Young people in violent neighborhoods are the solution, not the problem, says Frank McGhee, a man who sees leaders where others see only troublemakers.
In 1999, a student was harassed on her way to school on the southwest side of Detroit. This spurred McGhee to do something about the escalating violence in the neighborhood. He knew the solution had to involve all the players, so he invited youths to a meeting at the local library. He expected 100 to show up. Instead, 250 came, including a group of gang members who sat in the front row.
“They had that look: ‘Don’t mess with us,’” Frank remembers. But then, several pregnant women came in and also headed to the front. Seeing the gang members there, they started to leave. Instead, the young men got up and gave their seats to the women.
“The gang members sat on the floor,” Frank says. “And that set the tone for the rest of the meeting.”
It was an afternoon of open, inclusive and diverse discussion.
“The kids were impressed,” he recalls. “They wanted three things: resources, job training and recreational opportunities.”
That meeting spurred Frank to help create the Neighborhood Service Organization’s Youth Initiatives Project. It focuses on reducing gun violence and substance abuse through after-school programs and summer activities; leadership and risk prevention workshops; gun safety, presentations; and youth-to-youth mentoring. Frank is the program director, but he clarifies: “I didn’t start the initiative. The youth did. They demanded we not let it go.”
The project’s approach is to let young people identify problems and suggest solutions they can follow through with, building leadership skills in the process.
“Young people are the answer to a lot of the problems we face,” Frank says.
Initiative members who know the neighborhood and its challenges helped create safe walking routes to school. And they worked to develop a successful gun buyback program in cooperation with the Detroit Police Department.
Cooperation with the police has led to more nonviolent solutions, which has reduced crime and created a partnership with the African-American community that could be a model for other American cities.
Frank now sees former gang members going back to school, graduating and even heading to college.
“Many of them thought they didn’t have any good choices,” he says. “Now they see a way out.”
Frank’s work caught the eye of President Barack Obama, who named him a Champion of Change in 2013 for his work to reduce gun violence. He’s also been recognized as an innovator by the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and is heavily involved in My Brother’s Keeper, a program Obama started.
A product of change
Frank grew up in a tight-knit northeast Detroit community, an area decimated by layoffs in the auto industry. Frank watched as neighbors moved out, formerly well-tended houses sat vacant and crime blossomed. His mother started a block club for neighbors to meet and address problems.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” he says. “She was fearless.”
So the seeds of a community organizer were planted early, but when Frank headed to college at Wayne State University, he majored in political science with a plan to “work in government and be a bureaucrat,” he says.
An internship at the Detroit Urban League during the crack cocaine epidemic changed all that.
“I had never worked with young people before, but once I began to connect with them, and they began to connect with me, that closed the deal,” he says.
He joined the Neighborhood Services Organization in 1994, helping organize events to promote safety.
He and his wife, Kelly, now live on the northeast side of the city, a few miles away from the Osborn neighborhood where he works. His daughter, Mariama, is a senior at Eastern Michigan University, majoring in journalism. Her goal is to inspire young people in high-crime neighborhoods to write about their lives in an effort to help them see a way out of dangerous lifestyles that too often lead to prison.
Providing young people with opportunities to see another way of living and to be successful in some way can make a difference.
“Many just need the thought and the victory,” Frank says.