- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

July 27—On Mondays, Damien Smith, a youth coordinator for Safe & Sound, turns community rooms in the Amani and Harambee neighborhoods into barbershops offering free haircuts.

But it’s not just a haircut. Smith opens a dialogue between the young men who come and middle-aged barbers who volunteer on their day off.

On a recent Monday, the young men — ages 10 to 23 — arrive with friends and long hair, trading the summer sun for cool air conditioning. They each take a seat in a circle of chairs, while a barber sets up his clippers and pulls an office chair into the corner.

Each gets a turn in the makeshift barber’s chair, but while the 10 young men wait, Smith has their attention. He starts by talking about their relationships with their fathers.

Smith moves about the room wearing jeans and a polo shirt, chewing on a wooden toothpick as he waits for the young men to respond.

He asks the group how they will raise their own children.

Marcellus Purifoy, 14, finally says he can’t imagine having children. Another 14-year-old, Larenzo Jones, agrees.

“Why not?” Smith asks.

“We’re not going to be able to have kids,” Jones says. “Look at what neighborhood we’re in.”

The group was at Project Respect, a nonprofit aimed at reducing sexual violence among teens, located in an old house on N. 27th St. just north of W. Center St. The 53210 ZIP code is one of the poorest in the city, with a third living below the poverty level. It’s also one of the most violent — 29 people were victims of homicide last year in Police District 5.

“So you’re saying your future can be gone the minute you walk out the door,” Smith says.

Jones nods in agreement.

In Milwaukee, seven of the 91 homicide victims so far this year were under 17. Five were killed by gunfire; another 34 were shot and lived.

Smith held the first barbershop in March. The program is run through Safe & Sound, a nonprofit with a mission of reducing violent crime among youths in the city. Smith thinks the connections created between youths and adults will improve the neighborhood.

“You aren’t gonna rob a guy you know,” he likes to say.

Acting as the ringleader, he makes sure everyone speaks. Smith turns back to the group, listening eagerly, and asks who thinks they’ll live to be his age, 43.

More than half of the kids shake their heads no.

Too often, the young people Smith works with know the city’s young victims — from school, the playgrounds, the neighborhood. And after each death, RIP messages fill their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

Jones was friends with Tariq Akbar, a 14-year-old who was shot dead July 3 on Lake Drive after the U.S. Bank Fireworks at the lakefront. Police said the shooting stemmed from a Facebook fight over a girl, one that Akbar was not involved in.

Purifoy knew 13-year-old Giovannie G. Cameron. He was shot and killed July 8 in the kitchen of his home. Another 13-year-old was arrested in the shooting. The teen said they were playing with a gun when he pulled the trigger and a bullet hit Giovannie in the chest.

“They’ve been robbed of their future selves because of fear,” Smith says. “These stories and everything else. It’s right next to them. It ain’t nothing that they heard about. They’re like, ‘Why not me next?’”

Smith steers the group away from dwelling on the negative.

“The goal is to not have you be the next guy shot,” Smith says.

Purifoy pushes back. He doesn’t think he can prevent it.

“We can just be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people,” Purifoy says. “And your future is gone.”

Smith tries to show young men things don’t have to be this way.

He grew up in Milwaukee near N. 36th and W. Burleigh streets. He stayed out of the drug scene and off the streets, starting his first job at 14 at the now-defunct Inner City Arts Council.

“I didn’t have to burn my hand on the stove to learn from those around me that it’s hot,” Smith said.

After graduating from Milwaukee High School of the Arts, he worked for 10 years at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, disposing of biohazardous waste, before he enrolled in classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, earning a degree in community education.

In 2001, Smith started working for Milwaukee Public Schools as a paraprofessional aide and then at youth organizations across the city. This spring, Smith started Barbershop Mondays, hoping to — clip by clip — bring change to the city.

Each week, Smith picks a topic to focus the discussion around — rap music, carjackings, family structure.

“The problem is youth don’t respect adults and adults are afraid of kids,” Smith said.

He wants to get people talking outside their peer group.

One of those people is 16-year-old Marcello Robinson, who is entering his senior year of high school. Robinson wishes he could guide more of his peers away from trouble.

“People my age can’t influence people my age,” Robinson said.

He usually attends Barbershop Mondays when it’s at the nearby Holton Youth Center the last week of the month.

Smith tells each young man, “Make sure you write your name down on the attendance sheet.”

He wants everyone to sign in so he can call them to help out with community service projects.

That way, when Smith needs help cleaning up the neighborhood or putting up fliers, he already has a list of people who owe him a favor. He wants the young men to learn community service is not just an obligation when it is tacked onto a sentence by a judge.

Not all escape the crime and violence of the neighborhood.

Smith met 17-year-old Grover Ferguson at at one of the first barbershops. Later, Ferguson helped Smith clean up part of the neighborhood.

Ferguson was passionate about music, so Smith took him to a studio to record.

“I saw a lot of potential in him,” said Smith. “And I wish that he could have gotten in a situation where his free time was spent doing what he likes to do.”

On April 21, Ferguson allegedly shot a 53-year-old woman in the face while attempting to steal her car. He faces four felony charges of first-degree reckless injury, armed robbery, eluding officers and possession of a firearm.

Smith knows how easy it is for kids to get off track.

One of his own three children, his 20-year-old stepson, Cullen Mitchell, is incarcerated. He’s been locked up for two years of his 15-year prison sentence. He pleaded guilty to felony murder and will be under supervision for another eight years once he’s released.

According to the criminal complaint, Mitchell had been in a van with five others and after robbing two victims, decided to target 23-year-old Cristian Garcia-Clemente. The victim tried to run away, but was shot and killed by Mitchell in the 3700 block of W. Wisconsin Ave.

“Everyone said it was my son who pulled the trigger,” Smith said. “No one really knows.”

He and his wife, Sonica Smith, tried desperately to help the young man. He had gotten into trouble before. But, Smith said, often outside influences are much more powerful than those within the household.

And this is where Smith feels the Monday Barbershops are most effective.

On the day the barbershop visited Project Respect, Smith challenged the young men to envision their future selves.

Smith has noticed it’s a tough, uphill battle to get the teens to value their lives.

“Existing and living is not the same thing,” Smith said to them.

He wants them to do more than just survive.

“What’s your plan?” Smith asked the group. “What’s your goal?”

Jones, one of the ones who worried he may never grow up, looked up and answered.

“I hadn’t thought about it until now.”

Ashley Luthern of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

More on Precious Lives

The Precious Lives project, a partnership between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media outlets, looks at the causes and consequences of gun violence on Milwaukee’s youth. This week’s podcast also looks at Damien Smith and the Monday Barbershops program.

Listen: WUWM-FM (89.7), about 10:50 a.m. Tuesday; WNOV-AM (860), 7:50 a.m. Wednesday.

Follow the project: Read past stories and listen to the podcast:jsonline.com/preciouslives.

You also can download the Precious Lives podcast from the iTunes store.

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(c)2015 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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