Roy Barker was a hustler, a dope dealer and a con man on Chicago's South Side for 27 years. Then he was arrested for a murder he didn't commit. He sat in lockup for a year before he was acquitted at trial.
In that year, he found God and started the long process of learning to love himself and then to love others.
"I think I'm a person who's worthy of love now," Barker said of his new life that began after he moved to Minnesota in the summer of 1995. "I don't think I was worthy of love then."
Barker plans to spread that love now that he has been picked to be executive director of Ujamaa Place, a nonprofit that organizers hope to open on gang-neutral turf in St. Paul by fall.
Ujamaa is the Swahili word for "extended family." That concept fits nicely into the nonprofit's mission: teaching young black men to succeed through education, employment, pride in cultural heritage and positive role modeling.
Its organizers, led by former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, include leaders in the business, civic, faith and black communities. Last month, a day after he turned over the reins of the St. Paul Police Department to Chief Tom Smith, Harrington accepted the post of president/CEO of Ujamaa Place.
Organizers hope to raise $1 million by the end of 2011 to keep Ujamaa Place going for the next three years. Their plan is to graduate 400 young men each year, Harrington said.
Its program will be exclusively male and unabashedly Afro-centric. Participants will be men, ages 17 to 24. They'll be gang members, law breakers, drug users, couch hoppers. They'll have dropped out or been kicked out of school.
"Social service agencies oftentimes don't want these kids," Harrington said. "They're hostile, they're sometimes felons, oftentimes have a history of violence, they've got not-great social skills."
Participants will stay in the program from four to eight months, during which they'll develop a relationship with a coach/mentor, possibly the first positive male role model they've ever had, Harrington said.
The program will instill pride in their heritage and include a spiritual component. Success will be measured by them getting a GED, being drug-free, finding stable housing and steady employment and being ready to move on to the next level of skills training.
"We call this a home run," organizer Bill Svrluga said. "For a lot of folks, you'd look at this and say, 'Well, that's not much,' but considering where these guys have come from..."
Harrington said the program has the potential to significantly reduce violent crime in St. Paul.
"In 2005-06, 70 percent of our homicides were young black men; 70 percent of my aggravated assaults," he said. "In a city where the population of young black men is 10 percent, young black men were the highest demographic for being victims of violent crime.
"Reducing the number of victims is what I'm passionate about," he said.
Guys who have street cred
Barker, 57, grew up in the housing projects on the South Side of Chicago. He was the oldest of 11 kids and had to grow up quickly. "As an adolescent having adult responsibilities, I also thought I had adult liberties," he said.
He was running cons by the time he was 10, selling drugs by the time he was 14. As an adult, he said, he was dangerous. People crossed the street when they saw him coming.
All that changed while he was in jail, he said. His mother became ill and, on her deathbed, made him promise not to hurt another person.
"You can't sell drugs without hurting someone," Barker said. "That's why I had to stop. I loved my mama more than anybody else in life. She believed in me, even though I was this pretty bad guy, a pretty violent person. Mama never stopped believing in me."
After moving to Minnesota, Barker eventually found Twin Cities Rise, a life skills and job training program, spearheaded by Svrluga, a decade or more ago.
"I learned I had the power within myself to accomplish things," he said. "My past didn't have to determine my present or my future."
Barker, who's now working on his master's degree at Bethel University, will impart the wisdom he's learned over a lifetime to the men who find their way to Ujamaa Place.
St. Paul police Cmdr. Tina McNamara, who heads the gang unit, said the young gangsters she works with are likely to be receptive.
"When they're given an opportunity to get life skills, family skills, or somebody that believes in them, they want to do good," she said.
"These are opportunities or options they were never afforded growing up."
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992