Sharon ‘Ife’ Charles: A Chosen Life- Faithful, Fearless, Free
The Racial Divide
In 1998, a young mother living in Crown Heights, N.Y. felt inspired to get more involved in her community. Only eight years after the infamous Crown Heights riots of 1991, she recognized that a growing racial division was once again resulting in violence on the streets.
Sharon ‘Ife’ Charles had been observing the deteriorating conditions in her Brooklyn community since giving birth to her first child in 1989.
But significant progress had been made since the riots and she was determined that Crown Heights would never again return to those dreadful days. The children, including her own, would have a safe community wherein to grow and prosper.
To ensure that outcome, Charles knew a courageous change agent would be needed. As she did her grass roots work on the street during the day, and then searched her heart at night, she knew precisely who that agent would need to be.
In fact, that soon-to-be heroic person was visible with every glance in her mirror. She was known on the street as ‘Ife.’
A Watershed Workshop
To build on her mission of peace, in 1998, Charles talked her way into a sold-out training at the newly opened Crown Heights Community Mediation Center a project of the Center for Court Innovation. During the next three days, the center’s founding director, Cheryl Goldstein, would spell out the urgent issues facing the community and offer leadership training toward finding solutions.
That three-day workshop proved to be a watershed moment in Charles’ life. Not only had she discovered her life’s purpose, but tens of thousands of residents in the most troubled neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx were destined to experience the life-affirming effects as well.
In an October 2008 article in the NY Daily News, Goldstein said of Charles, “She gave the training a shot and it became such a big part of her life. She became the future of the center.”
That’s a good working definition of the phrase ‘watershed moment.’
With perhaps the largest concentration of wealth in the Western Hemisphere, the five boroughs of N.Y.C. have forever represented as diverse a population and bifurcated an economic landscape as any in the world.
Since the 1980s, as Manhattan’s cost of living has continued to soar beyond the reach of all but the fanciful few, the gentrification of many of the surrounding communities has accelerated.
Yet, just miles from the financial capital of the world, Wall Street, some of the country’s most downtrodden and volatile neighborhoods have continued to suffer. The residents are presented with little economic opportunity and hope for their futures. Hopelessness is the primary ingredient in the recipe for an entrée of drugs, street violence, and eventually, incarceration.
Ife, Agent of Change
Fresh from her 1998 leadership training, Ife Charles became a volunteer mediator between parents and children, and landlords and tenants. Soon, she left her administrative job at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital and accepted a full-time position. In 2005, she became the Deputy Program Director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center overseeing various social services, anti-violence initiatives and leadership trainings.
Today, this vital civic resource operates as Neighbors In Action (formerly Crown Heights Community Mediation Center) and is focused on the biggest threats to communities such as gun violence, lack of economic opportunity and promoting a more effective and humane justice system.
The broad array of services available are detailed on the websites [courtinnovations.org] and [neighborsinaction.org]. They include educational and support programs for children, youth, young adults, parents, former inmates, and the community at large.
Their main objective is to eradicate domestic and street violence, poverty and unjust incarceration, and bring to forgotten communities across the five boroughs safety, justice, economic opportunity, and eventually, prosperity.
Ife’s role has expanded along with the breadth of programs to include her most recent position of Director of Anti-Violence Capacity Building in the Department of Community Development and Violence Prevention at the Center for Court Innovation.
Along the way she went on to found and lead S.O.S. in the Bronx (first in Mott Haven and later in Morrisania). S.O.S. Bronx is a replica of Chicago Cure Violence Model utilizing the perspective of addressing gun violence from a public health approach. The results in the test areas were a sizeable drop in violence.
In 2014, when shootings were soaring, the city utilized the success of the program along with other contributing factors to implement the model to the 14 most dangerous precincts, where ex-gang members were trained to intercede in the most volatile situations. Case workers would then follow up with job training, mental health and legal services. Currently there are twenty-two Cure Violence Sites, thereby extending Ife’s impact.
When necessary, she patrolled the neighborhoods herself at great personal risk and quelled potential violence in Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, South Bronx and Morrisania, to name four.
There was a time, says Neighbors In Action Director, Amy Ellenbogen, when she walked right into a brewing melee and pointed at the at-risk kids, declaring, “I am Ife, and I am your mother, and your mother, and your mother.”
In other words, where the problems are the most urgent, and the streets are the hottest, that’s where you’ll find this courageous champion of peace.
The Heart of the Matter
Ife Charles’ primary objective is to inspire and train personal responsibility, one person at a time. She wants people to “stop complaining and start using your inner strengths to work out problems.”
To do that, she organizes leaders, and aspiring leaders, in the multi-ethnic communities to meet face-to-face – so they can talk, listen, understand, diffuse anger, have their questions answered and find common ground.
“We don’t join hands, sing Kumbaya, and avoid the central issues here,” she has said. “We provide a safe and comfortable forum to talk genuinely about uncomfortable real-life topics.”
Ife well knows that economic improvement in the most challenged neighborhoods is a long, slow grind. To attract new jobs, first, business owners must feel confident enough to risk their capital. That is possible only where there is safety, an educated work force, and growing affluence.
This outcome takes a sustained effort at the leadership level to keep family units together, educate the kids, and provide safe and attractive public areas and other amenities in which to thrive.
This is where Ife has devoted her life – and the results she and her fellow humanitarians have produced are starkly evident.
A Chosen Life – Personal Responsibility
For over 25 years now, and especially since that 3-day workshop in 1998, Ife Charles has provided her community unconditional love – the same natural way a mother would for her children. By doing so, she has ignited hope and opportunity in the people, especially the youth.
That’s because she clearly understood that change wasn’t an option – change was instead a must – and the change would need to begin with her. She took pride in her neighborhood, expressed her love and caring for her neighbors, and took personal responsibility to change the outcome of their lives for the better.
She put herself in a position of leadership and dug in for the long and hard grind ahead. She knew that if the people could all work together in a common cause to lift lives and entire communities, miracles were possible.
By turning moments of potential crisis into opportunities for tolerance and understanding, this mother of all the kids on the streets preached that same personal responsibility – immersion in your communities, caring deeply enough to build something great for the benefit of thousands, and potentially millions of people.
Charles’ former supervisor, Cheryl Goldstein, said of Ife, “She has such a passion and a love for the issues in the community. It’s part of who she is.”
On the front of a T-shirt she has worn over the years is a phrase which perfectly expresses the spirit of Sharon ‘Ife’ Charles. It says:
A chosen life: faithful, fearless, free.
Thank you, Ife. God bless you and all your colleagues. Keep up your heavenly work. Our world needs many more just like you.