Jesse Esparza stands tall as he squints into the afternoon sun. He doesn’t quite fill the dark suit that hangs from his shoulders, and his hands, clasped together before his waist, only half-emerge from their sleeves.
Behind him stretches Stockton’s Southside, the most distressed section of the most violent city in California. Jesse tells the story of the white ribbon tied at the base of a small oak tree in McKinley Park. It’s a tragic story—the senseless murder of a friend’s cousin, a teenager caught up in a cycle of retaliations—and his telling is both somber and matter-of-fact. But where the trauma gets particular, he generalizes, describing the way news like this travels on seismic waves through his community. “You’re in shock,” he explains. “You’re in denial, you don’t want it to be true. You’re hoping it’s someone else.” At 18 years old, Jesse has already been through this set of emotions more times than would be fair in a full lifespan. One might say he possesses a wisdom beyond his years, though its acquisition is troubling. Read the full Alliance for Boys and Men of Color profile by W. S. Lyon.
Note: SEARAC (profiled below) is also a member of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color through its Southeast Asian American Young Men Collaborative.
Clayton County, GA
The doors closed behind Oscar Mayes, stopping him in his tracks. Everything came to a halt and he was alone with his thoughts. He traced back to the awful mistake that landed him in a detention center in Clayton County, Georgia.
The Mayes of today looks back on that chapter in his life. “You live for a moment, but you never think about your future and how it can come back to haunt you,” he says. “Your past can come back to haunt you.”
For the 15-year-old Mayes, it didn’t matter whether he looked backward or forward. He was haunted as much by the future as by the past. When was his court appointment? Where would he be transferred next? When would he see his family again? Life’s certainties were held by a thread. The prospect of hard prison time loomed in his mind, knocking off future milestones one by one.
Before Clayton County introduced the System of Care and its alternative to youth incarceration, this was a typical scenario for young offenders. Read the full Clayton County System of Care profile by Brian Baughan.
Sacramento, CA; Washington, DC
He’d stayed calm as a cop dumped the contents of his backpack onto the sidewalk.
Scenes like this had already played out with most of his friends. Today he was riding his skateboard to school and running late, and now it was his turn to be the law’s concern. He was told to take his shirt off so they could take photos of his tattoos. All the while he stood quietly, insisting that he wasn’t in a gang, saying softly, “I don’t belong to nobody,” over and over. But when he saw the cop get angry and toss his skateboard into the street, he ran after it, picked it up, and came right back to the questions. At 14, that plank of wood and those wheels were the only place he felt good.
“What gang are you in?” the officer asked Anthony Hem, a son of Cambodian immigrants. How many times would he have to say it? “I don’t belong to nobody.” Finally the officer went to his car, came out with a list of area gangs, and picked one near the top. “He just came up to me and said, ‘Now you’re on gang file. You’re from this gang now, the Asian Boyz’,” Hem says. The Asian Boyz are affiliated with the Crips. From now on, that’s how the law would see him.
In a country where conversations about racial equality are focused heavily on African Americans and Latinos, the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C., serves a different population. SEARAC supports grassroots organizations that are looking out for kids like Hem, children of refugees who face many of the same issues other minority groups face, like poverty, violence, prejudice, racial profiling, and despair.
The national organization focuses intently on state and national policies and helps organizations like Khmer Girls and Boys in Action in Long Beach, California, and the One Love Movement in San Diego, relentlessly push lawmakers to reconsider policies like the one that put Hem in a gang file with no notification of his parents and no due process for having his name removed. The policy knowledge that SEARAC shares serves as a tool that smaller organizations integrate into their mentoring and cultural education activities. The collaboration helps foster young leaders who can speak for a refugee community still reeling from the effects of genocide and war. Read the full SEARAC profile.
On these blocks in East Harlem it is easy to imagine the entire outside world as a penitentiary. If a man disappears, you can bet he’s out at Sing Sing, or Greenhaven, or some other correctional facility with a pleasant-sounding name.
And, as if out of a timeless void, they return.
This spring, you may have recognized a face on Third Avenue that you hadn’t seen since 1993. Maybe that night the name came to you, Michael Rowe, that kid who had a penchant for flashy clothes and who worked at his uncle’s laundromat on East 124th Street. So he’s back now, you say. Trees have grown tall since then. There’s a giant IHOP on the corner now. That wasn’t here back then.
Each year some 2,200 people return from incarceration to this small pocket of upper Manhattan—north from 119th to 126th Street, and east from Lexington over to 2nd Avenue—an area that takes 10 minutes to walk across. Their mass return has earned the neighborhood the name, The Reentry Corridor. They come back with a felony record and little chance of finding sustainable work and back to households that were unstable years ago and have not been helped by time. Many carry high hopes of making a new life, hopes 10 or 20 or 30 years in the making. Within a year, more than half of them will be locked up again.
Fortunately, Michael Rowe wasted no time when he was released April 2. He came a day later to Exodus Transitional Community, an organization that helps the formerly incarcerated begin to find a place in a society that has gone on without them, and that can often seem intent on leaving them behind. Founded 14 years ago by a former drug dealer, Exodus has succeeded in reducing the recidivism rate (a figure referring to the defeated backflow of released felons to prison). In fact, Exodus participants return to prison at a rate less than half that of the national recidivism rate. Every day Rowe, a 41-year-old father of three who spent almost half of his life behind bars, puts on a suit and comes to these offices, where window unit air conditioners struggle against the city heat. “These are people who have made the transition successfully,” he says. “I hope to emulate them.” Read the full Exodus Transitional Community, Inc. profile.
As in the desert that surrounds this city, it seems almost all living happens at dusk. The sun throws rose-colored light on the Sandia Mountains, the pale houses empty, and the sidewalks fill. Above, the skies look brush-stroked and extravagant, and a breeze comes, as if it had been hiding too. When you endure in the desert, this hour is your reward.
And if you are a boy here, this is the hour when someone will show you a crooked path to manhood. You’ll follow an older brother or cousin down to the Rio Grande to receive an initiation of blows and beatings. There, under the Cottonwoods, you’ll try not to cry when they say you need to go beat up that kid you used to play with. In just a little while they’ll call you carnalito (little brother, little dude).
Like many of the Chicano and Native American youth in Albuquerque who take guidance from La Plazita Institute, Raymond Maestas was brought into gang life before he got out of middle school. He learned to go at life with a gun on his waist, and to get away from it all by taking a hit. But one day when he was 15 a man invited him to earn respect a different way, by talking about his feelings, by serving his neighborhood, and by beginning to honor a heritage he had never been taught. The man was Albino Garcia, and the place was called La Plazita. The other guys in the room, the ones he was supposed to open up to? They were the ones he’d been conditioned to hate. Read the full La Plazita Institute profile.
Joseph Thomas knows how deterioration works. It is the same process for the shuttered blocks of West Baltimore where he was a boy as it is for the man who has no one to talk to. The facades are the last thing to go.
“In prison you have a lot of time to think,” says Thomas, who served two years. A quiet, gentle man, he thought about how he had drifted through life since an early age, with no one to steer him. Most of all, he thought about his daughters, wondering if he still had a chance to give them what he didn’t have, a positive role model. Today, you listen to him talk about his teenage girls, what it means to make it to one of their badminton games, and he almost blushes. He was always in their lives, but he has learned that there are different kinds of presence.
Thomas, 38, is one of more than 20,000 people who have come through the doors of Baltimore’s Center for Urban Families, where fatherhood and employment courses re-order their ideas about what a man’s life can mean to his family and to the neighborhoods they call home. Read the full Center for Urban Families profile.