Nonprofit Sector

Let There Be Light

April 26, 2022

Where We Go From Here

Rev. Dr. Demetrius Carolina, Executive Director, Central Family Life Center

The Central Family Life Center (CFLC) was born out of the First Central Baptist Church of Staten Island, New York, in 1991. It is now one of the largest minority-led nonprofits of its kind in Staten Island. The CFLC provides direct services through twenty-two different programs designed to empower and improve the health and well-being of the Staten Island community.

In this conversation Rev. Dr. Demetrius Carolina, Executive Director of the CFLC, shares his unique experience balancing faith and community, dealing with trauma, and being an effective leader. Joining him is Ryan Williams, Specialist, Consulting, at NFF.

In this video: 

  • What the Central Family Life Center is. (0:20)
  • What role the First Central Baptist Church plays in supporting the community. (1:17)
  • How the True2Life cure violence initiative works to end violence. (3:00)
  • How unrestricted funding helps CFLC provide better programs (4:25)
  • Why programs and services that overlap with other organizations are a good thing. (6:18)
  • How to be an effective leader. (08:00)
  • The importance of sustainability in the work. (10:51)
  • Rev. Dr. Carolina’s advice on love and sacrifice. (11:38)


DEMETRIUS: Wow. I have actually never been asked that question before in my life. 



RYAN: Good morning. With us today, we have the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Reverend Demetrius Carolina. We want to start off by asking you to introduce yourself and tell us briefly about the Central Family Life Center and its work. 

DEMETRIUS: Well good morning, Ryan. Thank you so much for having me as a part of this phenomenal opportunity to interview and talk with you. I'm the Executive Director of the Central Family Life Center. This is one of the largest Black and Brown nonprofits in the borough of Staten Island, where we are host to 22 different service providing programs. I'm also the Senior Pastor at the First Central Baptist Church in Staten Island, a church that is in the heart of Stapleton, where we have a mission of growing, moving, and committing to building God's kingdom through serving people one life at a time. 

RYAN: What has called you to do this work? 

DEMETRIUS: Early in my life, I received a calling from God to do the work of helping others. I was licensed at the age of 16. So most of my adult life I've been in service to others as either pastor, educator, now a nonprofit executive, garnering, if you will, the resources to bring people together and build bridges, to bring communities together. 

RYAN: Thank you for sharing that. It's important that we set the context of Black churches in America, how they continue to serve and serve as a space for building community, helping those in need, and organizing around social and political issues. Central Family Life Center is affiliated with the First Central Baptist Church, of which you are the pastor, and provides a lot of these services to learn, connect, heal, and grow in a secular context. Can you tell us more about the importance of maintaining these sorts of spaces? 

DEMETRIUS: A large part of what we do is interconnected to the viability of the Stapleton community and the Black community. And when I say Black community, we have multiple communities of color that we serve, and are part of, and that are part of us. We have about 27 different ministries at the First Central Church as well, from educational-driven ministries to senior types of ministries that are interconnected with the Central Family Life Center. Although these are two very distinct and different organizations with different boards and all of that, the Central Family Life Center came out of the First Central Baptist Church. 

RYAN: I want to speak to one of your other greatest successes of the Central Family Life Center, which is True 2 Life, the Cure Violence initiative that you organized. And for those who aren't familiar, can you tell me about the philosophy of Cure Violence and what effect True 2 Life has had in your community? 

DEMETRIUS: It is really in many ways an epidemiology driven program; it’s data driven. We actually look at the act of violence and particularly gun violence as a disease, and this program looks at the root causes of this behavior. And so needless to say, they are all systemic. If one person who was formerly incarcerated due to some act of violence comes back to that same community and change norms and behaviors,  they are called credible messengers, because these men and women can speak to a group of potential leaders in a way that maybe others may not, because they don't have the shared or lived experiences. And the two main areas that we serve, Stapleton and Mariners Harbor; these populations, communities were formerly the most violent prone communities in the borough, now are celebrating 600, 700 days of no shootings and stabbings. So that speaks truth to power. It lets you know that this model really does work.  

And then we had to build capacity for our nonprofit. This is another reality. And I know all nonprofit executives can relate to what I'm saying, especially largely Black and Brown nonprofits. Capacity, the ability to do the work, the back office work for this much money, is this much paperwork and bureaucracy. And so we had to build that. When you get government funding, it comes with a set of restrictions, it comes with a work scope. And doing the kind of work that we do there's so many needs that aren't in writing, that you can't plan for. And so having financial support where we can get loans at a zero-interest rate, or private donations – that we have some unrestrained resources so that we can buy a suit for a young man who's being interviewed for a job, or get a young woman's hair and nails done or whatever – a dress – or provide even some soft skill training for young men and women for whom this may be their first viable legal employment; that means a lot.  

RYAN: The fanfare is real. When you have recognized, created, or developed a model that has shown success, that has allowed you to work with your community from a strength-based approach, using the resources that we have, understanding that there has been historical disinvestment in the Black and Brown community. I appreciate you sharing about the larger initiatives, and the importance of credible messengers, and the importance of lived experience, and how that is pivotal to dismantling some of the destructive ideologies that, you know, us as Black folks can take on, that are internalized. So, I really do appreciate you saying that. And I want to speak more to the partnerships. Your all partners with numerous organizations, from schools, to health centers, to local business and government agencies. Can you talk more about the partnerships that have influenced the mission and programs of the Central Family Life Center? 

DEMETRIUS: No nonprofit exists in and of itself. We are interconnected in so many ways. And in some instances, we overlap one another, which is a good thing. We're dealing with communities that are truly dealing with trauma: historic trauma and recent trauma. So we have – we bring to bear to speak to those real issues, several therapeutic programs. We partner with three different schools where we have mentorship in these schools. We bring young men and young women in who speak typically to young people who have the greatest challenges in those spaces of education and learning. We partner with the DA's (district attorney’s) office because in many instances we are dealing with persons who touch the legal system. And we want to build that relationship so that we can advocate on the behalf of young men and women. Any one of our 22 different programs can provide these young people with some alternatives to incarceration, which is key, quite frankly, to building a better and more meaningful existence long term. A little youthful indiscretion for one young person in one community can mean a lifetime of negative marks on a record for someone from our community. 

RYAN: So, as we think about that, what is some advice that you have for the people that want to drive change in your community? Considering the challenges that may be unique to Staten Island, what are some barriers that these leaders or changemakers may need to address as they want to drive change? 

DEMETRIUS: One of the first things I often say is that a leader who leads and no one follows, is someone who is simply taking a walk. In order to be an effective leader, you must understand the people that you serve and bring the resources, the vision, the mission to them in a way that they can receive it. If your vision isn't bigger than your resources, then it is not big enough. So you got to have the ability to look beyond what you see into what can be.

Next, I will say, it can't be your baby. It's got to be something that you're willing to give up. I'm planning to see someone else take this much further than I can. It's not about – it can't be about you. It has to be about something bigger than you. I’m being guided by a force greater than myself to do something bigger than I could ever do in and of myself. Be guided. Be willing to be guided by that unseen hand that is bigger than all of us. And we need to be able to speak truth to power wherever we are. Right?

Next, I mean, you've asked, so I’m going to give you, I will say to you: Don't be afraid of the internal challenges in our communities. We face some internal struggles that other communities may not, because we're dealing with populations who don't often have a built-in or a historic currency to go from one level to the next. Those who are in these communities, understand what I'm saying. So as much as it is possible, tie people into your success so that they, too, are part of the success. 

Everybody that comes to the party with you may not leave with you. And while that's a challenge – it certainly is for me – it’s a reality. I've seen some great leaders limit their success because they refuse to let go of hands that no longer wanted them to hold them.  

RYAN: Those are just the nuances that leaders, and those who are visionaries, and those who want to be innovative and make change really have to think about. And I appreciate you sharing that insight. And so, as you talk about stepping back and letting other people step up, realizing sometimes change is good and is necessary, what are some of the hopes for the future of the work you do? 

DEMETRIUS: One of my greatest goals is sustainability of the work that's being done. Because what good is it having success while you're here and then you walk away, and everything fails? Or what good is it having people who are tied to you and they themselves aren't successful? I hope to see this type of work in Black and Brown hands and under the leadership of Black and Brown folks who are culturally competent in terms of those communities, that are most under-resourced and underrepresented, to grow. 

RYAN: You wrote a book titled, Let There Be Light: Creating a Life Worth Living. I would love to hear more about or some advice that you would have for those that are looking for meaning and purpose in their life. 

DEMETRIUS: One will never have light without a measure of darkness.  

RYAN: Mm hmm.  

DEMETRIUS: Don't shy away from darkness. Some of the best growth experiences can come out of some of the most challenging moments in our lives. No one welcomes the dark. But understand when it comes, if you're guided by the light, it only comes to serve you, to grow you, to strengthen you. And the last thing is, understand what love is when you talk about love. Love is not the thing we see in TV and movies. Love is about sacrifice. If the most expensive and most valuable things you have is what you have on your person – your jewelry, your clothing, the car you drive, the house you live in – then you're poor. The most valuable thing you should possess must be something that is internal, what others cannot touch. When we talk about really loving folks, we are talking about really being in a position, mind, body, and spirit to give up for a person, to give up for a cause, to give up for a group, to give up for your charity, to give up for your children, to give up for your partner, to give up for your community. That's what it is about. And you may not, again, be reciprocated. Those acts may not be reciprocated in your lifetime. Sometime intestinal fortitude is required when that darkness comes, right? That light, that stuff is internal. Folks will see your shine, but they don't know your grind. You know, it takes a lot to get to where you are. 


Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.