University of Hope for the Hopeless
University of Hope for the Hopeless?
Yes. That’s probably the most appropriate description of the Delancey Street Foundation. Started in 1971 by Mimi Silbert, a criminologist and psychologist with John Maher, an ex-convict, the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco provides residential rehabilitation services and vocational training for substance abusers and convicted criminals and reintegrates them into main stream society by operating various businesses such as restaurants, catering and moving companies. All these businesses are wholly managed and run by the residents themselves.
The Delancey street foundation is not yet another rehabilitation services provider. It is unique in many ways. The main force behind the Foundation and its success has been its co-founder, Mimi Silbert, the indefatigable woman and her commitment. After college, Mimi studied under the famous existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris. From him she learned, “there is no given meaning to life, and that you have to make that meaning.” Later, at the University of Berkeley, she earned a double doctorate in psychology and criminology and then taught briefly at Berkeley and San Francisco State universities. She became a consultant to prisons, mental health programs, halfway houses, and police departments.
In 1971, John Maher, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict, who had served prison time for a series of petty crimes approached Mimi Silbert. He suggested that they set up a self-supporting rehab centre for ex-cons, an idea Silbert has been considering. Maher argued that the traditional rehab programs don’t work and that it takes an ex-addict to understand the gut wrenching pain of heroin. They further discussed the possibility of ex-cons living together and helping one another off drugs and also teaching each other how to get a high school diploma or a college degree, learn a legitimate trade, hold a job and most importantly, develop self-esteem.
What makes the Delancey Street Foundation unique? Its methods. Its core values. Its basic approach to the whole issue of rehabilitation. Who are its residents and how they adapt to change? When you consider the typical profile of a resident of the Delancey Street changing their hardcore addiction seems impossible. The residents come to the Delancey Street with an average of 18 felony convictions, seven years in prison and no better than an eighth grade education.
In Mimi Silbert’s words, “These are the people who have really hit the bottom. They are angry and hopeless and they hate everybody. They hate each other and they hate themselves. But it doesn’t matter to us what they’ve done. We take the people everybody else thinks are losers.. Our only criteria is that they want to change badly enough.”
What goes on in at the Delancey Street? The residents stay at Delancey Street for an average of four years and go through a curriculum of education that spans vocational, cultural, and social training. The professors are the reformed convicts and junkies themselves. There are no academicians who act as faculty members. The only qualified academician on the campus is Mimi Silbert herself. Each resident is required to earn a high school equivalency degree and learn marketable skills. One must involve physical labor such as construction, moving or automative; another must be accounting or secretarial or computer related; and finally every resident is exposed to people occupations such as waiting tables or doing sales. Once they successfully go through these, residents are free to major in one of them.
What is particularly noteworthy about the Delancey Street is that it has never sought philanthropic or government support even though it receives some donations from Silbert’s corporate friends such as the Gap Clothing. Most of its annual budget of over $ 24 million comes from the profits generated by more than 20 businesses, each of which doubles as a training school. It’s worth noting that while the taxpayers spend over $ 40,000 a year to support a single prison inmate, Delancey supports itself with profits generated from its businesses.
Two things make the Delancey Street distinctly different from the rest of the rehab programs. One is the fact that despite their long and brutal histories residents have never committed a single act of violence after they’ve begun their stay at the Delancey Street, and there have not been any arrests. No external controls, weapons or drugs are used.
Secondly, peer pressure is a powerful deterrent, and the residents use negative sanctions, positive rewards and role modelling to support each other.
It is the philosophy of the Delancey Street that makes it so successful and praiseworthy. It’s based on its core values:
1. Everybody’s in it together.
2. People are responsible for one another instead of just themselves.
3. This is about people helping each other. It isn’t enough in life to take care of yourself. Life is n’t just about you.
4. You are always both a student and teacher.
The practical vision and the undaunted will of Mimi Silbert is what makes the Delancey Street Foundation the Delancey Street Foundation that it is today. The most important secret of success at the Delancey is that the convicts could develop self-respect from helping one another through its each one teach one program. If someone knew how to read at the sixth grade level, he could teach someone else who hadn’t gotten beyond the second grade level. The student, in turn, could teach another skill to some one else.
The Delancey spirit is best captured when Mimi Silbert says with a gleam in her eyes: I absolutely adore my life. For 0ver 37 years I’ve seen the lowest 10 per cent come through the door…but a few years later, strong, decent human beings walk out…