on probation in the Bronx, about 80 participated in the third round of NeON programs. A fourth starts next week. The neighborhood probation programs serve seven communities throughout the five boroughs, and the program’s $500,000 budget is funded by a grant from the Open Society Foundation, with 80 percent going to arts programs.
“Before probation, our clients would come to our office because they had to,” Salyer said. “But when we bring these services to our clients and say, hey, we’ve got songwriting classes, documentary classed, you can finish high school, they’re coming three days a week, five days a week because they want to. That says it all right there.”