- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2009

Twenty-two-year-old Brandon Forrest was an unlikely panelist at the Alliance of Concerned Men’s conference on how to reduce crime and gang violence among young people in the District.

At age 11, he began his criminal career as a robber. It was his crime of choice because it brought him instant reward.

“I could never have been a drug dealer,” Mr. Forrest told an audience of 300 social activists at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 10. “There is too much waiting involved.”

The alliance was formed by a group of six men - Tyrone Parker, James Alsobrooks, Rahim Jenkins, Eric Johnson, Joe Nelson and Arthur “Rico” Rush - who saw the need to address the violence that was destroying the lives of young people in the District.

Established in 1991, the alliance provides support services for youths and families at risk of becoming black dots on a statistician’s chart.

“We didn’t really have a plan,” Mr. Rush said. “We just knew we had to do something.”

The alliance has taken its 19 years of experience and produced a gang mediation manual to share its methods with other groups fighting gang violence. The manual details the alliance’s successful approach to mediating gang truce and preventing violence.

The relationship of the men dates back 40 years when they were students at Eastern High School.

Mr. Parker, now executive director of the alliance, and Mr. Rush, president of the alliance, have had their share of trouble with law enforcement. Both have served time in prison.

Their street smarts, however, help them to make a difference in the lives of other people who are trying to beat the odds of living a life of poverty and despair.

Mr. Forrest had grown weary of waiting, especially for Mom and Dad. Growing up in Benning Terrace, the housing project known as Simple City in Southeast Washington, Mr. Forrest was left to fend for himself, his younger brother and his two elder sisters.

“I fed and clothed my brother and sisters,” he said, “I got it done.” The ways he got it done were purse snatching and armed robbery.

Mr. Forrest grew up without a father and remembers meeting him only once, when he was 13. Relatives have told Mr. Forrest that his father is in California, but he’s not sure. His mother frequently stayed away from home for days at a time. “She was never there,” he said. “That dime rock took my mother away from me.” She was out on the street looking for the next high while her children were home alone, longing for Mom, Mr. Forrest said. He was out there, too, getting it done.

During his short-lived career as a robber and purse snatcher, he roamed the D.C. streets looking for his next victim. He was arrested more times than he cares to remember, and ultimately was convicted and sentenced to prison after barely reaching his 16th birthday.

After serving four years in prison, Mr. Forrest was released in 2007. Since his release, he has fathered two children, Breonye, 2, and Jhay, 4 months. Though he and the mother of his two children are no longer together, he plays an active role in his children’s lives, he said. He acknowledges that he does not pay child support.

“Pay child support,” he said with an easy smile. “I pay for the things they need, like Pampers.”

Now that it’s his turn to be a father, he thought about his own father who was not there for him.

“I’m the total opposite of my dad, but he’s my motivation,” Mr. Forrest said. “I know what it feels like not to see your father, not to be held by your father, not to be played with by your father. So, I make it my point to do all the things that I wanted him to do for me - I do that with them.”

Nearly 50 percent of black households are headed by women, says the National Urban League’s 2008 State of Black America report. The shift away from the traditional two-parent family has put many black children at risk to live a life of poverty, enter the juvenile justice system or have a baby in their teen years. Bad schools and economic deprivation further shape their lives and people born into poverty are likely to die there and have children who die there, too.

Joining a gang soon after he was released from prison may have been the best thing that has ever happened to Mr. Forrest.

Sixth Street was the dividing line for two warring gangs - Seventh and O and Fifth and O streets crews - in the District’s Shaw neighborhood where bullets flew in a rivalry, sometimes injuring bystanders. The warring gangs competed for a share of the crack cocaine market, as well PCP, marijuana and methamphetamine. The crews maintained control of their turf by preventing the other from entering the area.

“It was a beef, it was going down,” said Mr. Forrest, who was a member of the Seventh and O streets crew. “It was terrible - every day shooting, every night shooting - there was a lot of shooting in the neighborhood.”

The “beefing” between the rival crews caught the attention of the Alliance of Concerned Men, which brought together the crews and urged them to take part in a truce that would end the deadly violence.

Mr. Forrest was tapped by the alliance to take part in the discussions. He was reluctant at first. He did not trust the notorious Fifth and O streets crew. Eleven years earlier, Mr. Forrest had heard the same exhortation about a gang truce from the alliance, after the abduction and killing of his 12-year-old friend Darrel in Benning Terrace.

A few months after the alliance began working with both sides, they all decided to come to the table for talks.

“By this time people were dying - our close friends were dying - I have a lot of ‘rest in peace friends’ - a lot of friends were dying,” Mr. Forrest said. “[The alliance] gave me hope.”

Mr. Forrest said he did not want to die on the street, so he decided to try to change his lifestyle. He got out of the crew and became a volunteer youth advocate for the alliance.

As youth advocate, Mr. Forrest addressed his peers at community meetings about the perils of crime and violence. “I had great turnouts,” he said, “they adapted to me quick.”

What he learned from the alliance in his social skills course, he gave back to his peers in his own fashion.

“I can get them to want to go to school now,” Mr. Forrest said. “Or either I motivated them to get their GED. Some of them had kids. I motivated them to take care of their kids and get a job.”

Mr. Forrest eventually was hired by the alliance but was recently let go because of budget cutbacks.

“[The alliance] believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Mr. Forrest said.

After the conference ended, Mr. Forrest left the Capitol headed toward an uncertain future.

• Joseph Young is a writer and photographer living in the District.

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