Research shows that youth who grow up in low income neighborhoods are more likely than privileged kids to become involved in gangs or take part in other violent activity. As part of our series on youth violence in Milwaukee, WUWM’s LaToya Dennis visits an after-school program that is succeeding in helping some kids turn around their lives.
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About 10 elementary and high school age boys are gathered at Greater New Birth Baptist Church on 22nd and Center Street. They’re taking part in an after-school program called Boys to Men. It caters to kids in Milwaukee’s inner city. Semaj Battle is one of them. He’s a 14-year-old ninth grader at Hope Christian School.
“When I fight I usually don’t know when to stop. I’m a vicious fighter I was told,” Semaj says.
He lives and goes to school and church in one of the most dangerous zip codes in the city, 53206. Semaj says it’s the norm in his neighborhood to hear adults arguing on the street and gunshots piercing the air. But these days he’s more troubled by what he sees from kids as young as age five and six.
“Little kids actually picking up guns and threatening their parents and saying well I learned how to shoot a gun yesterday how about I shoot you in the head. I’ve actually seen little kids punch adults. Just the other day an adult asked a kid to switch seats with this girl because she couldn’t see and the little boy just downright punched her,” Semaj says.
Semaj says two years ago, before attending Boys to Men and building a relationship with God, he, also, was angry.
“I had a very bad attitude. My attitude was I don’t care, you looked at me wrong so we gone fight. It’s me against the world and I’m gone win. That’s how I looked at things,” Semaj says.
Semaj says he was upset his dad wasn’t around much and his mom always seemed to take his stepdad’s side. But he says with the help of Boys to Men, he’s realized his mother has always been in his corner, and that he’s not to blame for his father’s absence.
“All the anger that I have when I walk in the door it’s just like a sanctuary where I can come and be relieved of all my problems,” Semaj says.
“So since we love God and we’re called according to his purpose everything that we’ve been through we can use it as a purpose…”
At Boys to Men, kids can talk about problems they’re facing, about the bible and the purpose of their lives.
“Why do you feel like you’re a mistake? What’s that word we learned the first thing we learned? Respect…”
Twenty-three year old Marshaundus Robinson runs the program. He says a lot of the young people feel as though they’re out in the world by themselves. Robinson says he can relate because it wasn’t long ago that he felt the same way. He was raised by his grandmother and didn’t meet his father until just a few years ago. As a teen, Robinson got into fights and tried to run with a gang.
“I understand the cycle. I understand the pain, the pressure because I dealt with it…growing up not always having all the food, not having all the clothes, kind of being unpopular. So I know the lack,” Robinson says.
Robinson says for a lot of kids violence is about survival--but not in the way most of us think about it.
“It’s a survival mode to stay in the know, stay in popularity. You see what I’m saying? It’s the survival to…I gotta have these rims, because this makes me at a certain status. You know survival to be popular survival to not be the lame one,” Robinson says.
Robinson teaches young people to deal with their problems without resorting to violence. He says he wants them to know it’s OK to be responsible and caring—to be leaders instead of followers. But Bryan Price says it’s hard to do the right thing all the time, especially when peer pressure is involved. The 15-year-old lives with is grandmother and great-grandmother. Price says fighting used to be a way of life for him because that’s what he grew up around. Now he says he’s working on being a better person. Today he came to Boys to Men instead of hanging out with friends.
“I felt like I was gone be a leader today cause I left them alone. They talking about going over my other friend house with two females and I wasn’t with that so I just left,” Price says. Why weren’t you with it? Two females six guys, its trouble,” Price says.
Besides, Price says since he started participating in Boys to Men, he’s realized he has goals for his future. He wants to finish school and begin a singing career.