For the past two years, an under-the-radar program in north Minneapolis has reached out to some of the city's most active gang members with the promise of job training. A marker of its success? That all 31 men who enrolled in it are still alive.
"It's working," said Will Wallace, the self-proclaimed "mom" behind the North4 program who gives thanks that he hasn't lost anyone yet to street violence.
"The kids say, 'If you give us a job, we'll leave that gang life alone.' We have proven that that's true."
With a mix of job training, part-time employment, field trips and attention from Wallace, the North4 program has sought out young men from some of the city's toughest neighborhoods.
Its members include such people as Tyron Jenkins, who said he was out "hustling" at 8 years old and was shot at age 9. Now he's burnishing his résumé after a stint at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The two-year federal grant that created the program will run out this spring, so its creators have opened up publicly for the first time to make the case that their funding should be renewed. They point to the lives of 31 young men who have been a part of the program thus far.
Most come from impoverished or broken homes, have had numerous friends or relatives lost to homicide, may be fathers themselves or have served time in a juvenile facility. They all claimed allegiance to one gang or another when starting the program, and all came from one of four neighborhoods -- Jordan, McKinley, Hawthorne and Folwell -- where violent crime and street gangs are common.
"If we can turn these guys around, they can become the models for the guys coming up," said Boise Jones, a senior project consultant at Emerge Community Development, a Minneapolis nonprofit group that runs North4. The men chosen for the program were the "active shooters," Jones said, the ones who were making trouble in their neighborhoods. "We're reclaiming them," he said.
The program's roots go back to the city's Blueprint for Action, a plan launched several years ago to reduce juvenile crime. A piece of that plan included a survey of gang members that asked what it would take for them to leave a gang. The answer: a steady job.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., got a $238,000 earmark to launch the program in 2010. It was administered by two city departments, which awarded the grant to Emerge Community Development.
As one of the people who interviewed applicants for the program, Teresa Harrold, youth program manager for the city of Minneapolis, said she and other adult interviewers were floored by the life stories they heard.
Ellison, in town this week, stopped by the W. Broadway offices of Emerge on Tuesday to meet with some of the program's graduates. Asking them for their stories, he told them he plans to look for renewed funding for North4.
"We believe you guys are truly the leaders that we're looking for," Ellison said. "If we look to the left, if we look to the right, for the people who will save our community, it's just us. We need people like you."
Jenkins, one of the program's participants, said he was suspicious when he first met Wallace. That was two years ago, when Wallace was looking for the first 10 young men to invite into the program.
Jenkins said he was on the street when Wallace pulled up in a van and called out Jenkins' name.
Jenkins said that he was "trying to make a million" on the streets of Minneapolis and that he wasn't sure what to make of Wallace's offer of a program that would help him earn $7.25 an hour.
He ended up applying to North4 anyway. He told Ellison how he was fending for himself at a young age, raising his four sisters and a younger brother without a dad. "Everybody can grow and prosper if they have a game plan," he said.
Funding pays salaries
About $136,000 of the two-year grant was set aside for salaries for the program participants, Harrold said. The men have worked in construction, parks and recreation, auto stores and retail while in North4, she added. Six participants have ended up incarcerated, however.
After the program ends, the hope is that young men like Jenkins will get hired on by their employer or have enough job experience to look elsewhere.
Agustin Gonzalez, 19, said his family moved away from East Los Angeles to keep him away from the gang life. But he found trouble in Minneapolis anyway. Recounting his experiences with North4 for Ellison, Gonzalez said he didn't know what to make of Wallace at first.
"He said, 'I'm proud of you, son,'" Gonzalez said of Wallace. "That was a shock to me. I didn't expect that."
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747