If you want to catch up with Melvin Carter Jr., be quick on your feet. You might find him on the streets of St. Paul, or at a neighborhood rec center, boxing gym or coffee shop. Certainly inside a juvenile justice facility. It is in these settings where Carter does his “organic” work to reach young black men and make sure that “a brush with the law will not become a way of life.”
Sgt. Carter, retired after 28 years with the St. Paul Police Department and father of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, is founder and executive director of Save Our Sons (saveoursonsmn.com), a grassroots organization championing criminal justice reform and mentorship. He reflected on a tough childhood, his years as a cop and the thank yous that keep him going.
Q: SOS just celebrated its annual fundraiser with many supporters. What’s key to your success?
A: We are indigenous and communitywide. We have the community’s trust. I was a black cop and I lived in the neighborhood. We have good relationships with policymakers. We don’t get a lot of money, but we work miracles with what we have.
Q: Example A of your success — the mayor of St. Paul. (Carter is also the husband of Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter and father of Alanna Gallaway and Anika Ward.)
A: I like to say that Melvin Carter, the mayor, was the first SOS member. When you see my son, you see one young man I helped to hone and present to the world. There are many others. Young men with masters’ degrees, once I got them out of jail. One has a law degree. I get tons of letters from former boys in the program thanking me for getting them out of trouble.
Q: A familiar pattern.
A: I grew up ghetto and tough. I had the worst temper. I ran with the most notorious criminals in St. Paul. Before I became a cop, I was shot at by police. I’ve been arrested, put in jail. By some grace of God, I had a record clean enough to get into the police academy.
Q: When you started SOS in 1991, what were you seeing? Fearing?
A: Mothers were calling me, particularly single mothers. They were struggling with sons overloaded on testosterone and confusion and anger, coupled with illegal drugs and guns. It was a new panic for mothers. I wanted to make a difference in boys’ lives.
I remember praying for young black males in my church. My own story is a series of miracles. The elders paved the way for me and held me accountable. By the love of my parents, my community and the grace of God, I was able to not just survive but thrive and flourish. I am a compulsive, obsessive, habitual, serial mentor.
Q: Tell us about the young men you mentor.
A: Some of them I knew since they were born. Oftentimes, it’s circumstances. In so many lives, daddy’s in prison, uncle’s in prison, they’re in poverty and moving four to seven times a year. These kids are stolen from community, stolen from their families. They need a vision beyond where they’re at. Boys are just dumb. You turn 12, 13, 14, you have an overflow of testosterone, your teeth turn into fangs, but your brain isn’t developed until you’re 25 or 26, so you’re vulnerable. SOS uses motivational materials, bulletins and, now, new SOS motivational videos, as teaching points.
Q: You are big on forgiveness, forgiving them and encouraging them to ask forgiveness of those they’ve harmed. Why does that work?
A: When kids are in trouble and trying to figure things out, just listening is insufficient. I focus on forgiveness, making amends, restoration. I say, “You probably did something you’re ashamed of which was either stupid or criminal or both. I come here to help you reclaim yourself on behalf of your family and your ancestors.” I tell them, “I don’t want to know what you did. There’s more to you than that. You are our future. You are here for a precious purpose.” My introduction to most of my classes is, I need you to survive and be successful.
Q: Much of your mentoring is done inside detention centers. You use the word “captivity,” instead of jail, which I’m guessing is intentional.
A: We’re not helping kids by putting them in jail. All kinds of research shows that even one night in jail opens the floodgate to mass incarceration. We need to cut off that nozzle. Some of the best minds in humanity have spent some time behind bars, in exile, but I ask: Is this a life for you or just a brush with the law? I tell them, you’re too good to be kept in these cages.
Q: And they hear you?
A: Some kids are already past the point of no return. But, most times, something in their DNA knows they need to take some instruction from us. Even when they rebel and are dismissive, they really want it. “Somebody tell me something. Somebody help me out.”
Q: You recently published an autobiography titled “Diesel Heart.” What was the impetus?
A: It was medicinal, therapeutic. I wanted to share how I was able to draw from my internal resources and my diesel heart. People never accuse me of being the greatest scholar, but no one ever accused me of not having a heart.
Q: You keep connected with these young men and follow up with them, sometimes years later. Their gratitude must feel joyful.
A: Two or three times a week, mothers stop me and say thank you. “Thanks to you, I still have a son today.” I’m getting the grandkids now, I’ve been doing this for so long. They say, “I kept my promise to you. I never got in trouble again.”