Taking it to the streets

For Sharon Chandler and Greg King, the battle for the hearts and minds of Sacramento’s most troubled youth happens one kid at a time

Sharon Chandler, founder and president of Yes2Kollege, convinces fourth-graders to prepare now for a college education.

Sharon Chandler, founder and president of Yes2Kollege, convinces fourth-graders to prepare now for a college education.

Photo By Larry Dalton

On a crumbling block in Oak Park, an event at the Women’s Civic Improvement Center was attracting a combination of black leaders from all over Sacramento, including men in dashikis and women in floor-length batik dresses and fancy, multicolored fingernails.

In the main hall, organizer Ahjamu Umi, dressed in a loose, gold African shirt, addressed the first annual Sacramento Congress of African Peoples. He sounded like an academician turned radical revolutionary. “We wanted a vehicle to create a dialogue,” he told the all-black congress. “People say black people talk too much. … At your family dinners,” he asked them, “is there overflowing conversation about how to liberate our people?”

For $20 a person, community leaders gave up their Saturday to participate in a collective discussion on solving those always-difficult societal ills. Umi said the goal wasn’t to form a list of “action items” or start a unified movement; there was no way they could agree on one agenda. Instead, the congress had the more modest goal of inspiring open discussion.

In attendance were maybe 100 black organizers, the same people who bumped into each other on multiple committees and projects. For instance, one of the officiators was Faye Kennedy, of the Sacramento Area Black Caucus, the Sacramento Black Women’s Network, the Coalition of the Sacramento Women’s Organizations, and the African/Black United Front for Peace and Social Justice. She urged attendees into discussion groups, each tackling an important, and potentially thorny, topic of interest to black leaders: health, education, youth development and something called “engaging our community.”

Sponsored by well-established groups like the Black United Fund and the California Black Chamber of Commerce—groups following traditional organizational models and enmeshed in existing political systems—the congress’s workshops actually featured a uniquely fresh, original group of scrappy independent activists.

“People want to be their own bosses,” said Kennedy. “Especially people of African descent—even more so because of racism.”

In the community workshop, panelist Sharon Chandler, stylish in delicate eyeglasses and dozens of white braids, was a featured pioneer. She recently founded a one-woman nonprofit that gets students—especially poor, black students— interested in four-year colleges. Yes2Kollege Education Resources Inc. isn’t grant-funded like traditional nonprofits and isn’t sponsored by a church or founded by independent wealth.

Chandler is a single mother who got her own kids to college through ingenuity and sacrifice, and she’s devoted herself to other people’s children because they’ve needed her. “I got all these calls,” said Chandler, with her slight Missouri drawl. Because you’re having such luck with your family, people told her, you should help us raise ours. Now, she does.

“In school, they’re still telling our kids, ‘You’re not college material,’” said Derrell Roberts, a longtime organizer working with minority kids. “Happens every day.”

Chandler recognized that college was neither a goal nor a possibility for students who’d never learned a second language or taken an advanced math class. Just looking at standardized test scores in Sacramento proved that many minority kids were scholastically unprepared. And with tuition fees rising, and California in a budget crisis, it looked like college would become an even more remote possibility for many students.

So, Chandler targeted young kids who normally would grow up with little or no pressure to attend college; she now encourages fourth-graders to ask, especially when faced with distractions like sports, “Will this help me get into college?”

“My own kids got tired of hearing it,” she said.

Chandler also teaches parents to be encouraging. “It’s interesting to me,” said Chandler, “to see the evolution of black parents not even expecting their kids to graduate high school.”

Chandler’s presentation to the congress inspired other attendees to stand up, some of them dewy-eyed, and talk about their own good works. Of approximately 20 workshop attendees, every one of them had a story, suggesting that black communities are seeded with individual powerhouses assisting a handful of people at a time.

One of those independent leaders was Gregory King, a professional counselor for young fathers by day and a seemingly fearless advocate for street kids the rest of the time. King looked rough around the edges next to Chandler. He was big, with dark skin and multiple braids and eyes that looked intelligent but potentially volatile. He called his personal crusade Project Proof, an acronym for “positive redirection of our future.”

“I am the project,” King said, “and I am the proof.”

As a one-man mentoring, advocating, truth-telling big-brother organization, King tries to save the lost kids: young criminals released from Juvenile Hall, gang-bangers from the streets and kids from families so dysfunctional that the kids end up parenting the parents.

Like Chandler, King doesn’t work through some fully funded organizational bureaucracy. “You’re liable to see me everywhere,” he said, “in the gutter … you may see me in a dice game.” Somebody, he said, has to go find kids where they live. Once he finds them, King levels with the young men about his own criminal past, and they let him into the dangerous corners of their lives. From that trusted position, he can help them denounce the street life and find education and job-related resources.

King, like Chandler, single-handedly runs a program that attacks social dissolution at the very root. What could help a “disadvantaged” kid more than an ambitious interest in a college education or a lifetime mentor to guide him safely to adulthood? Do most successful adults grow up with less? These two volunteers are potential bridges from the streets to the good life, but they, too, need help.

Being independent means that Chandler and King are solely responsible for the success, or failure, of their projects. They’re experimenting with the most stubborn social problems in Sacramento—without a safety net.

Roberts made the point at the congress. What was missing in black communities, he said, were mentoring relationships between “those who’ve already been in the trenches” of grassroots organizing and “those of us coming up.”

Some of the most successful social-service professionals, like Kathryn Hall, who started the Birthing Project to help minority women have healthy babies, are the first to say that there’s nothing more demanding than founding a nonprofit. Not only is it nearly impossible to secure long-term funding, Hall warned, but even successful programs depend too heavily on the founding visionary, who will give up time, money, energy and everything else to help his or her clients. “Founding directors tend to work harder than anybody you’re ever going to pay to come in,” said Hall.

Until 2003, Hall never even accepted a salary for being the executive director of the Birthing Project; she took consulting jobs to meet her own needs and served 15 years for free.

“I always say, ‘God bless you,’” to the many independent people trying to grow good ideas into full-sized organizations, Hall said. “That’s really hard work.”

Chandler teaches back-to-back eight-week sessions for fourth-graders at the Roberts Family Development Center—because the appetite for a college education has to develop early. Del Paso Heights kids come to the Roberts Center for after-school help, and it was her main gig during the fall. Through a grant, the Roberts Center was able to offer Chandler approximately $3,500 for 24 weeks of workshops; in the fall, she found herself freelancing with other organizations to pay the bills, having quit her regular job at People Reaching Out in March.

“I’ve downsized—consolidated some things,” she said. “I don’t need to buy stuff.”

Chandler’s workshops attracted about 20 kids on Wednesday afternoons, when students usually attended the Roberts Center. But Chandler decided to bring her next crop of future college students in on Saturday mornings, take them on field trips and familiarize the kids with the concerts and lectures that a vibrant college campus supports.

She began by taking a half-dozen elementary students to Valley High School, where rows of college recruiters hawked brochures and applications during the fourth annual recruitment fair for historically black colleges.

“There’s going to be a test,” Chandler teased, as her kids earnestly wove, breast height, through the mass of high-schoolers, pulling brochures off tables and dropping them into plastic goodie bags.

Chandler’s students were already talking about becoming doctors, lawyers, singers and even cheerleaders. One of the boys wanted to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, and a mature looking 12-year-old already had decided to attend Spelman College, a famous, historically black school for women, where she’d be able to concentrate on her schoolwork instead of boys.

Around them, Chandler was tossing out tiny history lessons. She pointed out Langston University. “You know anybody named Langston?” she asked.

Kids looked at her blankly and then turned their attention to the chaos around them.

“Langston Hughes!” cried Chandler, obviously enamored of the famous poet. “You’ve never heard of Langston Hughes?”

At the table for Tuskegee University, Chandler challenged the recruiter not to rest on the reputation of the school’s founder, Booker T. Washington. What’s happened at the university lately, she wanted to know.

The recruiter accepted her challenge and wowed her kids with stories about how Tuskegee was responsible for growing the food the astronauts eat in outer space, how it maintains one of the oldest nursing programs in Alabama and how it’s become a national site for biomedical research.

Back at the Roberts Center computer lab, Chandler waited the next Saturday for her students to return, anxious to visit the Web sites of famous universities.

Unfortunately, the one student who showed up hadn’t even attended the fair.

Undisturbed, Chandler navigated the two of them slowly through a college Web site. “Do you know the Commodores?” she asked the girl.

“Old-school,” the child said quietly.

“That’s right. You know the old-school Commodores. They met at a historically black college: Tuskegee.”

The girl was unimpressed. “Do we eat here?” she asked. “Because I didn’t get breakfast.”

Though she doesn’t address it with her students, Chandler’s own commitment to college was her children’s main inspiration. To make sure her kids got into good schools, Chandler even significantly lowered her income to squeeze into the financial-aid bracket. Her daughter is now a doctorate-of-philosophy student at Loyola University, and her son attends law school at San Diego State University.

“OK, everybody listen,” said Chandler, after reassembling a group of a dozen students by moving her class back to a weekday. “You know how much emphasis Mr. Roberts puts on you all going to college? … Not too long ago, black people could not go to school.”

Chandler launched into a lecture on the history of segregation. She told them about Jim Crow laws, that some blacks died trying to learn to read and that her own segregated elementary school always had received hand-me-down books and desks from the white schools.

“Knowledge is power,” said Chandler. “Your parents and grandparents knew that knowledge was power.”

Chandler’s students absorbed her history lesson quietly. Afterward, one bright girl said she was already sold on the idea of college, though she hadn’t chosen one yet. “When I get older,” she said, “there could be more black colleges.”

At her last class, Chandler posed one question. “Who’s going to college?” she asked, and every student raised a hand. That, Chandler said privately, was her measure of success.

She then invited the parents in for a talk.

“When I think about raising successful kids,” Chandler told them, “I go back to my relationships with teachers and counselors.” She knew this might be an unpopular subject. She urged parents to set aside any mistrust or negative experiences and always to tell teachers that their students were college-bound. “That’s a teacher’s dream,” she said.

From his office at the Barbershop, Gregory King counsels young men from his program, Project Proof (Proof being an acronym for “Positive Redirection of Our Future").

Photo By Larry Dalton

Chandler ended with the most important part: “They all know what they want to do,” she said of her students. “They all want to go to college.”

The Roberts Center hired Chandler because she had something important to offer. Derrell Roberts called her “a mom through and through.” But as someone who had founded a center, he also knew, like Hall, that money was hard to come by and that Chandler relied on workshop fees.

The fact that Chandler and King were supporting one-person projects in such a nasty budget year made them seem both brave and extra important to the community. The congress made it seem as if they were part of a growing swell of such activists, but longtime professionals didn’t think so.

“There will always be people who want to serve the community,” said Carl Pinkston, co-founder of the Freedom Bound Center, a nonprofit that trains kids to be the next generation of activists indigenous to troubled neighborhoods. He’d seen lots of good ideas come and go, he said, but he had noticed a difference recently. All of a sudden, it was professionals, people with business skills like Chandler’s, who were quitting their day jobs to build community-based nonprofits.

King hasn’t quit his job. He works days as a program coordinator for the Barbershop: A Fatherhood Project. Under the umbrella of Hall’s Birthing Project, he teaches fathers how to interact with their newborns. Because he has a paycheck, King doesn’t accept money for Project Proof, where he works mainly with kids who definitely have not been college-bound since the fourth grade.

Because street life is King’s specialty, he occasionally lectures on gang behavior.

“You may have plans for your kids,” he told a workshop full of social-service workers and parents, “but there are other plans in the street.”

Kids join gangs because they find love there, he said. “Kids are bullied at school, bullied at home. They need some kind of friends, some kind of protection.”

What constituted a gang anyway, King asked. “Who do you eat lunch with?” he asked a woman. “Are there people you don’t hang with?”

The woman shrugged. Sure, she said, there were cliques everywhere.

“Girl!” cried King, his voice high and shrill, his eyes popped in disbelief like a sitcom character. “Eew, girl!” he went on, stomping and bending over. “You in a gang!”

He explained how the laws, with their broad definitions of gang behavior, snare kids, making even innocent gatherings seem sinister and making symbols dangerous, even when leading retailers are printing them on caps and jackets. And middle-class kids risk being labeled gang members, warned King; they even get recruited into the real thing sometimes, for their money. Other gang members come from impoverished homes, families weakened by drug use or a gang culture, he said.

In spite of the depressing details, King was inherently optimistic. “We can’t stop it,” he said. “It’s bigger than us, but we got to jump in there.”

King knows all the risks of street life: guns, drug use and early pregnancy. Girls, King warned, are just as aggressive as boys these days.

“Back that thing up,” he cried, doing a modified moonwalk, wiggling his backside like the girls skating backwards at the rinks to entice the boys.

Within an hour, King, the ex-con, had a group of well-dressed women laughing as if he were one of their girlfriends. His antics and his skill as a communicator also help him talk runaways at the river into calling their parents, and keep kids who hunger for acceptance out of gangs. If you really listen to troubled kids, King believes, you can discover what they’ve always wanted to be and rekindle their dreams. And if you have some experience, if you’ve been in jail or been hungry, then kids will know that you understand them. They’ll trust you.

As a younger man in Sacramento, King was able to keep jobs and pay his bills in spite of a late-blooming crack habit. “After I hit that thing once, I knew I was in trouble,” he said. He ended up in prison for drug possession and realized that there was nothing about prison that made him want to go back. “I told God, ‘Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it,’” he said.

Since 1989, King has been the rough-looking, golden-hearted reformer who takes street kids as they are and guides them toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

“I made it back,” he said. “Everybody doesn’t make it back.” Now he takes drug tests alongside his kids, so they can see that he’s staying clean, too.

In the 1980s, King asked various people to help him launch Project Proof. He won’t name the many who turned him down flat. Some, who had their own criminal pasts, wouldn’t risk being associated with an ex-con, and it still disheartens King that adults keep their pasts secret. He likes envisioning a community forum where leaders admit some tiny fraction of their own mistakes and then tell young people how they turned their lives around. King continues to hope his own honesty will inspire others.

Though King never found financial or political support for Project Proof, he collected a network of mentors and partners, people who found jobs for young people, people willing to reward good behavior with a few hours in their personal recording studios, businessmen who donated donuts to his clients. He hopes eventually to establish Project Proof as a nonprofit.

King may have two kids he’s working with, or he may have 50. They all can reach him by cell phone day or night, and when things are particularly rough, King stays near them, visiting often.

Xavier Bryson is one of his success stories.

“Would you rather talk outside in the sun?” King asked, standing at the door of the South Sacramento family house.

“No,” said Bryson, “the house is clean.” He led the way into a dark, warm living room. His mother came in and turned on a reading light.

“I was going through a lot,” explained 18-year-old Bryson, “losing a lot of family members.” Meeting with “Mr. King” two or three times a week, he said, helped him deal with his emotions. Now, Bryson has been working with King for approximately six years.

“If he felt I needed to see him,” said Bryson, “or he needed to see me, he would come by. You can’t tell how someone’s doing until you look in their eyes.”

In seminars with King, Bryson learned what it was like to be a leader. “Each one teach one,” said King, who made his kids do their homework together. “I could be a good counselor,” said Bryson, “because I was taught by a good counselor.”

But Bryson’s naturally quiet, slow demeanor clashed with the tenor of the neighborhood. Two girls, first cousins of Bryson’s, were even killed, said King.

Outside, King pointed at a house halfway down the block where a crowd of young men hung out. For meetings, King said, he made Bryson walk by that house, turn the corner and keep going.

Temptation’s still hard to ignore, Bryson admitted in his mild voice. “I have lots of friends selling drugs,” he said. And he wants to do things on his own—not have to ask anyone for anything. He’s having trouble finding a decent job, and the streets offer easy money for young men willing to break the law. “But I’d let a lot of people down,” said Bryson. “That’s what keeps my head up.”

“Every time,” said King, “I made him walk past temptation to me.”

On the way to check in with another young man, King shared some of his own heartbreak. Sometimes, he puts in a lot of effort for nothing, and kids succumb to violence or drugs. And he hates to see a kid who’s willing to work but can’t find a decent job. Sometimes, he can’t convince a runaway to go home, because the kid gets more familial love on the streets.

One of his kids, said King, was getting out of Juvenile Hall, and his mother was so frustrated that she wouldn’t pick him up. The boy, homesick, had to stay in juvie an extra three days, and there was nothing King could do for him.

Rather than focus on the sadness of that story, King began outlining a transitional program he wanted to start, in which counselors would take a kid’s case two weeks before he got out of incarceration and then help him back into the real world. Someone needs to get to the young man before his homies do, said King—help him get his driver’s license, find out what school he’s supposed to attend and fill out the right paperwork.

A born collaborator, King knows that if he keeps talking up his idea, he’ll eventually find some influential person who can help him fund such a program. All he needs, he said, is a classroom, bus passes, one computer and a small staff of facilitators.

In front of an Oak Park library, King waited on Dominic Alexander. When the 21-year-old walked up, King barely looked at him but asked about his baby daughter. The two stood side by side, looking tough and not smiling. Alexander rattled off the child’s weight, her age in weeks—all the details.

“Did you volunteer at school?” asked King.

“Three times last week,” said Alexander. “I went three times last week.”

Both men practiced the cool look of thugs, but it melted away when they talked about how they met.

“I was really, really messed up—gang banging,” said Alexander, when he met another kid who worked with King. “I wrote a little note [to King] … he came and got me from jail.”

Now, Alexander mentors kids, he looks after his family, and when he gets stressed, he calls King. “We’ll go eat,” said Alexander. The two laughed at themselves as King rubbed his round tummy. Then they got into talking recipes for seafood salad.

“I’ll listen to him all day,” said King. “He’ll listen to me. We cry on each other’s shoulders. We hug.”

King wrapped his arm around Alexander’s shoulders and squeezed him. Alexander actually giggled.

“Lots of kids don’t get hugged,” said King, affectionately.

Conversations between King and his young people are always respectful, but sometimes they skim over the dangers of street life. Once in a while, the details slip out.

King can go anywhere, said one young man, even into the heart of street gangs. “Murder,” he said, smiling as if it were no more serious than skipping school, “that’s the one thing Mr. King won’t talk about.”

Though King’s free time and resources go straight to these kids, he estimates that less than half will be reformed. “The amount of kids we turn around,” he said, “never exceeds the amount we don’t.”

Like Chandler, who won’t know how successful she’s been until her students navigate through middle school and high school, King won’t know for sure whether he’s succeeded until his kids are well into adulthood. In the meantime, both King and Chandler try to secure their projects, look after their charges and seek advice from their mentors.

Longtime organizers like Hall understand the risks. She offered a quote from Alice Walker: “Anything we love can be saved.”

“My wish,” she said, “is that people who have that passion to do the little things that make the society healthier and better—that we’re able to recognize that and support that, as well.”