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Article 11 of 11-Part Series
Non-Profit Teaches Violence Prevention
By Sarah Terry-Cobo
A former gang member, drug dealer and ex-convict, Richard knows the underside of the neighborhood well: the violent crimes rates double the rest of the city; the poverty; the culture of kids selling drugs on street corners. His own transformation came from this environment when his 20 year-old brother, Tracy, was shot and killed on Easter Sunday, 1995.
"I was mad as hell. I wanted revenge," said Richard, whose non-profit now works to get kids to give up guns, graduate high school and get jobs. "I had problems with letting it be and letting it go." His mother sat down with him, and reminded him he had a family, and had to stay focused.
"It really sparked me to do something," he said. For the next six years, Richard worked towards the goal of non-violence without any funding.
But the tragedy did not end there. Four years after he started the non-profit, his 19 year-old cousin Keionta, who was more like a brother, was also murdered.
He believes this period was God testing his faith.
"As you read the Bible, God put you in the wilderness for 40 years," he said. "I walked in faith for six years with no resources and was able to see the overall picture."
Brothers Against Guns began with Richard and his cousin, Cheeko Wells, also a former drug dealer who served time in county jail for an illegal automatic weapon. In 2000 they got their first bit of outside funding from the city.
Recently, with money from the city and foundations, they've added more paid staff members: John-Michael Williams, 25, Codie Martin, 19, and Tracey Taper, 45. Except for Taper, who is a mother of a "troubled teen," the others have all experienced life on the streets, but decided to change.
It's their knowledge of the system that helps them navigate court hearings with clients, train young people to have job skills, and most importantly, be a positive role model for youth.
They conduct Street Talk on Thursday evenings at the city's juvenile center, but street talk is really getting teens to open up and speak their mind about daily struggles in their lives, Wells said.
Wells also spends time each day at Mission High School and Gloria R. Davis Middle School before he heads back to the office. He helps diffuse conflicts among students, talks with students about their daily lives, and encourages them to do better in school and in sports.
"Calm down, calm down! You're red hot! Let him go!" Wells told two high school students who were play fighting one afternoon at lunch. When they two responded, "but we were just playing," Wells replied, "I know, but that's how these things get started."
The headquarters is open daily, so teens can get homework help, play pool, play sports or strategy video games, browse the Internet, or just relax.
"Even when we play pool we're having street talk," Wells said. "Come talk to me, I want to know what's on your mind," he asks the teens.
"We don't have enough positive role models like Shawn and Chico," Martin said. "If someone is going to reach them I can relate to them."
Martin said that his lack of a father gives him the understanding of how easy it is to look up to the "homies on the block" as a driving influence for illegal behavior.
"My thing is I want to be a father to my child that I never had," he said and so now he counsels teens, sometimes only a few years younger than he to do well in school, so that one day they could have a job like his.
Unlike various government organizations, Brothers Against Guns offers real, first hand experiences to those who are facing the dangerous streets.
"If you are serious and want to change they are real," Martin said. He knew that Richard and Wells had similar experiences with gangs and drugs, but managed to escape life on the block.
Even though they never took drugs, Richard and Wells both sold drugs for many years. Wells said he sold marijuana from sixth grade until after high school, when he 'graduated' to selling cocaine. At age 19, Wells said he had accumulated $100,000 in drug money, stashed in shoeboxes.
Before he made the decision to change his life, Wells said he was involved in a shootout in Sacramento when a bullet ricocheted off of a fence and into his forearm. An acquaintance, which was a paramedic, treated the wound, but Wells never sought medical attention.
"We want to be an organization that does what we say and say what we do," said Richard who stood underneath a two-foot by three-foot portrait of his late brother. "One thing can say we do the work at court appearances, at schools, at City Hall and at communities."
Rather than sitting at meetings and deliberating on how to spend funds, the staff cruises through the neighborhood, telling kids to get off the street and back in school. In schools, they emphasize the importance of making good grades.
At Gloria R. Davis Middle School, Wells spoke with a seventh grader in the hall about her grades and career ambitions. The thirteen-year-old admitted her grades had slipped more than a letter grade.
"If you want to be a dentist, you have to make good grades so you can go to college," Wells said.
"Our Solution is about getting on the front lines and doing work; going to court hearings and help with legal battles," Richard said. "We help find jobs even though we're not a job placement center. Our credibility comes from us doing the work."
In addition to the staff members, many clients are success stories. Wells recalls one young man who was struggling in the foster care system. He visited the teen's foster home, school and probation hearings.
"He wasn't afraid, but it put him at ease knowing I had his back," Wells said. The student graduated from John Adams High school two years ago and is now enrolled in college. Every six months or so, he calls Wells to check in and tell him his progress.
Richards and his staff agree that violence prevention is more complicated than finding a job. Cultural factors, including negative role models like rappers exacerbate the problem.
But more than anything, Taper said, "The root causes, like poverty, create these situations."
The city, said Taper who taught in the Oakland Unified School District, focuses on healthy eating, but should be focusing on the school system.
"I hate to say this, but our school system sucks! It does not prepare our kids [to get a job in the real world]." She said unlike the individual attention their organization gives, the schools often suspends troubled kids who "don't fit into a box," rather than dealing with their issues.
Taper said their program teaches them there is a difference between how one acts with friends and how to act on the job. When they are at the organization's office or at work, they know they must pull up their pants, take off their hats, and treat elders with respect.
"They're bilingual and bicultural," she said. "You have to be able to go between both worlds and because of peer pressure you don't want to appear 'soft.' It's not soft to get ahead [in life]."
Also exacerbating poverty and education is the lacks of control parent have over their children, staff members agree.
"Some of us have single parents; moms have two or three jobs," said Martin. "She's going to work and she don't know we are on the block," and parents often are not aware there is a problem until the report card arrives, or the school calls.
"What do mothers do when there is no one to call and the dad isn't there?" said Williams. "They call us."
|© 2006 UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism|