It was five years into an eight-year sentence at New York State’s Otisville Correctional Facility that Cory Greene decided to break free. He didn’t dig a tunnel using a rusty spoon. Rather, he and four other inmates decided to regain their humanity and control over their lives – one small act at a time.
“Every day you wake up to bars on the window.... You are reminded 20 times a day by the [correctional officers] and your surroundings that you no longer have control,” says Mr. Greene, who was serving time for his part in a murder. “I started thinking about what it means to be black, brown, and poor in prison. I knew that being young in prison you had to act in a certain way to survive, and that could mean doing things that were harmful to others. I didn’t want to do that.”
And so Greene began attending workshops on ways to transform. Most attending were older, but he noticed a few others who, like him, were in their 20s. Gravitating toward each other, they decided to abide by a set of principles.
“We wouldn’t talk about war stories. We wouldn’t say the B-word or the N-word. We’d start each day saying ‘peace, good morning’ to each other and to the other people in prison,” Greene says. “They were little changes, but we started to see we had an influence on each other and those around us.”
The men thought a lot about life after incarceration. They thought about not only returning to their communities, but also making a difference.
And so the seeds of those conversations helped plant the idea for H.O.L.L.A!, or How Our Lives Link Altogether. Operating out of a squat gray building in New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the nonprofit focuses on issues that intersect with the larger national debate about race and inequality. Namely, H.O.L.L.A! works to counter trauma sustained from, among other things, mass incarceration and police officers’ use of force against black men and boys. The aim of the group’s organizing and advocacy efforts is healing.
“H.O.L.L.A! represents the possibility to dream and to transform ourselves, even if you are in the midst of oppression and struggling. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Work that feels important and needed doesn’t happen fast – especially when you are dealing with historical trauma,” says Greene, co-director of H.O.L.L.A! and one of its three organizers. (Gina Hong and Thomas “AROCKS” Porter are the other two.)
For his work, Greene was named a 2016 fellow by Echoing Green, a nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs employing innovative ways to tackle some of the world’s seemingly intractable challenges.
H.O.L.L.A! is a youth-led movement, with most participants between 15 and 25 years old. But Greene says it must be multi-generational to succeed, since racial injustice goes back generations.
Also, many of the young men coming to H.O.L.L.A! have served prison sentences, as did the group’s cofounders.
One H.O.L.L.A! offering is the Nat Turner Revolutionary Leadership Program, involving political education. It emphasizes a number of skills, including critical analysis of public policies, community outreach and engagement, and the building of trust and relationships.
“We are working to turn out leaders in our neighborhood,” says Greene, who is in his mid-30s. “We need to train and sustain the next generation of our young leaders.”
Also, with the help of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, a think tank, H.O.L.L.A! has developed a relationship with the nearby 79th Police Precinct. For the past 18 months, H.O.L.L.A! and about seven police officers have gotten together for what Greene describes as “honest and genuine” and at times rather difficult and emotional conversations.
Keron Sosa, who was born in Belize and is now in his 20s, has participated in H.O.L.L.A! for more than a year. “It’s very interesting, and it gets you to think about a lot of issues in ways you hadn’t before,” says Mr. Sosa, who lives with his aunt after his father was deported five years ago. “For me it’s about how the police work, learning that not every cop is a bad cop. But I also think there aren’t enough good cops. There should be more who don’t stop you and arrest you right away.”
Currently, Greene is working toward a PhD in psychology at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. He came to the realization that education is key after dropping out of high school at 16. Two days after his release from prison, he enrolled at LaGuardia Community College in New York, where he earned an associate degree. He then graduated with a bachelor’s from New York University.
He is one of 33 Echoing Green fellows for 2016, who were selected from 2,077 applications that came from 120 countries. As part of the recognition for Greene, H.O.L.L.A! will receive as much as $90,000 in seed funding, in particular to support its Healing Justice Campaign.
“We focus on the who more than the what; we are looking for those having a commitment to their cause for life,” says Keno Sadler, Echoing Green’s vice president of programs. Greene “is passionate and in talking with him, it’s clear he is going to be an influencing force.... He has a presence that resonates with a wide range of people. He will not only influence his community, he will go beyond that.”