"We must have both individual responsibility and collective accountability … "

­Cornel West

I suppose I may be like a lot of white Minnesotans. I'm troubled in two quite different ways by the belief — plainly widespread among African-Americans and others — that systemic racism is the overwhelming cause for disparities between blacks and whites in this country in education, employment, income, incarceration, health and more.

I'm troubled, first, by the reality of this mistreatment.

But I'm also troubled by the nagging suspicion that racism and "the system" aren't the whole story. In my case, experiences working in education have deepened that suspicion.

I have taught African-American adolescents in north Minneapolis. I have taught teenagers in East Africa and China. I currently work with young people from the Hmong and Karenni communities in a charter school in St. Paul.

I can't help recalling many of my black north Minneapolis students refusing to do assignments, swearing at me, walking out of the classroom, arguing, throwing calculators around the class. Two eighth-grade boys already had criminal records, and each wore a location-monitoring ankle bracelet. One had punched out a neighborhood kid and had stolen his bike.

Meanwhile, many of these students' parents offered little support, to them or to me.

I don't live in these students' neighborhoods. I know I can't fully understand the systemic factors shaping their behaviors. But none of that means other factors, beyond the system, aren't relevant — and necessary to address if we want to see less suffering in the inner city.

So over many months, I searched for people who are in the neighborhoods and who do understand — and who still are addressing more than one side of the problem.

I found black leaders in Minneapolis quietly saving lives in their communities by sharing the message that one's situation in life is also a matter of choice, that this means empowerment and hope, and demonstrating that problems are best solved when both sides of the proverbial ideological coin are considered.

• • •

A fit, compact man in a gray suit, with a shaved head and a stern, determined look, invited me into his office last winter. Sitting down behind his desk, John Turnipseed summed up his own life by handing me a book.

"Bloodline" is a vivid autobiography of Turnipseed's life of violence, drug use, pimping and generally seeking the next thrill at the expense of whoever was around.

"Remember Murderapolis?" he asked as I eyed the book cover. "That was because of my family." The book details his life in and out of prison before he had a spiritual experience.

Today, Turnipseed is vice president of the Center for Fathering at Urban Ventures, a nonprofit dedicated to "breaking the cycle of generational poverty in Minneapolis one person, one family at a time." The organization offers 12 different programs ("ventures") focused on jobs, education and family.

Given his center's name, Turnipseed's answer was small surprise when I asked about the main cause of inner-city suffering today.

"Eighty percent of kids in this neighborhood didn't have a dad," he said. "Fathers all left, mothers collected welfare. The kids banded together and started a gang.

"You want to end gang problems? You want to end kids going to jail? Put a father in their life. That is the biggest single thing."

Turnipseed believes that solely blaming "the system" will keep his community from making progress.

"If the only way that I can do better is if you change," he said, "then I'm in trouble."

Ten days later, I sat at a conference room table. At its head sat a large man in a white shirt and beige vest, with thick-framed glasses and a goatee.

V.J. Smith was born in Kansas City, Mo. He was in foster care by age 9, and grew into an adult career of "organized crime," he said matter-of-factly. Like Turnipseed, Smith's story is one of redemption and finding a passion to help others.

"I wanted to be able to touch people that were going through the same thing I had been through."

Since 2011, Smith has been the national president of Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social-Disorder — or MAD DADS. The organization was launched in Omaha in 1989 by a group of "parents who were fed up with gang violence and the unmolested flow of illegal drugs," according to its website.

MAD DADS staff and volunteers combat such social ills by going on the offense with neighborhood patrols that approach wayward youths and offer help toward a better future.

MAD DADS refers many prospects to nearby Urban Ventures. It also collaborates on a program called North 4, a joint effort with the Minneapolis nonprofit EMERGE.

North 4 is a 16-week mentoring program helping delinquent 16- to 21-year-old males from the four toughest neighborhoods in north Minneapolis. The goal is to get them back into school or employed — "to help them turn their lives around," said Smith, adding that "many of them are without answers."

In the late afternoon, six North 4 boys — some current participants, some returning alumni — entered the conference room. Their hoodies and flat-brimmed baseball caps were a contrast to Smith's debonair style.

This night, Smith and a fellow "mad dad" — a spirited man named Alonzo, dressed in the organization's ubiquitous green sweatshirt — went around the table, assessing progress.

"It's been a challenge. It still is a challenge," admitted the first young man, slouching in his chair. He had recently received his forklift license, an accomplishment he announced with a note of sadness.

Familiar with the challenges of "going straight," Smith and Alonzo encouraged him.

"Just keep doing what you gotta do," said Smith warmly.

"Take heed to the blessings," advised Alonzo, adding that a forklift job can pay well. "God really has some blessings in store for you, but you've got to be willing to accept them."

The second young man mumbled something about legal issues. He was in trouble again. He was an alumnus of North 4 whom Smith and Alonzo had gotten to know over the years. Toward him, their love turned tough.

"You sure got a hard head, man," said Smith. Alonzo chimed in: "Ya know you had a job, everything was moving good … then all of a sudden the streets looked more comfortable. … Quit worrying about what's going on in the hood, man."

Smith added: "If you applied everything you learned from us, where would you be right now?"

"I wouldn't be going to court," said the boy quietly.

Later, the mentors offered understanding. "We grew up with a lot of violence in our lives," Alonzo confessed to the group. "Our first, second, third, last emotion was anger …"

But the way MAD DADS sees it, they won't improve these boys' behavior and transform hardened young lives by letting empathy drift into excuse-making.

For at least one young life at that table, the light of happiness seemed to be shimmering. He spoke of a recent experience with the North 4 program working at a charity giving out food to people in need.

"I was like, 'Is this what feeling good is like?' " he said with a rising tone. "Having someone thanking me; having someone smiling at me for doing something positive?

"I feel like that's what really changed me … about robbing people."

At the end of the hour, tough love and pep talks made way for simple words of approval.

"I'm proud of you. I'm really proud of you," said Alonzo to the group.

"You're an inspiration," Smith added, stressing that these young men can be role models to their peers.

According to its website, MAD DADS is "tired of looking into the hollow eyes of youth who lack hope, and who have ceased to dream."

• • •

Five months later, "Kevin" looked the same as I remembered. A thin, tall teenager, neither garrulous nor forlorn, just reserved and on the cusp of adulthood.

The 17-year-old was one of the six boys I had seen in the MAD DADS conference room half a year before. This day we were at EMERGE's headquarters in north Minneapolis. EMERGE is a "community development agency, open to helping all people ready to redefine themselves," according to its website. It is also home to the North 4 program.

I was here to see how Kevin had been doing since seeing him in the final weeks of his mentoring meetings. First I asked how he had been introduced to the program.

"I used to run, go out and rob people, beat people up. I didn't care."

"Why did you rob people?"

"I wanted new shoes, new clothes."

Besides the mentoring with MAD DADS, the North 4 program also connects guys like Kevin to local businesses willing to hire program graduates. I asked whether it's tempting to go back to crime and a quick payday when faced with low-paying jobs.

"It only lasts for the short term," he said of the financial rewards of crime, intoning the insight rather as if he had memorized it from a textbook.

Then he cited his source: Alonzo from MAD DADS.

I asked about the other guys I had seen in his group. It turned out five of the six had gotten jobs or gone back to school.

Linda Bryant would tell me that North 4 has a 65 percent to 70 percent job-placement rate. Bryant is president of workforce and community-based services for EMERGE.

The success comes despite a harrowing environment.

Both Kevin and Bryant spoke of the regularity with which parties in the neighborhood end with gunfire.

"It's not peaceful anywhere," Kevin said of his neighborhood. "Shooting, robbing."

Then, with his right hand, he pointed just below his left biceps at a dime-sized spot of raised skin.

Since I had seen him at MAD DADS, Kevin had been shot. He said he had been with a group of friends walking on the sidewalk when a van pulled up and gunmen opened fire.

"There were people behind us wearing all black," Kevin said. They were the targets. Kevin and his friends just got in the way.

Yet when I asked what was the biggest hurdle he faced to living the life he wants, Kevin indulged neither anger nor excuse-making.

"My lack of pursuing stuff," Kevin said. "I get lazy."

• • •

"We help about 2,500 people a year," said Mike Wynne, EMERGE president and CEO. Of those, 900 are helped with job placement.

Across town, Timothy Clark, Urban Ventures' CEO, said that the organization's program "Ready? Set! Work …" has facilitated over 850 full-time jobs over the last five years.

Yet the unemployment rate for blacks remains three times that of whites in the metropolitan area, said Wynne. In north Minneapolis, it's four times as high, he said.

I admitted that my next question was going to be a little broad.

"Why do these problems exist?"

He exhaled. "Clearly … there's a breakdown in systems. School, family, babies having babies, over-incarceration, over-[law]enforcement."

Wait a minute, I thought. He just rattled off a list of both "conservative" and "liberal" diagnoses of the problem, without dismissing, disparaging or even de-emphasizing any of them.

I came to realize that these nonprofits — which are focused on results — don't have the luxury of ideological one-sidedness. They offer support to transform underprivileged lives by motivating a sense of self-worth, by advocating for policy reform, by urging participants that they can do better for themselves and by building a "circle of caring adults," Wynne said.

In the ever-more-polarized discussion of racial disparities, people on both sides tend to exclusively credit or blame "the system" or "individual choice." Either police shooting victim Jamar Clark decided his own fate, or society doomed him from the start.

But by working at ground level, by caring more about results than rhetoric, people at institutions like Urban Ventures, MAD DADS and EMERGE recognize that both empathetic liberal ideas and tough-love conservative ideas can be assets. The approaches can complement, not compete with, one another.

Unfortunately, such programs' capacity is limited.

Perhaps we'd figure out how to give organizations like these the support they need if we could collectively calm down and rediscover holistic, pragmatic solutions.

Brandon Ferdig is a Minneapolis-based writer. He can be reached at brandon@theperiphery.com and on Twitter: @brandonferdig.