Project reaches out to St. Paul's young black men

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 8, 2011 - 9:38 PM

A pilot program by a new nonprofit starts Saturday to help at-risk St. Paul youths learn work and life skills.

Quay Jones was recharged with hope when he stepped out of a meeting Tuesday afternoon where he heard about a project aimed at helping at-risk young black men recover from or avoid crime.

Jones, 19, said he's not worried that he'll be seduced by crime; he just hopes to learn important life and work skills in the program.

"I think it's a great idea," he said. "It'll help a lot of the youth in St. Paul."

The newly formed non-profit, Brotherhood Inc., is an ambitious albeit slow-rising project inspired by the successful Los Angeles effort, Homeboy Industries. That group -- through a number of programs and services -- targets youths formerly involved with gangs. A key factor in its success has been its on-site small businesses that employ formerly incarcerated youths.

The Brotherhood Inc. story began a few years ago when its seed was planted during a meeting between then-City Attorney John Choi, the local NAACP, a mayoral representative and the Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas. Of concern: Social issues facing the city's black community.

"What we saw across the board was that young black men were falling through the cracks," said Nekima Levy-Pounds, associate professor of law at St. Thomas and director of the Community Justice Project.

Levy-Pounds traveled to Homeboy Industries in 2007 and was in "awe" of its success, the warmth of its facility and the tangible businesses it created (a cafe, bakery and textiles) to employ youths no one else wanted.

Two University of St. Thomas law students later traveled there to study the organization and bring back tools to build something in St. Paul. Meetings with a local neighborhood development group and small amount of money gathered here and there followed. By late 2010, a board of directors had formed.

The project took another big step Tuesday when community leaders, Brotherhood Inc. leaders and teenagers met. They shared plans for an eight-week pilot project that begins Saturday with a class on racial disparities in the adult criminal justice system. Teenagers at the meeting told leaders they needed to keep the lessons honest, open and energetic.

Brotherhood Inc. leaders shared long-range goals that, for now, seem distant on their shoestring budget of $12,000. For now, it will provide culturally sensitive services for black males between 16 and 24 who have been in or are at risk of entering the criminal justice system.

"When you look at the statistics, they have fallen the farthest in society," Levy-Pounds said of the target audience. "You can't take a one-size-fits-all approach with men who are having a very different experience from everyone else in these systems."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Follow Chao on Twitter: @ChaoStrib

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

The pilot program's classes will meet every Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Minnesota Women's Building, 550 Rice St., covering issues from financial literacy to job searches to life skills. For more information, call 651-962-4960.

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