'Big Brothers' see school halls, basketball courts as front lines of violence prevention

·12 min read

As Franklin High School nears the end of its school day, Justin Morris roams the halls engaging in various conversations. Everyone knows him.

He banters with administrators about the previous night's football game one moment, then breaks down local gang dynamics with a security guard the next. The conversation stops when a student walks by.

"How's your family doing man?," he asks a young man.

"Not good," the young man replies.

"When's the funeral?," Morris asks.

The young man drops his head. As he continues down the high school hallway, he replies, "I don't even know."

The normalcy of their exchange defines a year in which many cities saw their highest homicide numbers in recent memory. In Rochester, eighty-one people have been murdered at time of publication. An overwhelming majority of the victims have been young Black males.

Credible messengers like Morris, engage with young at-risk Black men to facilitate conflict resolution and create meaningful diversions in cities like Rochester, Chicago and Philadelphia, sometimes without official funding.

Morris often shows up in Rochester's neighborhoods after a homicide occurs. Nonetheless, on the Monday before Thanksgiving at Franklin High School, his goal revolved around prevention.

"The kids coming home from jail, the most violent kids in the district, the most underperforming kids they all get sent here," Morris said. "A lot of the kids that have been murdered go to this school."

Anthony Hall (left), and Justin Morris (right), play the role of big brothers after school at Franklin High School
Anthony Hall (left), and Justin Morris (right), play the role of big brothers after school at Franklin High School

When the building dismisses, Morris heads out front to meet up with Anthony Hall, a Rochester native who has worked with the city as a youth gang intervention specialist. Hall is also known to show up when tragedy strikes communities.

"Two kids got killed from this school within the last month," Hall said. "The mobile crisis team should be housed here."

As students file out of Franklin, administrators and security keep a close eye out for potential trouble. Morris and Hall also want to prevent conflicts, but their approach is different — engaging with the youth as if they were everyone's big brother. Their relationships run deep, the kind of relationships they hope can stop violence before it develops.

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A seat at the table

RCSD Commissioner Beatriz LeBron acknowledges the work Justin Morris and Anthony Hall do in the community.
RCSD Commissioner Beatriz LeBron acknowledges the work Justin Morris and Anthony Hall do in the community.

Earlier the same day, a group of Rochester's civic leaders joined for a downtown news conference announcing a coalition that could play a part in the solution.

Morris and Hall were standing in the shadows of the politicians and local leaders, a position they acknowledge, feels familiar.

Made up of leaders in government, philanthropy, labor, community organizations and business, The North Star Coalition announced its mission to secure funding to reimagine the economic future of the Greater Rochester region. But how will the money be distributed, and what will initiatives do with the funds? Everyone who spoke at the news conference pushed the idea of equity.

"It would be a shame if we missed this opportunity," Mayor-Elect Malik Evans said. "We want to do everything we can to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table."

"This is more than just about money," Monroe County Executive Adam Bello told the press. "This is an investment that can change lives."

Later in the news conference, Rochester City School District Commissioner Beatriz LeBron steps to the microphone.

"I want to thank some of my grassroots brothers who are on the ground, directly touching our children's lives," LeBron said. "Anthony Hall and Justin Morris."

Even though both men spend most of their time going door to door, either helping victims cope with the violence or dealing directly with potential perpetrators to stop it — they feel left out when it comes to the city supporting their efforts.

Rochester has a range of official programs addressing mental health needs, violence intervention programs for at-risk youth and is developing a road map to expand a fellowship program that has shown results in other communtiies.

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Despite that, Hall and Morris feel a disconnect. "A lot of times when we're addressing the community, it's only me and him," Anthony Hall told Senator Jeremy Cooney after the news conference. "Just like this coalition, we need folks to be on board with moving forward to curb violence."

As Hall and Morris met with Senator Cooney at his downtown office to discuss solutions to stop the murders, Hall expressed his belief that a small group of people is causing the violence the city is experiencing.

"We need the resources to wrap around that small portion," Hall told the Senator. "Whether they're committing the crime or they're a victim of the crime, we need to make sure that resources are directly allocated toward them. I'm talking about knocking on doors and engaging folks at their table asking what do you need in your community — what do you need in your home, and having a resource provider right there. Oh you're having housing issues? Here — this individual works for DHS, they can help you. These things build up community," Hall said.

It's a strategy echoed in interviews with Rochester's Mayor-Elect Evans and reinforced by a range of research findings.

"The first shooting in the last seven days was this morning," Hall tells Senator Cooney. "That's a little victory for us. It's a direct result of the work we've been doing, literally going door to door and talking to some of the major players."

A day after The North Star Coalition news conference, Anthony Hall and other Black men meet with Evans to discuss ways to combat the murder rate.

"This conversation has to involve a lot of African American men because African American men are being disproportionately affected," Evans said. "I think in Rochester, we have got so many different silos, and it's hard to get the coordination. One of our goals is collaboration."

Making it sustainable

Anthony Hall shares his ideas on public safety plans for Rochester with New York Senator Jermey Cooney.
Anthony Hall shares his ideas on public safety plans for Rochester with New York Senator Jermey Cooney.

Warren Meeks is another man at this meeting. Meeks is a pastor at Victorious Living Christian Life Center and the director of the Rochester Family Mission.

Meeks double downs on the notion that the silos Evans speak of must include messengers like Hall and Morris.

"One of the things I've discovered being around Anthony and Justin is that they actually have relationships with the people in this city committing crime," Meeks said. "I think we need to organize more groups of people that can build those relationships and that are not afraid to have those relationships. I know there are organizations in place right now, but they don't have the relationships to be effective."

Justin Morris believes credible messengers need compensation similar to social workers to do the work and encourage others to follow suit.

"For years, people have been burnt out doing this work," Justin Morris said. "Martin Luther King died broke, Malcolm X died broke. We haven't been able to see the right leadership because people haven't been compensated."

Long-time Rochester community liaison Hanif Abdul-Wahid reinforces Morris' sentiment during the meeting with Mayor-Elect Evans.

"You have to have a passion to do this work, but it's not sustainable," Abdul Wahid said. "You wind up explaining to your family why you were missing because you were out here trying to make a difference. That's no way to burn out people who are sincere."

Both Morris and Hall know they can't be as effective with their intervention without resources to offer those they serve. Collaboration with local government and nonprofit organizations is vital, but often they find themselves without a seat at those tables.

"Sometimes we deal with one kid who has influence over 15 kids," Hall said. "Out of that 15, five are engaged in high volume violence. We have to engage that first kid on a different level. I'm talking unorthodox in-your-face stuff."

Hall explains their methods when he and Morris sense they need to intervene in a young person's life before a conflict turns into murder.

"We've grabbed kids and thrown them in the car," Hall said. " We tell them - Yo!, you're not going anywhere, we're going to figure this out. As a matter of fact, you're going out of town. Until we can find something for you in Rochester, you're leaving. Pack a bag."

"We have to reframe this," Hall tells Morris. "We can't be experts on violence anymore. We have to be experts in public safety. That hones in on everything. When you talk about mental health, gun violence, opioid addiction, education — safety is included in all of that."

"It's the foundation for everything," Morris adds.

Curbing violence with basketball

There have been over 500 homicides in Philadelphia in 2021, exceeding the record set in 1990. Outliers to that pattern are few and far between. Those on the front lines of violence in other cities back up Morris and Hall's message that changing life conditions is the best preventative measure to stop murders.

"A lot of these situations with these kids are about pride, not knowing conflict resolution, and a lack of respect for human life," Christian Diaz said from Philadelphia.

"These kids aren't naturally bad," Diaz said. "The kid who's disruptive might have lost a brother, or he's watching his mother get beat in the house, and he doesn't know how to communicate."

Diaz is the owner of Westview Sports, a firm that represents WNBA athletes. He volunteers with Philadelphia Youth Basketball, an after-school program that uses Basketball to teach life skills and get children off the streets. Like Morris and Hall in Rochester, he has direct contact with at-risk youth, providing him a window into their lives.

"I had a kid from West Philly who said he has six shootings on his block this year," Diaz said. "He said he was tired of walking across bloodstained streets every day to get home, and he fears for his safety on a daily basis. It's heart-wrenching, man; these kids really don't know what to do."

Philadelphia Youth Basketball focuses on social and emotional learning to impact the city's youth.

"We practice conflict resolution and talk about what it means to have a reputation," Diaz said. "Whatever the subject is, we tailor it around sports to keep them interested."

Heading into the Thanksgiving break, teachers gave Philadelphia Youth Basketball credit for the increased behavior, focus, and grades of the children involved with the program.

Christian Diaz with Philadelphia Youth Basketball
Christian Diaz with Philadelphia Youth Basketball

Diaz says the program wants to expand to include activities other than basketball, but a lack of funding makes that endeavor difficult.

Nonetheless, basketball remains a popular tool to curb violence in Philadelphia.

"Basketball and having respect, saved my life," Raymond Sims said. "My mom always told me to use basketball as a tool to get where I wanted to go in life."

Raymond Sims grew up in a section of North Philadelphia commonly referred to as "the badlands."

"It was heroin infested," Sims said. "Shootings and killings happened right in front of you. You saw white sheets being put over your friends at 14, 15 years old."

Basketball talent led Sims to a Division I college basketball career at South Alabama University. When he returned to Philly, he started youth basketball camps with a mission similar to Christian Diaz's program; using basketball as an entry point to divert youth from a life of crime and violence.

Sims believes the youth gravitate to the sport for the same reasons they gravitate to gangs and street life.

"Those are the only two things that make them feel like they are a part of something — part of a team," Sims said.

In 2019, Raymond Sims was recognized by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for his commitment to serving those in his community.

Even though Philadelphia is a larger city than Rochester, Sims and Diaz believe the two cities share the same dynamic regarding violence. A small group of people are responsible, and to bring the murder rate down, you must engage with that group using credible messengers.

"You got to talk to them on their level and speak their language," Sims said. "You have to be around them. That's the problem; people are afraid to be around them."

Mashaun Ali Kendricks in front of his streetwear brand boutique, Trap House Chicago.
Mashaun Ali Kendricks in front of his streetwear brand boutique, Trap House Chicago.

Mashaun Ali Hendricks is applying the same strategy in Chicago, a city with 767 homicides so far in 2021, a 25-year high.

"It's painful getting text messages that somebody's brother passed away," Hendricks said. "People feel it's necessary to have a gun on them at all times."

Hendricks is a restorative justice practitioner and trainer. He's worked with Chicago Public Schools to reduce suspensions and school arrests.

Hendricks also owns Trap House Chicago, a streetwear brand and boutique seeking to apply the philosophies and practices of restorative justice to stop crime and violence on Chicago's south and west sides.

"You have to listen to the young people and provide services and opportunities," Hendricks said. "Opportunities for legit money and support."

He shared memories of volunteering at a community nonprofit where facilitators had trouble reaching the teenagers. His fresh sneakers got the teens' attention, but Hendricks' ability to connect them with Black-owned businesses that provided resources is what kept them engaged.

Hendricks' connection to those affected by gun violence informs his views on solutions. He believes the perception that violence is senseless does more harm than good.

"To say that, means you have no idea what someone has gone through, is currently going through, or what their parents are going through," Hendricks said. "Relationships — understanding why people do certain things, and addressing those causes is how we reduce crime and violence."

Need help or know someone who does?

Individuals experiencing crisis should call 211 to dispatch the Person In Crisis team.

Contact the Pathways to Peace Manager of Youth Outreach & Violence Prevention at 428-8822 for more information about that program.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: 'Credible messengers' volunteer to help stop violence in Rochester NY

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