Newsmakers


Looking for Hope in Dunbar (Part 1)

A year with two Dunbar teens as they struggle to better their lives in the face of violence, poverty and fractured families

Read the full series "Looking for Hope in Dunbar" here.

 

“How well do you know Fort Myers?”

Cornelius Ritchie, who goes by CJ (the “J” for Joshua), climbs into the front seat of my Camry. He’s 18, a senior at Dunbar High School, and has lived in the neighborhood since he was 3. He tosses a backpack into the seat behind him and flashes one of his wide, trademark grins. I think about his question for a second. How well do I know Fort Myers? “Pretty well,” I respond. I’ve lived here since 1999 and have worked as a reporter for nearly all of that time.

CJ Ritchie

But what CJ is really asking: How well do you know my Fort Myers? That’s an entirely different question, and the one I’ve turned to CJ and his friends to answer. Their city and mine are two very different places.

Mine starts on the tree-lined McGregor Boulevard, a road synonymous with the community’s founding families and the boundless opportunities that come with living in the “right” zip code. McGregor turns into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at the U.S. 41 overpass and takes you into the heart of Dunbar, a once proud black neighborhood suffocating under the weight of inner-city problems. There have been 30 homicides in Fort Myers between January 2015 and early December 2016, in addition to a rash of nonfatal shootings. Four of the latter took place on a single night in September 2015, an evening, ironically, that civic leaders had convened a meeting on reducing gun violence. Seven people were hit, including a 5- year-old and a 17-year-old.

Community leaders promised help, law enforcement officials formed a special task force, but the violence only seemed to magnify.

Over the ensuing months, a Dunbar High student would get shot after coming off the school bus. A troubled 17-year-old would be gunned down on Good Friday and his big brother targeted on Easter Sunday. A 23-year-old would lose his life at the Jones Walker Apartments—his death attributed to wrong place, wrong time. An 18-year-old’s body would be found in a park near a low-income apartment complex. A grandmother would be pierced by a stray bullet while playing cards in her living room.

Then, the unthinkable: A mass shooting would claim two teens and wound 18 others as they exited a nightclub. Tears would fall, outcries of “enough” ring out, but three weeks after those boys were buried, another 18-year-old would be murdered in his parked car. A targeted hit, police said. 

“When stuff like that happens, I’m gonna be real. I’m not surprised anymore,” CJ told me. He’d been a friend of Stef’An Strawder, the high school senior killed at Club Blu.

For a year, CJ, his friend Jamesia Seawright, and their circle of family, friends and mentors acted as guides as I explored Dunbar’s plight. They showed me what it means to grow up amid poverty, violence, absent parents, peer pressure and the instability wrought by it all. And they showed me something else, too: how to fight back.

The world they revealed is a complicated one—more deeply troubled than I ever imagined, but in a way far stronger, too, at least among those who guided me. I’ll confess, at times the problems felt intractable. But by the end, I would come to believe that the key to initiating change is far more obvious than we think, and that if we put it into play, it could bring the two halves of the city together.

 

 

I’d first met CJ through Pickup the Ball, a relatively new group that uses basketball as a backdrop for teaching life lessons. He’s a small, spiky-haired kid with tattoos running up his arms. If you didn’t know better, you’d make all kinds of assumptions, which you would reject as you got to know him. CJ runs in the same circle as Jamesia, who is a year older than he is, and who likewise came into my life courtesy of a mentoring group. Meci, as she prefers to be called, is a quiet girl with remarkable resilience. 

A Necessary Healing

How the Walker family came together—and now helps others do the same. Story here.

We’ll get to both of their stories, but first you have to understand the place that has shaped them. That’s why CJ is climbing into my car, sacrificing a school vacation day for a driving tour.

Like most outsiders, I had thought of Dunbar as one big neighborhood. But it turns out the area, which stretches across three census tracts and two zip codes, is carved into myriad smaller developments, housing projects and apartment complexes, which CJ is pointing out as we troll the streets. A couple of pitbulls rush to a chain-link fence at one residence. “See that down there, that’s another house where they sell drugs. That’s why they got the dogs there so they know who’s comin’ up,” he explains. I am careful not to slow down as we pass.

Residents don’t identify themselves as being from Dunbar as much as they do their own little pocket of Dunbar: The PJs (or projects), squat, nondescript duplexes along Edison Avenue; Habitat, a cluster of homes built by the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity; Harlem Lakes, headquartered on troubled Davis Court; the Jones Walker Apartments; Renaissance Preserve, the comely reincarnation of the once dreary Michigan Court public housing; and more than a dozen others that CJ points out, with street-by-street commentary about safe areas and hot spots. He lives in Campbell Acres, a tucked-away development on Dunbar’s northern edge dubbed “The Chop.” When he was growing up, being a “Chop Boy” was like being part of a family. But some of the young men took that too far, too gang-like, and CJ has backed off from the neighborhood affiliation. 

In some cases, young people identify themselves at an even more micro level, as belonging to a certain street. This used to make for healthy road-by-road rivalries on basketball courts and makeshift football fields. But today, in the toughest parts of Dunbar, the wrong turn can land you in hostile territory. This applies mostly to the boys, some of whom have become virtual shut-ins, but the girls have to be wary, too, lest the bullets intended for their boyfriends hit them instead. That’s what happened to 17-year-old Alexis Wilson in 2014. The neighborhood girls still cite her death.

“They don’t spare the person you with,” CJ says. “It’s harsh, but that’s how they think of it.” We’re passing a school bus stop where a teen from Harlem Lakes had been ambushed by a kid from Habitat. The bullet missed. In these neighborhoods, you need to pick your friends carefully. One 27-year-old man told me he was considered part of the “Old G,” the old generation, because he was neither dead nor in jail.

“The crazy part about it is the beef,” CJ says. “Harlem Lakes and Habitat have a problem with each other, but they right next to each other. There’s literally one road that divides them. They could be one neighborhood.”

Guns are everywhere. They’re bought, traded and shared illegally and shot with little regard for accuracy. That’s how you end up with dead grandmothers, dead teenagers and dead 5-year-olds like little Andrew Faust Jr., hit by a stray bullet in October 2014. People had hoped his death would trigger an awakening. Many just blamed his mother instead for keeping the wrong company.

CJ remembers the first time he held a gun. He was 14 and storing it for a friend.

“Dang!” he thought. “So this is what they kill people with. I remember I copped it back and I shot it in the air in the backyard. Dang! It was almost to where I liked that.”

He let go of the machismo before he got too attached, but refusal to wield a gun doesn’t make you safe from guns. Just a few nights before, CJ had gone to visit Erick and Olivia Walker, his friends and mentors, who live on the notoriously troubled Davis Court. He was riding in a black pickup, a vehicle that the neighborhood guys didn’t recognize. “You know, most shooters, they driving a truck,” CJ notes. The men across the street flashed metal. CJ and his godbrother quickly turned into the Walkers’ driveway, signaling they meant no trouble.

“You gotta play it cool. Don’t roll down your window. They think you gonna pull something out. Just play it cool,” CJ says.

The Walkers, who run a Christian mentoring program for at-risk teens, had become my friends, too, in the course of reporting. Somehow when I visit them, I can’t help but think that as a white woman, an outsider, I’m safer than the black young men who call this community home.

 

Jamesia "Meci" Seawright

It was Olivia Walker who’d introduced me to Meci one evening. I have to confess: At that first meeting where she answered my questions with few words and little eye contact, I expected Meci would be a reluctant subject.

But some weeks later, she invites me to visit her at a triplex off of a tucked-away side street where her friend Diamond lives with her mother, her husband and her baby. Meci likes to hang out there so that she’s not alone in the home of her guardian, a relative who works multiple jobs to manage the bills. Over several visits, I notice lots of young people coming in and out of there, a safe and welcoming place for neighborhood teens. 

Meci sinks into a well-worn sectional. She’s a lovely young woman, tall, slender, with facial features as strong as a fashion model. She dresses carefully—sometimes in jeans and T-shirts, sometimes in jersey-knit dresses or skirts, always modest, one way of rejecting the neighborhood’s street culture. She is recently engaged, and her fiancé, Tonio Bridley (one of CJ’s close friends), often remarks how beautiful she is. I get the feeling she doesn’t see it in herself—at least not yet. She makes her body small and rounds her shoulders. She admits to “anger and trust” issues. I never witnessed the anger ones, but the trust ones don’t surprise me, not after what she’s been through.

When you hear her story—or CJ’s—you have to understand that the details are individualized, but the themes hold true for lots of other young people. If you want to make a difference in Dunbar, you have to know what this generation is up against.

“We bounced around a lot,” she begins. She pauses to count up the number of schools she attended—three elementary, four middle, two high before she dropped out and then later enrolled in her current one, Coronado High School, where students can work independently on computerized modules to earn credit. When she talks about her many moves, she never says she “lives” anywhere—and neither does CJ or anyone else from her circle whom I’ve met. They all refer to home as where they “stay.” To me, “staying” implies a temporal state. To “live” somewhere is to be settled.

Her mother had died three years earlier, of an aneurysm, when Meci was just 16. Meci knows who her father is—they are friends on Facebook—but the relationship essentially ends there. He’d gone to jail when she was very young and gotten out when she was in the third grade.

“I do love my dad, but he just don’t know how to love on his daughters. With his son—he can take his son fishing or go to his son’s football games and stuff like that, but if I were to say, ‘Oh, can you come see me cheer at competition,’ he wouldn’t do that. And then he’s got a stepson that’s in college right now. He goes on trips to go see his football games. I do get jealous a lot,” she admits. She calls him a “typical black father.”

Meci has a full-blooded sister, who’s a year younger. Her mother had two more children, a boy and a girl, with a longtime boyfriend. Meci helped raise them after her mother’s death and even before it on the days when her mother was too consumed by her relationship drama to mind them. That’s what big sisters do in this neighborhood until they get sick of it, sick of their parents’ neglect, and look for love in the arms of neighborhood boys. Nearly all girls her age have babies, some more than one. Mothers are children; grandmothers barely in their 40s. Meci’s mom, who gave birth to her at 18, taught her daughters to steer clear of the boys. Meci heeded her advice. “I did not want to live the life that my mom did. I wasn’t gonna get pregnant at a young age—I made my mind up on that a long time ago.”

Meci’s family of “halves” isn’t unusual. The community brims with “brothers from other mothers,” and stepparents and cousins, which makes the violence there all the more tragic. Everyone, it seems, is somehow interrelated.

Meci suffered a period of abuse, by a grandmother who cared for her while her mother got established in Fort Myers. Child protective services intervened. “There was no talking. … It was, ‘Come here, I’m gonna give you a beating.’” This is not uncommon in her world, either.

Her own mother broke that chain of physical abuse, but she had other shortcomings.

“We didn’t really have no help with homework,” Meci says. “There was no mom asking, ‘How was your day? How are you doing?’ We really didn’t have that. And that’s how it is for a lot of the kids in the neighborhood—they don’t come home to parents actually wondering what’s going on in school and how their days are going and everything.” In middle school she fought; in high school, she skipped. Eventually, her mom stopped picking up the phone when she saw the school’s number on her caller ID.

These are critical matters. Dunbar High School, which Meci attended before her mom’s death, boasts one of the nation’s most advanced high school technology programs, an International Baccalaureate curriculum for top scholars and a support program known as AVID for middle-of-the-road kids who have the potential to become college material.

But many of the kids coming up amid the neighborhood’s social conditions are struggling. In 2015-16, for example, 20 percent of Dunbar High sophomores scored at “satisfactory” levels on a state exam in English/Language Arts, compared to a district average of 46 percent and a state one of 50 percent. These are challenging tests, but the discrepancy between school and district average nonetheless shows the disadvantage wrought by poverty and broken homes.

Meci dropped out after her mother died and she was thrust into a mother’s role. Her younger brother and sister now live with their father, but she remains an important part of their upbringing. On the cusp of adulthood, she’s trying to finish her childhood obligations, but concentrating on school is hard.

“I know what I’m doing, (but) then I zone out and I don’t want to do it. There is just so much going through my mind. I just need a clear mind so I can get through it.”

Talking to Meci brought me back to a three-year stint I’d spent teaching in a Lee County high school. I remember too well my frustration facing roomfuls of teenagers, distracted and disinterested. At the time, I rebuked them for squandering their educations. Now, though, I wonder: How many of them were saddled with worries that outweighed their English IV assignments?

 

CJ has his Fort Myers and I have mine, but they intersect at Centennial Park, a bustling, grassy stretch of downtown that we both favor as a place to clear our heads or spend time with family.

“It’s so peaceful,” he says. We’re sitting at a picnic table overlooking the Caloosahatchee River. The location brings both comfort and sorrow. The park was a favorite hangout for him and a best friend, Tony J. Bridley, who was killed in a hit-and-run late one night in May 2015 as he was biking home from work. He was 23. 

Tony wasn’t a brother, but the bond was as strong, CJ says. He’s close to all six Bridley kids (Meci’s fiancé, Tonio, is Tony’s twin) and to their father, Pastor Tony Bridley, but the younger Tony was his closest confidant.

“Once, around age 15, I said, ‘Bro, I wish we were really brothers.’ He hugged me and said, ‘We are brothers, there’s nothing that could make us closer,’” CJ remembers. “He was special. He would spend his last dollar just to see a smile on somebody’s face.”

Loss is an all-too-familiar narrative in this neighborhood. Outside of Dunbar, the dead are forgotten as quickly as the news cycle changes. Inside of it, memories and grief haunt the living.

CJ had moved in with a friend in Cape Coral for the first half of his senior year so that he could play football for Cape Coral High School. He says he’d been hyped-up, this receiver out of Dunbar’s athletic cauldron, and he looked forward to boosting the Seahawks’ 2015 season.

But Tony’s death shrouded him. New to the school, separated from his grandmother, apart from his friends, stifled by sadness, CJ emotionally withdrew.

“I just didn’t feel like talking,” he says. “People asked me if I was OK. I’d just tell them, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ But inside I’m not fine, I’m really not good. I went through practices, you know, not talking, not showing emotion. At game time I’d try to get hyped up, but my brother’s on my mind while I’m in the game, and I think that affected me getting pumped up.”

Tony’s death wasn’t CJ’s first loss. His mother died when he was 8—of AIDS, a disease that I think my Fort Myers has largely forgotten but one that remains all too real in his. Memories of his mom make him smile—the Christmas morning that she surprised him with a new bike; the nights he spent fighting sleep so he could spend time with her after her late shifts.

He doesn’t know who his father is. His mom used to take him to visit a man in prison who CJ believed was his dad. He’s deceased now, too. He rarely sees his siblings, except for his oldest sister, who makes an effort to stay connected.

CJ’s grandmother took him in after his mother’s death. He speaks fondly of her, reminisces about boyhood escapades in “The Chop” and his love for his elementary school. But growing up without parents, especially without a dad, can be crippling. And that’s what is on his mind today.

It’s Feb. 3, National Signing Day—the day top high school athletes commit to the colleges that offer them athletic scholarships. I’d met lots of community activists stressing academics, but for many Dunbar families, sports still reign supreme.

“My whole life I’ve just been dreaming, just thinking that I can’t wait till my senior year, till signing day, to put on that hat. I got my family sitting in back of me, my friends sitting in back of me and I’m signing,” he says. His phone had been exploding with text messages all day and pictures of recruited friends and teammates blasting across social media. CJ wasn’t signing. He’s a small guy—just 5-foot-8, which makes him an unlikely recruit in the first place. The interest showed by a couple of schools had fizzled out, he says. But I wondered if he had reciprocated with adequate conviction, in his grief and growing doubt about his athletic future. 

CJ retreated into silence during the school day, but now the thoughts gushed out.

“All my life, that’s what it’s been about. Football. Football. Football. I knew that’s my way out. That’s my way to go to college.” Part of him wished he had done more to round out his résumé, but he’d been a good ballplayer and when you’re an 18-year-old kid from a poor neighborhood, the gridiron seems like the most direct route to someplace else.

He doesn’t want pity or to assign blame; nevertheless, he can’t help but wonder if his chances would have been better if a parent had been by his side.

“You have to have people supporting you, getting you exposed. If you don’t, it’s going to be very hard for you to get scouted and to get offers,” he says. “Me, I kinda had to do everything on my own. … It was getting stressful, very, very stressful.”

Graduation looms four months away, compounding anxiety. Other kids are waiting on college acceptance letters. CJ is waiting to retake the state test that determines whether he gets a high school diploma or a “certificate of completion,” the academic equivalent of a participation trophy. He’d sailed through the math portion but continued to struggle with the reading one. His plight is not an uncommon one. In 2015, more than 8,000 Florida seniors received a certificate of completion rather than a diploma, according to state records. I hate these tests. My daughters, avid readers, struggle with them, too—the phrasing of the questions, the ambiguity of the multiple-choice answers, the sometimes archaic passages chosen for students to interpret. The difference? They have college-educated parents who can coach them or pour resources into tutoring.

CJ sighs. “Sometimes I just wish I had a parent—‘Let’s study for this assignment. Let me sign you up for a tutor.’”

It’s hard for me to leave that afternoon, to head west on MLK, slip beneath the U.S. 41 overpass where the road turns into McGregor Boulevard and mommies like me fix dinner, fuss over homework and taxi kids to after-school activities.

 

Pastor Tony Bridley

The man CJ calls “dad” is the Rev. Tony Bridley, a lifelong Dunbar resident who knows all too well what kids like CJ and Meci face. Bridley earns an income driving a school bus, but his real passion is running the church he founded, See His Face Ministries. It operates out of a storefront on Dunbar’s western fringe, in the same plaza as last summer’s mass shooting. He seems to have a special touch with teenagers. CJ credits him with redirecting his attention from the streets to the church—an introduction to God that altered his trajectory. 

I meet up with Bridley one morning on a break in between bus runs. CJ, I think, must have acquired some of his expressiveness from the pastor, who helped me understand the burden of history and the influence of environment.

“I used to say this as a youngster … that we were caged in,” Bridley says. “The main streets for us were Fowler (north and south), Palm Beach Boulevard (east and west), Ortiz Avenue (north and south) and Hansen Street (east and west). My perception is we were kept in the yard, and anybody, any one of us who ventured out of the yard has problems. We have to stay in the yard.”

The “yard” becomes like a prison, he continues. “Tempers flare, you get aggravated with one another, you get frustrated, you can’t do what you want to do, you can’t get to where you want to go, so you start a fight. … All these guys are struggling, trying to make it somewhere, trying to gain something but they can’t. So, who is stopping me from getting what I need? The closest person to me because that’s all I can see.”

Bridley offers this as explanation but not excuse—just like he doesn’t condone the parents who never show up at school, the guys who forgo work in favor of drugs, the public housing lifers who refuse to work toward independence.

Tonio Bridley

Still, in this neighborhood, the past weighs heavily on the present in a way that someone like me, from white suburbia, can never fully understand.

“I still know elderly people in my family, friends of people in my family … when they get around white people they are almost like in fear,” Bridley shrinks back in demonstration. “In our spiritual intellect, it’s transferring. People don’t believe this, but if your grandparents respond in a certain type of way to a certain situation, that travels from generation to generation to generation to generation.”

The end result? The sense of stuck.

Meci and I talk about this one afternoon. She sees people leave, maybe go as far as Lehigh, and then get “sucked” back in.

Now, in fairness, Dunbar has its share of upwardly mobile people who have earned degrees or started businesses and who choose to stay there. And it has people like Bridley and the Walkers who haven’t “made it” in a financial sense, but who pour spiritual wealth into their community.

Nevertheless, to a 19-year-old girl, the violence, the uncertainty make the prospect of growing a future there grim.

“Every morning when you wake up, you just scared that you just gonna have a text message or a missed phone call from a family member saying, ‘Oh, such-and-such has been shot or such-and-such died.’ It’s crazy,” Meci says. “It makes you want to stay in the house and not go out. I mean you gotta make sure you stay in touch with all your family members every day.”

Her cousin DJ, 23-year-old Darien DeMon Jackson, was struck by a bullet in March 2016, the unintended victim of a retaliatory hit. He had run, bleeding, into the home of her mother’s boyfriend where her little brother and sister live. She prays they hadn’t witnessed his collapse. She and Tonio had their own frightening brush about two years ago when bullets punctured the wall of Tonio’s living room, striking her sister’s ankle and whizzing inches away from Tonio’s temple. Two babies, cousins of hers, were lying on the couch. Another time, bullets meant for a man living next door came through the window of the bedroom Meci and her sister shared. The girls had been in the living room. “We can’t get out of it,” she says, resigned. “We don’t have no money.”

 “Soon as I get my chance,” she says, “I’m gone.”

But she offers no escape plan. And as I got to know her and her fiancé better, I couldn’t help but think that Dunbar might be better off if more young people like her stayed.

 

Meci spends her Tuesday nights at the STARS Complex, a city-owned recreational center in Dunbar’s heart. That’s the meeting place for Diamonds in the Rough, the faith-based leadership program founded by Olivia Walker. Olivia had selected a handful of young women, including Meci, to serve as mentors to younger girls and in the process develop the self-esteem and confidence she knew many of them lacked. CJ and Tonio are generally found in an adjacent room assisting Olivia’s husband, Erick, with Transformers Club, the equivalent for young men.

Erick Walker parents his own children—and those like CJ who need a dad.

“A lot of people say it’s a lost generation. It’s a generation that was left. It was left untaught,” Olivia explains one afternoon when I visit her and Erick. “There’s a lot of hurt, a lot of pain. And hurtin’ people hurt other people, so if I am hurtin’, all I can deposit on them is hurt: Shut up. You stupid. You ugly. You dumb. Oh my God, you can’t do nothin’ right.”

That’s what they’re trying to counteract. “We’re teaching these kids how to love, how to respect themselves, how to walk with dignity and have character, how to make a positive impact not only in their homes but in society,” she says.

There are more groups like this than you might expect, grassroots efforts to influence young lives through sports, academics, music and faith. Dunbar isn’t ignoring its own plight. It’s just that the forces for good are outnumbered and the victories achieved—a fight thwarted, a scholarship earned, a kid accepting Christ—don’t make headlines.

On this particular night, Olivia has turned over the meeting to a young woman named Emily, a preacher’s daughter and a faith ambassador in her own right. Emily has staged an activity using two of her sisters, vivacious adoptees from Uganda, to play a surgeon and a body to be “autopsied”—to see whether its feet walked a righteous path, its mind thought virtuous thoughts, its tongue spread gossip or goodwill.

Emily pauses when she reaches the heart. “Here’s the deal,” she says, her eyes tracing the circle of girls and women, “God only looks at the heart. Man looks at appearances. God looks at the heart.”

“You don’t have to live with those issues,” she concludes.

Meci’s head is bowed, reflective.

“I used to be in that crowd that wanted to do what everybody else was doin’,” she had admitted on another afternoon. “It didn’t do me no good.

“You doin’ what everybody likes to see. Fightin’. Arguin’. That’s what gets people hyped. Your name is gonna be out there. It’s gonna be big. Everybody is gonna want to hang out with you because they think you exciting. Somethin’ always gonna happen when you around them.”

Olivia had dedicated a month’s worth of meetings to a theme dubbed “Drama Slaughters.” It was needed, Meci says. Disputes start on Facebook and play out in school hallways and streets.

“You have to do something to get you on top,” Meci says. “If it’s ‘I got the best clothes in the school,’ there you go, you the most popular girl. If I can fight and no one can whup me, you the most popular girl. If I got all the latest hairdos and shoes. … It ain’t about who got the best grades. It ain’t about that.”

Any woman can look back on her teen years and remember a social pecking order. Nevertheless, I’d seen plenty of other sub-cultures where kids competed to see whose resume boasted the most activities, the best after-school jobs, the highest grades, the most noteworthy athletic stats. That’s the adolescence I remember, and the world my children, growing up just a few miles away, are experiencing.

“Nobody wants to see each other do good. Everybody just wants to be tearing each other down,” Meci had told me.

After her mother died, Meci pulled away from the girls who’d embraced trouble. But there was a price: Girls accused her of adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude. She quit friends; friends quit her. “There ain’t no such thing as, ‘I’m gonna try to be positive’ when my friends are still doin’ the same thing. It ain’t gonna happen.” She narrowed her social circle to peers who shared her feelings and adults who validated them.

CJ had to do the same. “I’m still cool with everyone,” he says. But he remembered the day he, too, chose to walk away. He was 15 and Tony Bridley, the pastor, had promised to give him a ride somewhere if CJ would attend church services the next morning. The preacher waited in his driveway until the reluctant boy dragged himself out.

“Whatever his message was, it was like he was talking to me. He wasn’t looking at me, it was just like that message was for me. I remember thinking, ‘You know what, I’m getting tired of running. I’m getting tired of faking like I was somebody else,’” CJ says. He maintained a relationship with the neighborhood guys, “but I had to choose my own path.”

CJ and other young men pay attention to positive messages like the ones offered at the Transformers Club.

 

It’s December, halfway through CJ’s senior year, and Ted Sottong, the founder of Pickup the Ball, is determined to keep his young charges occupied as school winds down for the holidays. Ted divides his energy between driving the teens to and from basketball courts—his way of steering them away from street trouble—and organizing guest lectures and volunteer projects designed to broaden their perspectives.

“We have to do things better. We have to do things different. But no one has taught them. It’s all part of the cycle,” Ted had told me one afternoon. Parents love their kids, but they are parenting the way they were parented, and the problems are growing. “I don’t know where the cycle started, but it’s gonna get worse and worse every generation, I think.”

The hookup culture with its casual sex and lack of commitment and teen mothers and unaccountable young fathers was troubling him. So, that night, Ted introduced the cultural antithesis: His parents, Peter and Melida, married 53 years. And lest the kids fail to connect to an older, white couple, Ted invited the African-American grandparents of one of his members, who affirmed the Sottongs’ secrets to staying married and added a few of their own.

This was a quiet meeting, held at Pastor Bridley’s church. About a dozen Pickup the Ball boys showed up. Meci and a few of her girlfriends slipped quietly into the back row. It’s not the kind of event that draws public attention, but it’s moments like this that have the potential to provoke change.

“We’re told to keep getting as many girls as we can get,” notes To’Quan, one of Bridley’s sons (who quickly stressed that’s the word on the streets—not in his household). 

Do you guys see yourselves married? Ted asks.

“Nope,” says a 17-year-old who goes by his nickname, Rah Rah. “I know me.”

Another boy nods emphatically. Staying faithful, he says, is hard.

CJ has been listening intently all evening and suddenly declares: “It starts with us. Point blank. Period.”

Ted’s mother looks up. “You’re gonna break the cycle.”

I don’t catch CJ’s expression, but I imagine he’s grinning. The football scholarship had not materialized, but in its place CJ saw a different opportunity—to lead.

“I always say God saved me at the right time. I feel like if I had stayed the way I was it would have been worse. With the attitude I had, I either would have been dead or I would have been in prison,’” CJ had told me.

Meci and CJ and their friends believe something happened in their community—that the family structures the older generations held sacred had dissolved into a mess of divorce, one-night stands and surprise pregnancies that thrust parenthood onto people who were unprepared and unable to manage the babies. All of the other problems—the violence, crime, drugs, unemployment, academic failure—stem from that, from a “rotted root.”

“We don’t know how to overcome a lot of things because we didn’t see our parents overcoming things. That’s with us a lot. When something goes wrong we handle it in a negative way; we try to get out of it,” Meci explains.

Soon enough, CJ would finish high school. Meci would get married. And then their real test would come—after surviving a childhood in Lee County’s roughest neighborhood, what kind of adulthood could they create? What kind of difference would they make?

“Everybody knows about Jesus and Peter walking on water,” CJ says one afternoon, pulling, as he often does, from parable to make a point. “People don’t know how difficult that was to step off that boat and everyone is saying: ‘Don’t, just don’t.’”

“That’s where I’m at in my life. All these people saying this, saying that, sounds good, sounds convincing, but I just got to step out.”

 

Read the full series "Looking for Hope in Dunbar" here.