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The most important touchstone with his students, however, is something else he covers often: the death of his younger brother, Tracy, who was 20 when he was killed on the sidewalk near his home in early 1995. The night his brother died, Shawn Richard picked up a gun and took to the streets of San Francisco vowing to avenge Tracy's death.
"I thought nothing could stop me," Richard says one night during a "Street Talk" session, recalling the hours after his brother was killed. "And I fell down on my knees and asked for the hand of God to help me."
And the hand of God -- or at least the long arm of the SFPD -- answered his prayer. Willie Calvin Anderson, the man who shot Tracy Richard, was busted a short time later, and is still serving time in San Quentin.
Losing his brother was a wake-up call for Richard. Over the next year, he sought counseling, got a small business loan, and opened his jersey shop. Shortly thereafter, he founded Brothers Against Guns, a Bayview-based nonprofit seen by the Juvenile Probation Department as a "last chance" program for kids one step away from entering the California Youth Authority. Recently Richard decided to finish his bachelor's degree in activism and social change at New College of California.
On paper, Brothers Against Guns provides "intensive home-based supervision services" for youth offenders, but in practice Richard and his seven-member team are involved with the 30-plus young men on probation from the moment the kids wake in the morning until they go to sleep at night. Because some of the teens in his program fear for their safety just riding the bus through warring neighborhoods, Richard or a member of his staff drives a few of them to school in the morning and others home at night. Every Thursday after "Street Talk," Stephanie Younger, the mother of BAG student De'Angelo Winston, prepares a community meal. The first night I attended, the menu included spaghetti with meat sauce, pork chops and gravy, collard greens, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, and strawberry soda.
As soon as Richard arrives at the Milton Meyer Gymnasium for tonight's "Street Talk" gathering, the phone inside the door of the classroom rings. Richard answers, "Brothers Against Guns." It's as much his salutation as his credo.
The seeds of Project Redirect, like those of Brothers Against Guns, came from Richard's own past. "Without no job, [Bayview] kids get out of school and they are just on the block," he says. "Just hanging out. All day long. And eventually they are going to get caught up, whether they intend to or not."
The nut of the idea was to find young men considered close to a point of no return on the streets, but who exhibited both natural leadership characteristics and a degree of willingness to reform their lifestyles. To find them he contacted other leaders of community-based organizations, eventually coming up with a list of about 30 people, who then went through an application process including a one-on-one interview.
Richard, like many other community leaders and armchair sociologists, sources much of the violence in San Francisco's southeast districts to the high unemployment rate -- which, at nearly 15 percent, is double that of anywhere else in the city. Accordingly, the initiative's immediate, tangible goal was to place a group of high-risk kids in city jobs.
"No one had ever done this before," Richard says. "No one had ever promised -- promised -- that these kids could get a job, get a new life."
No one until him.
"The idea may seem a little simple at first," says Lonnie Holmes, a San Francisco juvenile probation officer who refers many cases to Richard's Brothers Against Guns program. "But if you don't have money to support yourself, what are you going to do? It comes down to basic survival in many cases. You're going to start selling drugs or either robbing drug dealers or jacking folks on the street. A lot of these things will get these kids in either the criminal justice system or dead on the street."
Richard approached longtime friend and fellow youth outreach director Kim Mitchell of TURF (Together United Rededicated Forever) and Dwayne Jones, the director of the Mayor's Office of Community Development. Between March and April of 2004, they put together a proposal for the Southeast Sector Initiative Leadership Redirection Pilot Project. When the proposal for the renamed Project Redirect was formalized, the team secured funding for the program's $300,000 price tag via San Francisco's General Fund, the S.F. Private Industry Council, the California Workforce Investment Board, and three community nonprofits: Young Community Developers, TURF, and Brothers Against Guns.
"When I saw this plan, I knew it was something worth going for," says Jones, who considers the program "especially brave" and "visionary." He knows of none other like it in the country.
Richard drew up a curriculum for the eight-week program by cribbing lessons from his sermonizing at "Street Talk," including broad topics like "Anger Management," "Trust," and "Life Skills Training." He helped organize a litany of guest speakers -- including Mayor Newsom, members of the San Francisco Police Commission, District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, and Dr. Joseph Marshall Jr., who founded the nationally recognized inner-city youth education program Omega Boys Club (in which Richard was a sometime member as a teen). The final step in the process was securing job opportunities with a handful of city agencies, among them the Recreation and Park Department, the Port Authority, and the Department of Public Works. This crucial last step didn't take place until after the students had been chosen and the classes had already begun.