“We have decided to stop complaining and to get up and do something about the problem.” That’s Ansar “Stan” Muhammad commenting about the nearly-unrelenting stories about “troubled,” “at-risk,” “wayward” and “angry” Black youth here and nationwide who have come to represent a so-called “lost” generation that American society believes may be pre-destined for unemployment, despair and ultimately prison, if adults fail to recognize and act on the many social maladies that plague them.
The social dysfunction that shadows impoverished Black youth may begin as early as grade school and continue through their most formative years when they are tempted to join gangs, use/sell drugs, drop out of school and follow a pathway to a life of idleness and crime.
“Our youth are crying for help,” Muhammad said, “and they need to know we hear their cry for justice and attention.”
The AV H.E.L.P.E.R. (Help Establish Learning, Peace, Economics and Righteousness) program is doing just that. Late last month the organization announced a comprehensive plan to reduce gang violence and drug sales at the Sonoma Apartment Houses at 38551 11th Street East in Lancaster. The gangs and drug dealers were reportedly running rampant at the complex where a gang informant was stabbed to death in 2012. Residents were reportedly afraid to speak out in fear of reprisal from gang members. People wanted to move out and nobody wanted to move in. Muhammad and a group of civic-minded African American men saw this as an opportunity to step in and try to make a difference in young lives and to steer them toward a life of purpose, progress and prosperity.
“We started this program in the Antelope Valley because of the existing conditions,” Muhammad said. AV H.E.L.P.E.R. is an off-shoot of Muhammad’s V2K H.E.L.P.E.R. (formerly Venice 2000) program in Los Angeles. “There is a lack of quality education, gainful employment and little assistance to at-risk kids. We’ve received good support in Los Angeles such as funding for gang-prevention services. We can help these kids in the Antelope Valley, but it’s a community-wide effort. We trying to cultivate a working relationship between ourselves, the youth and with everyone including law enforcement, the district attorney and local businesses to place these kids onto a pathway of progress … not prison.”
An unwelcome ‘L.A. lifestyle’
With a significant migration during the past 20 years of African American families moving to the Antelope Valley from South Los Angeles, so too have materialized the twin scourges of gangs and drug sales. The youth are said to bring with them an “L.A. lifestyle,” Muhammad said, that has only caused trouble with law enforcement and resentment among long-time residents who may see their community deteriorating socially and economically. As well, law-abiding families of color who either reside in or wish to move to the Antelope Valley have often been painted with a “broad brush” of malice by the community at large because of the delinquent behavior of some Black and Latino youth.
“Yes, that lifestyle born from the despair of the ‘projects’ is here now, and it’s spoiling the quality of life for other African Americans who originally came here to keep their kids out of gangs, away from drugs, to stay in school and to stay out of trouble with the law,” Muhammad said. “That’s why we’re here working to change that dynamic. Black kids are not born to lead a life of crime; we’re working hard to instill positive choices and introduce a pathway to success.”
In tackling the gang-infested apartment building by way of meetings with residents, law enforcement and with the district attorney’s office, muhammad believes the initiative could result in fewer visits to the Sonoma Apartments and other troubled neighborhoods by the Lancaster sheriff’s deputies.
Muhammad said law-abiding residents support the plan in seeking a “more quiet, more peaceful environment.” One of the first projects of the initiative is a community park which is in the planning stages at 11th Street East and Avenue Q. Former gang members and drug dealers will work to clean the parcel of land and, ultimately, showcase it as a gang- and drug-free zone where residents can visit and children can play without risk of being threatened, mugged or even killed by a stray bullet.
Right now they’re waiting for a “thumbs up” from Lancaster and various county officials before they can implement a GRYD (Gang Reduction Youth Development) program which will identify a one-mile radius around the Sonoma Apartments which has become a hotbed of crime. It’s a three-fold strategy that involves: (1) outreach to those individuals who are hardcore gang members and instill within them an understanding that they can receive help in quitting gang life, or if not, either they or their behavior must immediately leave the neighborhood; (2) the group will identify those “wannabe” gang members and place them onto a life-skills course which will be offered as part of GRYD.
Finally, they want to create a violence-free, drug-free zone by using former gang members who now work for AV H.E.L.P.E.R. Staff members are already working to provide “safe passage and community intervention services” for residents. “We’re not here policing,” Muhammad said, “we’re here connecting.” The GRYD program could be implemented within the next three months.
‘Where are the Black men?’
That question is frequently asked by the larger society which often looks with ambivalence at the nation’s inner cities (ex. South Chicago, South L.A., Oakland etc.) where lawless Black teens appear to corrupt with impunity a younger generation of children and instill in them the idea that the time-honored objectives of ambition, character and self respect are considered code for “acting White.” There are a number of organizations operated by African American men who want the younger generation to succeed in life.
“T-CAL (The Community Action League) supports this idea wholeheartedly,” said Emmett Murrell, operator of Murrell’s Farm and Boy’s Home in Lancaster and a member of TCAL. “It’s a very blighted part of Lancaster, and we’re committed to uplift that area known for drugs, gangs and truancy. This is simply a response to a call from our young people; we’ve been answering that call for many years. The mood of the community can be altered by people who care for the youth. Here is an example of Black men exercising their rights by instilling purpose and meaning into the lives of children.”
Pharoah Mitchell, president of TCAL, said such participation by Black elders is not uncommon within the African American community, but the efforts may not garner much attention by the national media. “We were doing this long before President Obama’s ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative,” he said. “What he’s doing is noteworthy—drawing attention to the lack of mentors for Black boys—but we’ve undertaken this task for many years now.”
Mitchell points to the “First Time, Second Chance” program supported by county law enforcement entities as a good example of cooperation between the private and public sectors in terms of curtailing juvenile delinquency, reducing recidivism and facing head on the controversial school-to-prison pipeline.
“We want to make sure these kids finish their education. That’s first and foremost,” Mitchell explained. “In many ways, we’ve had our ‘Ferguson,’ and ‘Rodney King’ moments right here in Lancaster. We’ve helped to change some of the tactics that can lead to riots, and we’ve brought the sheriff’s department closer to the community by organizing advisory committees. We have more African Americans working together today than ever before. The Black man is doing many things to improve the lives and future of our most vulnerable children.”
Illuminating a bright future
S. Craig Watkins, an associate professor of sociology and radio/television/film at the University of Texas at Austin, stated in a 2001 research paper entitled “Black Youth and Mass Media: Current Research and Emerging Questions” that mass media stereotyping can have a negative effect on the self esteem and cognitive development of Black youth. “For most of its history, the mass media industry has produced images that distort and misrepresent the complexities of the African American experience. Contemporary media representations of African Americans can best be described as paradoxical: Blacks are simultaneously underrepresented and overrepresented in American media culture.”
Some researchers suggest that children who reside in underserved communities often envision a life beyond poverty and depravation by virtue of “two-second” media images. They see the Hip-Hop “swag” and “bling” promoted by their favorite celebrities as fineries that are far out of reach. They’ve never been told that these images arise only from the imagination of some far-away advertising executive or copywriter. Because the natural desire for the latest pleasures may lie in opposition to the state of their current lives, many Black youth simply give up hope for a bright future. Many have never been told about the hard work, dedication and commitment necessary to obtain a slice of the “good life.” Like practically every American teenager, they “want it now.” Many of the impoverished young lives see the future only in terms of months or, if they’re lucky enough to avoid the gang infrastructure, a year of two of freedom before they believe they’ll be coerced into joining a gang, get arrested by police, or sadly, get gunned down by a member of either social dynamic.
“Some kids don’t even know what a goal or life objective is, and that’s the saddest thing of all,” Muhammad said. “Young people must know what is contrary to a life of purpose and structure. They must learn to avoid the behavior that can lead to trouble, and adults must help kids understand that. The first thing we do is listen. Then we empower the youth with practical information for progress. We have to reach an ‘attitude change’ in their motivation … let them know that they can speak without it falling on ‘deaf ears.’ The social conditioning of the very young shapes the mind by the teenage years. We want them to know that they’re not forgotten and that success can be a part of their future.”
Yet another group, the Antelope Valley African American Leadership Council, chaired by Bishop Henry Hearns, is lending its influence to help attract and empower future mentors of Black youth. The council wants to provide a supportive environment for African American leaders and organizations in the areas of leadership, unity, policy and decision making by lending influence to agendas that seek to improve the lives of all African Americans in the Antelope Valley.
“We’re a coalition of progressive leaders representing African American organizations in the Valley, ensuring national, state, and local policies are adhered to, and working every day to improve the health, education and social well-being of our community,” said Hearns who once served as mayor of Lancaster.
A nationwide movement
Like AV H.E.L.P.E.R., organizations within many of the nation’s biggest cities are stepping forward to mentor underserved Black youth. Donda’s House in Chicago began last year to reconnect young people with the arts. They reach out to youth 14 to 24 years old and instruct them in conflict resolution, goal setting and other career and life skills. The organization was named in honor of the late English professor Donda West, mother of pop star Kanye West. Among the goals are to make young African Americans “more employable” by focusing on developing career and interpersonal skills. “They’re walking away more reflective, more committed to becoming agents in their community and better able to articulate their goals,” said co-founder Donnie Smith.
Boys to Men Foundation in Charlotte, N.C., is another non-profit group working with Black youth age 7 to 17 years old. Participants receive mentoring, tutoring, and regular home visits are conducted by staff members. Parents and kids must participate in regular community service projects, and all parents/guardians are required to attend monthly parenting workshops. They have a pledge: “I believe that I can be a good student. I believe that I can show good character. I believe that when I work hard, I will succeed, so I work hard each day to do my best. I will learn.”
Black Youth Project in Atlanta, Ga., has several subsidiaries within its program. Members of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta serve as mentors by channeling educational and economic resources into underserved neighborhoods. Georgia Teen Challenge instills the philosophy that “…every human being has value and life-controlling behavior can be changed.” The Mayors’ Youth Program provides at-risk youth with “hands on” assistance in planning for a life after high school. Rock of Escape provides case management services via a creative set of opportunities to equip boys and young men with the tools to stay in school, build winning character traits, cultivate a strong work ethic and teach them how to make more dynamic relationship connections with family and the community.