By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
"I had promised something to these kids that I didn't even have yet," Richard says. "But they knew we would get it done for them, and we proved that we could do it."
The room where Brothers Against Guns holds its Thursday night "Street Talk" sessions is in the back of Milton Meyers Gymnasium, on the back side of Hunters Point Hill. Near the front of the windowless room, the ceiling is marked with water and mold. The mismatched folding chairs are chipped and bent, scattered around the room in imperfect rows, on which sit a group of young black men between the ages of 7 and 17.
Many of the kids in Richard's class tonight are here because they have to be. Of the 45 boys and men in the room, more than 30 are currently required to attend as a condition of their probation, which most of them earned through petty theft or drug offenses. The rest of the kids aren't required to be here; they're graduates of the program who voluntarily return to serve as mentors.
It's easy to tell the difference between the two groups. Richard's indentured pupils slouch in their chairs or hunch with their heads in their hands and stare at the pattern in the floor beneath their sneakers. In the front of the room one of Richard's staff members, Roselyn Womack, a guidance counselor, throws the group softball questions like, "What would be one thing that some of you want to change about yourself?" Out of five respondents, four young men mumble, "Do better in school," in a monotone.
In the middle of this discussion, a huge crash sounds from the back of the room, and the class members turn around to see what's going on. A fight has broken out between two guys who'd known each other in the California Youth Authority. They grab each other, tear at each other's shirts, throw punches, and hurtle into a filing cabinet before Richard and three of his staffers can separate them.
A second later, the two boys are entangled again, and the skirmish moves to the hallway outside, dragging most of the Brothers Against Guns staff and many "Street Talk" boys along in its chaotic wake. One of the boys' mother, who is sitting in on tonight's session, cautions, "You don't run to the fire unless you got something." She's talking about having a gun.
When things settle down 15 minutes later, Richard reappears in the front of the room. He's sweating, and his typically neat clothes are disheveled.
"I need you to understand one thing," Richard says to the class, almost yelling. He accentuates the next statement by pounding on his chest with every syllable: "We represent something different."
In another 15 minutes, the young man who started the fight stands in front of the class, introduces himself as John, and apologizes.
"I don't know how to say this enough, but I think that Shawn's ability to reach out and touch those kids is unique," probation officer Lonnie Holmes says. "In that way his program is a very different thing than any other programs like it in the city. Kids are very smart, and maybe we don't give them enough credit, but they know when they are talking to someone who has a level of credibility."
Holmes frequently refers his young offenders to Brothers Against Guns because Richard's tactics appear to be more effective than those of other programs that deal with at-risk youth in the southeast quadrant of the city. BAG has low recidivism rates (meaning, according to the Juvenile Probation Department, that of the 80 kids who have gone through the program in the last two years, only four have been rearrested) and a high utilization rate (referring to the number of people the program is able to service at once, which is nearly three times greater than the average of the city's nine other intensive home-based supervision programs). According to Holmes, these figures -- and the number of kids in the program who successfully complete their probation period -- are proof of BAG's success.
"[With Brothers Against Guns] it's every day, consistent," Richard says, "and being there where those kids can see you. In the beginning it was never like that, but these kids, most of them I've known since they were in the fifth grade. We showed them and told them that we were going to be there for them every day. And we told them and showed them that we were for real. We made everything that we told them we were going to do happen. We did that."
Katrina Morgan, who is a case manager at the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families and who oversees the city's contract with Brothers Against Guns, characterizes Richard's leadership in even simpler terms: "He's the father that many of these young brothers have never had."
When the 18 students of Project Redirect first came together in City Hall's Room 34 on June 21, 2004, students and teachers alike were sitting on a powder keg.
"No one knew if it was going to explode," says Richard, recalling the first class. "Was it tense? Hell yeah, it was tense."