For young men — especially African Americans growing up in the inner city — the only way to learn how to live the right way is being shown the errors of a negative lifestyle.
No one understands that more than Will Little.
Little, who, at 19, was found guilty of manslaughter and subsequently spent 10 years of his life incarcerated, vowed not only to leave behind the street life for good, but to take many of the neighborhood youth with him.
To that end, Little and his team of volunteers meet with neighborhood youth every Monday for the “Young Men Mentoring” program at the Jazz-U-Up barbershop, 1900 Mifflin St.
“The program started when two female friends of my son’s were murdered in South Philly, and we decided to do something about it,” Little said. “We began to engage the young men in the neighborhood, and invited them to come out.
“And when they get there, we talk about everything,” Little continued. “About being a man, peer pressure, hygiene, goal setting and the general purpose in life.”
Little’s work with area youth was born out of his participation in “Poetry In Motion,” a unit that started out as a creative endeavor that has since morphed into a community-centered organization. Little has also worked with District Attorney Seth Williams’ “Bridge to the Future” anti-violence initiative.
Little and his team also visit area schools, performing and giving talks on the pitfalls of street life — and what it means to be a man in the community.
“Young Men Mentoring” has developed quite a following in just two months of operation, and Little often refers to his time in prison and the mental crucible of incarceration when he reaches out neighborhood youth, many of whom are — at the very least — blasé about their prospects and uncaring about going to prison.
“I spent 10 years of my life in prison, and there’s no real rehabilitation in prison, so I had to rehabilitate myself,” Little said. “I started reading, and wanted to focus on what I would do when I got out.
“I tell them all the time that prison is not where they want to be.”
Sahmir Sims is one of the mentors assisting Little. He, too, is from South Philly and had his scrapes with the law, but thanks to the lessons offered by those around him, Sims has managed to avoid the judicial system.
“I had older men to keep me straight, and if I didn’t have that, I believe, I would be real deep in the drug game right now. But all my life, I was the person people called when they had problems,” Sims said, noting that of his five brothers, he is the only one who managed to stay out of prison. “And with my experience in the streets, I thought that this was my calling.
“I wanted to start helping young brothers, and [Little] provided me the motivation to do it.”
One of those young brothers is Marcus Johnson, a senior at Roman Catholic High School. As an aspiring musician, Johnson, “who sought answers through writing and music,” was drawn to Little — first through poetry, and then through Little’s own story.
“These are my mentors, and I look up to them. They believed in me, and gave me the confidence to say, ‘I’m not going to stop, I’m not going to give myself a limit,’” Johnson said. “I needed guidance, and they have made me think about things on an intellectual level. It has helped me keep a strong faith and inspire people.
“I now have lots of friends in the program.”
Barbershops have long been a gathering spot for young and old men alike to come together, discuss life and debate the issues of the day. Using that as a model, Little and Sims believes they have discovered the perfect message and medium.
“This is a grassroots effort, led by the men in the community,” Little said. “And when you bring young brothers together, they get to know each other, and how do deal with altercations.
“The whole vision is for them to be around men — and become men themselves.”
The idiom “Live and Let Live” is an old one — and used to convey the idea that warring factions forego violence — you’re going to let me live, and I’m going to let you live.
In Philadelphia, where since the start of 2012, 88 people have been murdered, mostly young Black and Latino males, that phrase is the name of an anti-violence campaign that founders and supporters hope will ignite a deeper sense of the importance of life — and of having a future.
Bilal Qayyum, executive director of the Father’s Day Rally Committee, Will Little who heads Poetree-N-Motion Inc. and Tyrone Werts with the Inside-Out Center spoke with Tribune editors and reporters about a coalition of community groups who have started the latest campaign to try and change the perspective of the target population — young Black males. Called Live and Let Live: Promoting Peace Through the Eradication of the Culture of Violence,” the year-long effort began in March with highly visible billboards and lawn signs, posters, handouts and a lot more.
Changing the bleak, nightmarish homicide statistics has been the ongoing mission of a legion of community leaders. And the problem of deadly, senseless violence among young Black males continues to draw the attention of local, state and federal legislators who funnel money into anti-violence programs and initiatives aimed at reaching the at-risk population.
And that slogan has taken on a new dimension with the national outrage over the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
“Near the end of the year I saw the numbers of homicides were rising and I knew 2012 was going to be a bad year,” said Qayyum. “I was already having conversations with Anthony Murphy from Town Watch and several others about coming up with a different approach to this problem. Many of our young Black men don’t even expect to be alive past their twenties — and sadly, as the statistics show, many of them won’t be. But that perspective can and must change. This is a theme campaign and it’s very simple — live and let live. A lot of young folks don’t know if they are going to live beyond their 20s, especially young African-American males. But we’re hearing different conversations out there on the streets now where they’re starting to say ‘to hell with this, I want to live.’ That’s the message, I’m going to let you live and you’re going to let me live. Let’s stop the foolishness.”
Qayyum says his organization, the Father’s Day Rally Committee, has teamed with other community groups who also work to end the violence; House of Umoja, Town Watch Integrated Services, Public Safety Net, Every Murder is Real and the Lifer’s Public Safety Initiative. Qayyum said they decided not to have a formal press conference — they just wanted to get things moving.
“This isn’t a new organization, just groups that have already been out there working at this. But this is the first time we’re working together on the same campaign,” he said. “This will be a year long effort and we’re pushing the theme. Congressman Bob Brady’s office donated towards the billboards, Back to Basics, the organization that works in the Latino community, is on board with this as well as the Asian and Latino business community. You know the Asian community has suffered some robberies and homicides lately so there’s a lot of support there are well. Clear Channel will be running public service announcements. At the end of the year, we’ll assess what we’ve done, and see how successful this was. Violence is a culture that crosses racial lines.”
Statistically speaking, young Black males between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most at risk to either die by violence or commit an act of deadly violence, Qayyum said. The reasons are multi-layered but not impossible to change.
“With Poetree-N-Motion, we’re right on the same level with these young brothers,” said Little. “When I’m going to the schools or speaking with formerly incarcerated people we’re talking about Live and Let Live, and hope they carry that message back to their friends. My wish is to have more and more mentoring workshops across Philadelphia. Death or prison doesn’t have to be the only path for our young men.”
Little grew up in a single parent home with his four sisters in Philadelphia. Like too many young Black men, his father was absent from his life, and eventually Little dropped out of high school in 10th grade. He became involved in the drug trade and other illegal activities. His decisions landed him in prison for ten years at age 19. Now he works to steer his peers in a more productive direction.
“My interest is the young brother who is walking around with a gun in his pocket,” said Tyrone Werts. Werts, who was also incarcerated and now handles public relations for the Inside-Out Center at Temple University. He said he believes only someone who lived the street life can reach the young men who are out there.
“A lot of people are doing good intervention work, but I’m focused on the man carrying a gun, the hard core brothers who are the toughest to crack,” Werts said. “We have to pull in guys who were in that culture, who used to live that way to reach these younger brothers — and do it on their level in a way no one else can. It’s interesting that there are young men like Will, who see their responsibility and want to make a change in their community, but don’t know where to start. They’re really grabbing hold of this. We want the hardcore guys to grab this message — just think for a moment, don’t react — just think about it. Live and let live.”