Police Athletic League names Carlos Velazquez as executive director
Police Athletic League names Carlos Velazquez as executive director
Carlos Velazquez has joined the Police Athletic League (PAL) as its new executive director. He comes to PAL with 20 years of experience in public service, particularly in youth development and afterschool programming. Before coming to PAL, he was the chief program officer for the Boys’ Club of New York where he led all aspects of expansion and program development.
PAL has been around for over 100 years and operates 27 youth centers throughout the five boroughs with a budget of approximately $30 million. The mission of PAL is to create a relationship between New York City’s youth and the New York Police Department through a wide array of programs.
NYN Media spoke with Velazquez about his passion for youth development, the importance of relationship building between youth and the NYPD and what he’s excited about in his new role at PAL.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from? Where’d you go to school?
My story starts in East Harlem. I was born and raised on 106th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I had a very hard-working mother. She worked for the City of New York and the Department of Finance for 30 years. My father was a delivery truck driver. I had an older brother who was about 12 years older than me. Hard work and education were the themes of my childhood. You had to work hard and be dedicated at what you do. I saw a lot of that in my older brother. So that was something that was ingrained in me very early on. I went to a parochial school and my parents worked hard to make sure I had the resources and had the ability to expand my education and also have a little more than a lot of others that I grew up with.
Through that experience, I started to see the differences and inequality growing up. I went to one Catholic school from first to sixth grade and then it closed down and I ended up going to school 20 blocks south on 87th Street in 7th and 8th grade and through that you start seeing differences in the way people live, what people had access to and that just became a theme. I was very observant of the kind of world around me.
Anything that would deter me from school was frowned upon and eliminated. There was very little access to getting caught up in things that were not positive and the way they did that was not by taking away things, it was by giving me things or exposing me to things and one of those things were sports and to after school. I can remember going to afterschool from first grade and appreciating the kind of new world after my full day, where I got to meet other friends, play, learn, do my homework, it really left an impression on me. I grew up in the Boys’ Club of New York, which ironically is where I just came from. I went there for most of my elementary school years and I realized how important having after school and access to activities and programming made me different from a lot of my friends. It wasn’t that I was better than them, but just different in that I was exposed to a lot more. I remember playing cricket in third grade. I remember being in the choir or participating in drama. There was an ability to try different things and to be exposed to different things.
I ended up going to high school at an all boys’ Catholic high school and I took that spirit of really enjoying after school and being super involved in school and extracurricular activities. Whether it was student council, sport, drama, you name it, I probably did it.
This was the mid 80s, early 90s, and there was a theme of successful people leaving the neighborhood and wanting to get away from all the things that cause pain in your neighborhood. I remember seeing people being robbed and seeing the issues with drugs and alcohol and violence and all these kinds of issues that hold back our community. I realized that I wanted to get away from that because I wanted to be better and that there's so much other things out there because I saw it through my programs. I went away to college at Syracuse University and loved it.
I started to realize that as much as I loved it up there, I missed home. I missed my friends, I missed my family, I missed the sounds, the smells, the culture of East Harlem, and I realized that a lot of us are conditioned to feel that we have to leave our neighborhoods to be better instead of leaving, getting better and coming back to make our neighborhoods better. So that is where my understanding of what inequalities really look like, what access really looks like and having kind of the role models of hard work dedication, going to school, and being successful, that's where it all started coming together.
I have an undergraduate degree in social work, I started working in social services for a while. I then decided to go away again to get a masters back at Syracuse, but with a focus in administration. I realized that real change happens from the top and I had to figure out how to get there because no one would be able to tell the story or to advocate for young people and for the community the way someone who's experienced it can.
Why do you think it's important to change that narrative, give back to the neighborhoods and have that be one of the definitions of success?
It's the concept of a village. The concept of home. Home is not a physical space, it's about the village as a whole and it's because all the pieces impact it. And when you look at even the issues in our communities, they happen inside our communities. Violence is spreading all over New York City, but when you hear about a lot of violence, it's often violence that happens to people in our communities. People aren't leaving and then doing things, people are staying in the community and doing things. So then you have this battle of those who are making poor decisions versus people who want to make good decisions and who want to make things better. They are confronted by this power of “it's dangerous to live here,” or “it's not safe here” or “there's not enough here.” It's unfortunate, but to be honest, there's no reason why anyone should have to leave their communities because they don't feel safe. There's no reason why in a community, people can’t band together and make it better, to make us better. And, when you see it, you see it in programs, you see it in partnership or in community participation. You got all these communities in this program like PAL and other programs in New York City where you see the success, but they created almost a village amongst themselves. I think it's important for people like me who were able to take advantage of resources and who have a story and who have knowledge and who have the expertise to come back and then show more people how to do it. That's why we have to get our young people and our community leaders to understand the power of working together, but also the power of coming back to your community and continuing the struggle and the fight.
What brought you to the Police Athletic League?
Growing up, there was always something going on in the neighborhood that I was participating in. Didn't matter what it was. I remember playing in the PAL basketball tournament and it was a good experience. I already had the brand in my mind. PAL is recognizable to me. Fast forward through my career and youth services, you always hear about PAL. It is one of the most recognizable names in New York City when it comes to youth work because of it's amazing legacy. Add that with the past six years at the Boys’ Club.
There was some major violence in East Harlem from the shooting of a young man in one of the housing developments. I was new to the Boys’ Club of New York City and having all these community meetings with the NYPD. I started having conversations on how the Boys’ Club could be a resource. Fast forward six years later, I have been able to do some amazing work around collaboration with the NYPD, a lot of different precincts, a lot of citywide initiatives and seeing the impact that the relationships that were built between the boys at the Boys’ Club and between the officers that were servicing their neighborhood was something that was beautiful and something that is needed.
We talk about how our communities need to be safe and we talk about how our communities need resources, one of the ways that we can do that is by the NYPD working with an organization that has a lot of resources.
When the opportunity came, it seemed like it was the perfect fit for a missing piece of that puzzle that I think is so important. Now we're talking about the safety of our communities and the partnership with those people who keep us safe everyday.
It’s coming on the heels of the tragedy of these two young officers, Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora.
Creating those connections and those opportunities for young people in the community to receive the resources they need, but also to be that liaison or that glue that brings the NYPD and young people in New York City together.
Why do you think it's important for the NYPD and law enforcement in general to build and continue to build a relationship with youth, especially during the time that we're in?
I think our young people are going through a lot right now and our communities are going through a lot. We've spent two years or we're still in the middle of this pandemic. Our communities are not safe and our city is struggling right now with making people feel safe.
It's like when anyone is in need or anyone needs something, you look for the expert in it or for the person who that's their job to do it, because you want to trust them and because you believe in them and because that's kind of how we’re conditioned, right? We look to each other, we look to the police. And if you don't feel confident in each other and you don't feel confident in the police, then how do you feel safe? How can you operate like that? You add the stress of not feeling safe with getting sick with the mental health issues that have arisen around the pandemic and with the struggles to work in our community. There's a lot going on. It starts from relationship building. I saw it during my time at other organizations where we had officers come in, play basketball and some of them develop relationships where they talk to each other. If there's an issue in that area, that officer is able to kind of have that connection where something can be addressed or something can be communicated and I think that happens with relationship-building. It's not the only thing that PAL does but it's something important and it happens in unison with everything else.
You have a rich history of working at youth-serving organizations. What legacy do you want to leave when it comes to working with youth?
I want to leave them in a place where they feel confident in who they are. They understand that leadership is through service and they feel a sense of responsibility to each other, their communities and on a larger scale, to humankind. And I think that for our young people it's hard for them to think outside the block radius in terms of what's reality. Everything else they see is on social media or on television telling them what the world is and what reality should be. I want to leave my legacy as our young people are going to figure out what success is for them and what leadership is for them. Also what they can do in the world to make it better and feel good about themselves.
What do you see or envision for the future of PAL and what are you excited about?
I'm excited about everything! I feel invigorated building up communities and I'm excited about coming into this role with a new administration, with a new police commissioner and with a new district attorney in Manhattan.
It just seems like it's the season for change. I think that right now the city is going through something together. We're growing together. We're going to mature together as a city and we're going to get better as a city. We're going to get better together and we're going to have a bigger impact on the city. I would like to see in every neighborhood, connections between officers and communities, and have PAL be looked at as a leader in how to build those relationships, how to provide resources, and how to create impactful change in neighborhoods. I think for too long this work has been riddled with a lack of resources, and also with the inability for people to work together and create change together. I think that these communities work very well together and we need to harness that culture in the spirit of those people and I hope we could be a leader in those conversations and also be a leader around safety. It’s about making sure that our young people and our communities are meeting their fullest potential and understanding what their potential is.