The CREW Urban Youth Equestrians runs their program out of a barn in Hastings, Mn., 30 minutes from where George Floyd was murdered in May 2020. Co-founder Jenny Benton knew it was time to put aside excuses and find a way to bring youth of color to horses as a catalyst to bridge the alienation many feel as the weight of systemic racism continues to plague their communities. The CREW is an acronym for the four core tenets of the program: Community, Relationships, Empowerment and Well-being. These pillars encompass how the organization supports and engages with the kids.
In August of 2020, Jenny brought the idea of the program to Chauntel Allen, Kenatia Gilmer, DJ Jinkins and Jestine Jinkins, all of whom she has known for over 20 years, and invited them to join her as founding Board Members. “In 24 weeks, we went from ideation to bringing in our first kids and created a viable nonprofit program,” Jenny and Chauntel explained on a Zoom call. “This speaks to the deep commitment the five of us have to fulfill the need for a culturally relevant program where youth of color have a safe space to uncover all of who they are while training horses in a way that prioritizes their Relationship with the horse by understanding what the horse is communicating through their body language.”
The CREW’s program is designed to offer student-centric, hands-on horsemanship training sessions, starting with groundwork to instill confidence and foundational skills. As the kids gain experience and demonstrate mastery of handling the horses, they move into riding. Using horses as a catalyst to Empower kids to learn emotional self-regulation helps them discover the possibilities of a world that can open up if given the space.
“You are not what you’ve experienced, and that horse forces you to be honest and to be your most authentic self,” Chauntel said. “And if you are not, that horse is going to know and respond accordingly. So, it forces you to take a step back, take a deep breath and deal with those emotions immediately in a real and raw fashion. The way that Jenny breaks things down through education – there’s something organic that just happens when the children get exposed to these animals.”
Both CREW program horses come from rescues, and demonstrate in a non-judgmental way that, as the character Nessie in Concrete Cowboy stated, “the past is not the present”. Working with the two rescue horses, kids in The CREW have blossomed.
“Being at the barn with horses, where it’s just you and that thousand-pound horse, gives the frustration, the anger, and all of the negative experiences that comes with what you’ve lived through growing up in Minneapolis, a place where you can lay those burdens down,” Chauntel reflected. “As a member of The CREW, I get to experience that.It is a beautiful thing to have a front row seat to our youth having similar experiences. I cannot imagine how different I would be if I had had a program like what The CREW offers or any experience with horses as a child. I may not have, but my children will and that’s what The CREW is about.”
When The CREW was in its formative stages, the founding members consulted with other organizations who had been doing this type of work already in other states. “We talked with David Silver at Detroit Horsepower, Caitlin Gooch at Saddle Up and Read, Keiara Wade at Compton Cowboys to gain insight on what made a program successful,” Jenny said.
The CREW is also building relationships with instructors in various equine disciplines including eventing, hunter jumper, polo, and barrel racing to create a Community where the students can experience and pursue competition opportunities if they choose.
In June of 2021, The CREW took its first field trip as a group to take in the action at Otter Creek Horse Trials in Wheeler, WI. It was the first time most of the group had seen the sport of eventing, and both Jenny and Chauntel say their experience was welcoming and positive. Immediately upon their arrival, a woman saw them with their matching t-shirts, and told the group that she follows The CREW on Facebook and was excited to see them there that day. As the group walked to watch the cross-country trials, Chauntel and one of the kids ran into the owner of the facility, who welcomed them and invited them to come back over the summer.
“The response we received from the riders was overwhelming,” Chauntel said of the outing. “Several Mothers of the participating riders were happy to greet us and willing to share their experience in the equine industry. They spoke about the financial sacrifice, time commitment, and upcoming eventing opportunities. Seeing the Moms who were there in support of their children was really a special moment.”
It is the hope of these women fearlessly leading the charge at The CREW that field trips like this can continue to happen. After all, we all catch “the bug” somewhere – you hear me write about it often. It is that first exposure that often makes a difference in a person’s path, and the goal of The CREW is to illuminate just how many paths are possible for the kids in the program.
How you can help:
The CREW is always looking for donations to continue its growth. Top of the list at the moment is a van that can be used for transportation. Having a form of transportation would allow them to facilitate more outreach to kids who could benefit from having a place to go – and a way to get there.
To learn more about The CREW and how you can be involved, click here.