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Bringing down gangs

May 7, 2010

The devastating effects of gang activity are on the minds of many powerful people in Minneapolis—including students at Sojourner Truth Academy.

Speaking in front of their classmates, teachers, and six University of Minnesota football players, Sojourner Truth Academy students Ricardo and Akitta explain why they want to create more alternatives to gang membership.

“The sixth grade is talking about gang violence because this year there has been a lot of shootings, stabbings, and drug dealing on corners and we want our children to be safe,” says Akitta, a sixth grader at the public charter school located in north Minneapolis.

Akitta, and her classmates in fifth and sixth grade, believe that if they can create more alternatives to gang membership they’ll be able to end the recruitment cycle with their generation. “I definitely don’t want my kids to be influenced by gangs,” says Jameer Anderson, another sixth grader.

A plan of action

Once a week the fifth and sixth graders meet with their Public Achievement coach, Danielle Mkali. Through Public Achievement, they identified the issue they most wanted to take action on. While they know as well as anyone how difficult their task is—some of them have been pressured to join a gang for their own safety—they believe they can and need to be part of the solution.

Gopher football player MarQueis Gray and students at Sojourner Truth Academy

With connections provided by their coach and others at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, the Sojourner Truth students invited MarQueis Gray, one of the top African American football players at the University of Minnesota, to meet with them and talk about how he got into college and what it’s like to be a student athlete. He agreed and arranged to bring teammates Johnny Johnson, Brandon Kirksey, Tiree Eure, Shady Salamon, and D.L. Wilhite.

With only an hour for their meeting, the Sojourner Truth students prepared a detailed agenda and sent it to the athletes in advance. In addition to fun and games, they wanted time for serious discussion and planned to ask the football players to commit to coming back to the school next year.

A connection built on shared experiences

The lunchroom at Sojourner Truth Academy was abuzz when the six big football players took their seats this past Wednesday. And the electricity in the air was palpable as one by one the players talked about their path to college. Several had grown up poor. Several had struggled to see the relevance of high school while one had graduated with a 4.1 GPA. Several had grown up surrounded by gang culture, and one had left a gang when he became a parent and moved a day’s drive away to attend the University of Minnesota. All of the football players are now doing well academically, and they all emphasized that education—combined with determination—is the key to being successful.

Gopher football player Johnny Johnson and a student at Sojourner Truth Academy

“I was never officially in a gang,” said Johnny Johnson, who grew up on the south side of Chicago. “But it’s tempting because you see all the money and flashy things. I focused on football as a way out.” While several of the athletes have received full athletic scholarships, Brandon Kirksey noted that college is a possibility for all kids, even those who don’t excel at sports. “You can get an academic scholarship, too,” he insisted.

Beyond serving as role models, the athletes were able to talk openly with the kids about some of their greatest fears: once you’re in a gang, is it possible to get out? how do you get over the violent death of a friend or a family member? Because of their lived experience, the athletes were able to provide answers with the authority and assurances the kids need.

And next year, the kids look forward to welcoming the athletes back. “All great minds can make a difference, whether you’re impoverished or rich,” concluded Jameer Anderson.

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