The Rohan Levy Foundation @rohanlevyfoundation was founded in honor of Rohan Levy, a promising 15 year old young man and student at WHSAD, who was killed by gun violence in his Brooklyn community. The following is an interview student correspondent Antonio Perez conducted with Ms. Nadine Sylvester, Rohan’s mother, regarding the foundation, its evolution, and how it has provided her with a source of hope in the aftermath of such a tragedy.
After Rohan passed last February I knew immediately that I was going to give back to the community. I didn’t initially think I was going to start a foundation, but I spoke with the Principal Cornell and told him that I would do a scholarship for that year. for a young man of color to go to college and to ensure that we don’t continue to have young men of color dying on these streets. We have to promote them. So it started with just a scholarship.
When I presented the scholarship in June of last year, I didn’t really tell anyone, only my close friends and family knew. Then it got posted on Facebook, and everyone wanted to get involved. Over the summer it kind of evolved. I was doing more work. I had a football team that I was involved with, and I would do lots of community outreach, and people kept reaching out to me, saying that they wanted to help. I didn’t really have anything to help with but if they wanted to, they could. It formally became an organization in the earlier part of this year, so I started planning about November, and it became a formal organization as of this February.
The emphasis behind all of this is that I am a person of color, my parents are both immigrants of this country, and I’m a social worker by trade, so I do social work everyday. Unfortunately, I see the ill effects of continuing to have young men of color getting killed in their communities, being incarcerated, and lacking opportunities. Although it does happen throughout the diaspora of people of color, it more profoundly affects men of color. I wanted to make sure that even though I lost [Rohan], I would be able to encourage another young man to really pursue his dreams, his aspirations, and really inspire other people that violence is not the answer and that we can have a better place and a better community to live in and that there’s people who support them.
Our foundation has a two-fold approach. One is to provide opportunities to the youth. So one of those opportunities is a scholarship that we present here on a yearly basis. Also we provide leadership training and aspirational opportunities because many young people don’t know of many of the opportunities. I currently work at an organization called Workforce Development Program where we train people for free to work in corporate America. I have young people who come in, who have never known that they can work at Goldman Sachs, or Bank of America, or Google. These are things we’ve heard of or seen online but actually never worked there. I want to create access for everyone.
The other part of the organization is dealing with the trauma that happens in our community everyday, especially for people who have experienced violence. What I do find is that when people experience violence, we don’t provide any support. So a few weeks ago a young man, Saheed Vassell, was killed in the street in Brooklyn on Utica Avenue,. The community response was of course an outcry, but there was no response around how people should process what happened. I mean it’s traumatic to see someone killed in front of you in daylight. So I wanted to make sure that people are able to heal so that we can have a better community. If we walk around with all these things, you know if your leg is broken and you didn’t actually address it, then you wouldn’t be able to heal correctly, you’ll be walking around and the bone is sticking out, it would be painful. It’s the same thing with trauma that impacts mental health. When you witness something or you feel something and you don’t have an outlet for it, you internalize that.
In a year I would like to create a Youth Summit so that young people can become the voices of this. It’s what young people think that the world can be that is shaping what we look like. I hope to do a lot of voter registrations for young people who are of voting age in the next year. I would like to establish a regular program so our community can drop in to talk about things that are happening, whatever that experience may be for them and get the support that they need to move further. Also, of course I want the organization to provide more scholarships; therefore, I would like to expand our scholarship program. We’re only doing one scholarship per year currently, and we’re funding our first scholarship recipient through the next four to five years of college, depending on the program that he is in. I would like to expand that to give more scholarships, not only at the Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design but all of Brooklyn. We are the solution to creating the community that we want, often times we look to this one, or that one, that change is not going to happen unless we do it ourselves. That’s my biggest message.
I was reluctant at first to do the foundation. Mostly because it’s painful. When I was building the website, I had to gather the information to give to the website designer. My child’s name was on the statistic list for New York City, and I couldn’t do work for almost two weeks because it was so painful to go through. Here was my child, who I thought would never be statistic. I had done everything that parents think they do right: I made sure he went to school, that he got good grades, that he didn’t hang out at night and wasn’t in the wrong company. I myself had gone to college and pushed through doing a master’s with children; no easy thing. To ensure that he would be okay, to come around and to ensure that he wouldn’t be a statistic, and I look at the list and he is a statistic on the list. It was tough, and it was also tough going out at night and having these conversations with people about what happened, or why the foundation exists because it brings back the pain I knew. People think that sometimes as the days go on, the pain gets less. I could feel the impact like it just happened this second, and it’s tough. It was a very hard decision, but I do not want to see other young people experience this. I have two children at home, I have a number of nephews, and I don’t want them to go through this. I don’t want them to be a victim of gun violence, and so this is why I push through everyday.