Positive Youth Justice, Part Five: Waterside Workshops, Berkeley, Calif.

Last month, The Chronicle of Social Change began “Positive Youth Justice: Curbing Crime, Building Assets,” a series that imagines an entire continuum of juvenile justice services built on the positive youth development (PYD) framework. We accomplish the “creation” of that continuum by profiling successful programs and organizations all over the country.

Today, we look at Waterside Workshops, a small program that makes a big commitment to helping juvenile offenders develop job skills and stable settings.

Intro Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four / Part Five

Last week, our Positive Youth Justice series explored the use of positive youth development at the William F. James Ranch, an incarceration facility in Santa Clara County, Calif. The ranch has used a mix of aggression replacement therapy, work apprenticeships and credit recovery to drive down recidivism rates and violent incidents at the facility.

The next logical step on the juvenile justice continuum is re-entry, the all-important time when kids leave the containment of the program to which they’ve been adjudicated, and return to home to the environment in which they got in trouble in the first place.

Re-entry is a complicated corner of the juvenile justice system that was neglected for decades. Youth often return to their communities with court-ordered requirements that run up against other constraints related to their incarceration. They may be ordered to attend school, but unable to find a school that will accept them. The plan might require them to seek a job–something that, statistically, a felony record makes difficult.

But other than regular check-ins with probation or parole officers, most systems have very little to offer in the way of re-entry programs.

The issue has garnered some attention in the past decade, in no small part due to the Second Chance Act, a federal law passed in 2008 to support local governments and nonprofits in an effort to “reduce recidivism by improving outcomes for people returning from prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities.” More recently, re-entry has been at the heart of several “pay-for-success” projects (see sidebar).

Government re-entry programs tend to focus on monitoring and transportation assistance as the young person comes home. In Berkeley, Calif., a small organization called Waterside Workshops goes beyond that for dozens of kids each year using boatbuilding and bicycle repair. Its non-judgmental approach to building job skills, and the open-ended connection between its leaders and participants, sets it apart.

“The personal approach is what makes the difference,” said Waterside co-founder and executive director, Amber Rich. “The kids can spot a faulty pretense a mile away.”

Marsalis Johnson, a former intern and now mechanic, left, helps intern David Diarra, 15, right, work on a bike at Street Level Cycles a part of Waterside Workshops in Berkeley, California. Photo: Max Whittaker, Prime Collective
Marsalis Johnson, a former intern and current mechanic, helps an intern work on a bike at  Waterside’s Street Level Cycles. Photo: Max Whittaker, Prime Collective

How It Started

Rich grew up on a farm in North Carolina, the daughter of two blacksmiths. She studied architecture at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and moved to California to pursue a career in 2005.

That year, through mutual friends, she met and began dating Helder Parreira, who moved to the United State from the Azores Islands deep in the Atlantic at age eight. He has a degree in archaeology from University of California-Berkeley, and had studied wooden boatbuilding in America and Portugal.

Rich had grown weary of architecture, and said she had “always had a strong interest in poverty and its sociological and psychological effects.” Parreira had left archaeology to focus on boatbuilding, and was working part time at a hardware store.

The couple, both descended from families who worked the land and built for themselves, decided to start a vocational training program for youth who were interested in physical labor.

In 2006 they got a small grant from the City of Berkeley to start up Waterside. The two found adequate space in Aquatic Park, a piece of land near the brackish mix of rain runoff and tidal water that flows from the Bay through barnacle-encrusted tubes, smacked up against Interstate 80.

By 2007, relying mostly on an army of volunteers, Rich and Parreira launched the organization.

Waterside began with one business: Berkeley’s Boat Shop, which operates boatbuilding classes and on the weekend rents boats to folks looking for a lazy day on the water.

“Once you learn how to build a boat, other stuff comes naturally,” said Parreira, who operates the boat shop. “Building a boat gives you tools that can be used anywhere in life.”

La Cheim School in Richmond, a nonprofit providing education and mental health services to mostly court-appointed youth, agreed to refer some of their students to Waterside, and continues to do so.

Waterside has since expanded to include Street Level Cycles, a bike repair shop, and two years ago opened up the Waterside Café.

Waterside Workshops' Cafe
Waterside Workshops’ Cafe in Berkeley, Calif. Photo: Brian Rinker

How It Works

Youth between ages 14 and 24 arrive as candidates for a three-month internship at Waterside. Not everyone referred to Waterside is re-entering from a juvenile lock-up, Rich said, though many have spent at least some time in juvenile hall.

Interns are scheduled for three days each week for between 10 and 15 hours, and begin by simply shadowing staff and more senior interns. Their schedules are set with expectations about performance and punctuality, but not with the real-world threat of termination. For many of Waterside’s interns, this is the first job they’ve ever had.

“If an issue comes along, we work with them,” Rich said. “I’m having a health issue, my cousin got shot, etcetera…we want them to feel comfortable bringing it all up.”

One of the problems that frequently surfaces for the interns, according to Rich, is the matter of drug use.

“Substance abuse issues are unfortunately quite an issue for a lot of our kids,” Rich said. But that is not grounds for dismissal. Waterside has substance abuse groups to which it refers youth with serious problems, and the staff will engage users in a discussion about the impact of drug use on independence.

“We try to get them to be very honest about what they’re spending on a vice, even just cigarettes, and work with them on what they could be spending that money on otherwise,” Rich said. “How is this affecting you being independent?”

That message strikes a chord with nearly every youth that gets involved with Waterside, she said, because they mostly live somewhere they don’t want to be. “These are transition-age guys. They might be currently living in a shelter, or want to move on from their family’s place.”

There is no set schedule for the life and job skills discussions that occur between interns and the staff, Rich said. But in the course of a three-month internship, all participants are engaged by staff in discussions about personal budgeting, time management, and workplace professionalism.

After three months, an intern is welcomed onto the staff at minimum wage if they are still interested.

There is no limit on staff tenure, or on the ability of a participant to return. One youth recently stopped working for Waterside after six years (he made a dollar less per hour than Rich by the time he left).

William, a 16-year-old bike mechanic at Waterside, said that before this job he was doing drugs and heading down a troubled path. William spends an hour riding train and bus to get to West Berkeley from his adoptive home.

Working at Waterside keeps him from hanging with “the bad kids,” he said, while wrenching at a set of chrome handlebars. “It is the best job ever.”

Jordan Ow, a former intern and now mechanic, works on a bike at Street Level Cycles a part of Waterside Workshops in Berkeley, California. Photo: Max Whittaker, Prime Collective
Jordan Ow, a former intern and current mechanic, works on a bike at Street Level Cycles. Photo: Max Whittaker, Prime Collective

There are two things that distinguish Waterside from other workforce training environs. First, it rejects the notion of rewards and penalties, and of graduating to greater privilege.

“We take them for who they are in the moment, and we trust them, and give them responsibilities,” Rich said. “When things go wrong, we work through it. And through that, we build their trust.”

The second unique aspect of the program is the personal relationship fostered between the co-founders and the participants. More often than not, a current or former Waterside employee is living with Rich and Parreira in their Richmond home.

Rich spent a recent weekend tracking down housing for three Waterside youths and moving them in on short notice. One of the youth is doing electrical engineering; Rich convinced a friend and general contractor to put him up in a studio apartment he owned at half the market rate for rent.

“We get to know them and we do not have preconceived notions,” she said. “It’s no big secret.”

In an average year, Rich said, about 50 teens and young adults will go through the Waterside internship.


Rich’s cousin, Cory, is Waterside’s program director for the Street Level Cycles shop. He is a veteran bike mechanic with a degree in sociology from the University of North Carolina-Asheville and reached out to Amber during college to do an internship. The staff also includes three bike mechanics, a boathouse assistant and two baristas.

At any given time, Waterside has 30 interns and about 15 other part-time staff (mostly former interns) who work approximately 20 hours per week. Rich estimates that the organization pays about $120,000 in salary to Waterside participants that make it past the internship phase.

Interns are either compensated through the entity that refers them to Waterside, or receive school credit or community service hours for their work.

The participants in the Waterside internship program are mostly male and 60 percent are African-American, Rich said. She hopes to include more girls as they expand the café from a seasonal operation to a year-round one.

Pay-for-success re-entry projectsNo Government, No Evals

Rich said while “we certainly do have goals and always will,” Waterside is “not focused on outcomes.”

The organization has that rare luxury, because it is not beholden to any funder that asks for them.

Waterside does not seek out government grants, and are not referred youth by any government agency. But larger organizations that do have government contracts, such as foster care agencies and alternative schools, frequently send teens to Waterside.

“We did take city money once but it was just too much red tape,” Rich said. “We just didn’t want to push for X number of kids and X number of outcomes.” The city grant also created problems related to hiring people with criminal records to work at the organization.

Though she does not have independent confirmation of it, Rich claims that of the hundreds of former offenders who have spent a year or more with Waterside, only one has been re-incarcerated.

The organization does receive philanthropic support, and Rich said she is working with board member Erika Weissinger on Waterside’s “ability to substantiate” its work to foundations and other donors.

“Evaluation is important,” Rich said, “but we want to make sure it is not in any way intrusive to the individual and is for the purpose of helping them understand their progress, rather than just collecting data.”

Housing Crisis

Securing employment and finding viable education options are serious challenges for youth coming from incarceration, Rich said. But securing housing is “unbelievably hard and almost impossible.”

“It’s hard enough to find housing in the Bay, especially if you’re a young African-American kid,” she said. “I’d love to think race has nothing to do with it, but it does.”

Few of the Waterside youth qualify for public housing, and probation terms often dictate that their names be on a lease. Anyone who lives with them is subject to a full search by probation, which makes group arrangements difficult.

Establishing a permanent housing component for Waterside “is a big topic right now” for the organization, Rich said. An early attempt, influenced by the negative experience her youth had in group homes, involved no regular adult supervision of the house.

“I find they come out ill-prepared because it is so structured,” she said, though she quickly learned that the opposite was not much better.

“It didn’t work like we hoped it would,” she said. “We needed more guidance, more staff there. For kids coming from tough situations, never having a consistent placement, it takes a lot more than just providing a house.”

John Kelly is editor of The Chronicle of Social Change. Max Whittaker is a freelance photojournalist and founding member of Prime.

Brian Rinker also contributed to this story.

This series was made possible through the support of the Sierra Health Foundation, which has partnered with the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation to launch the Positive Youth Justice Initiative to reform the juvenile justice system in four California counties. This series was distributed in partnership with Witness LA, an online source for daily coverage of criminal justice news.

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