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The mentorship movement that’s spreading from DC to other cities

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Musa Mahdi could have chosen any achievement to share. The one he wanted to talk about on a recent afternoon happened the day he picked up a young man from a DC school.

The teenager had to be convinced to go back to school, and even after accepting, he often skipped classes and roamed the halls. But when Mahdi showed up that day, the teenager told him he was tired.

“Today was the first day I attended every class,” Mahdi recalls.

Another adult might not have seen this achievement as noteworthy. But Mahdi drove the teenager that day to pick up his favorite dish, Wings Inferno, from Busboys and Poets.

“I was so happy,” recalls Mahdi. “He doesn’t know how much joy he gave me. To me, that felt like the ultimate achievement.

Over the past five years, young people who have found themselves in DC’s criminal justice system have come across Mahdi as a “credible messenger,” a title that tells them he understands the life they live because he lived it. The DC native grew up on the same streets they walked. He was locked up in the same type of cells they occupied. He understands the pressures they face because he has faced them as well.

Children continue to see adults killed in the nation’s capital. They are also victims.

Mahdi served time in DC prison and six federal prisons before being released in 2017. He was in custody when he was 18. That day, the guards took him out of the juvenile section and threw him into the adult section.

“It was your birthday present,” he said. “They take you upstairs and throw you with the wolves. This statement – “It can make or break you” – is true. It broke a lot of people. »

In some parts of the district, the term “credible messengers” does not need to be explained. But over the past year, the mentorship movement has spread from DC to cities across the country where the concept is new, and people in those places might be wondering what it’s all about.

Mahdi, who works for DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said they should know: “We celebrate every success.”

By “everyone” he means the big ones and the small ones, those that change lives and those that change habits, those that arise from decisions made in hot times and those that take repeated and determined action.

A young man he mentors is now attending university and Mahdi still worries about him. “The job is never done,” he said. “It’s never done.”

As American cities grapple with how to tackle youth crime, there has been much debate over youth curfews, like the one Prince George’s County began enforcing this month. But curfews don’t change lives. They authorize the police to force a young person off the street for a few hours. They don’t empower young people in a way that would keep them from being on the streets the next night or the night after.

Forget curfews. We should devote more of our collective energy to looking at long-term solutions to tackling juvenile delinquency and devote more resources to those that show the most promise.

Any organization that works with vulnerable young people deserves careful and constant scrutiny. The stakes are too high to simply believe that good intentions equal good results. But the concept of credible messengers is rooted in redemption, and it’s easy to see how, if the recruitment, training, and supervision are done well, it could prevent some juvenile offenders from becoming adult offenders.

Clinton Lacey, the former director of DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, describes credible messaging initiatives as providing communities with a way to employ returning citizens and reduce youth recidivism. Systems and services often lack cultural understanding of the communities they serve, he said. Credible messengers bring this understanding.

“You have to know the communities,” he said. “You have to know the families. You have to care about them. I always say you have to love them. You must have this fundamental belief that they are not the sum total of their problems.

Lacey developed the District’s Credible Messaging Initiative after establishing a program in New York City, where he worked as deputy commissioner of the city’s probation service. The district’s goal was to provide youth who were released from the New Beginnings Youth Development Center with someone who could help them reintegrate into the community.

Lacey said DYRS was hosting a summit in 2018 attended by people from across the country when he started thinking about expanding the initiative to other cities. In March 2021, he resigned from DYRS and founded the non-profit organization Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement (CM3). Over the past year, the organization has helped launch initiatives in more than half a dozen locations, including cities in Texas, Mississippi and New Jersey.

The fact that more cities are seeking to train and deploy credible messengers shows a growing desire among government officials to do more for young people than lock them up.

DC has seen one concerning case after another in recent years involving minors. It is also a place with credible messengers. I asked Lacey if this showed a lack of program effectiveness. He said this shows the need to extend the credible messenger program to young people who are not yet in DYRS custody.

The murder of an 11-year-old boy is not proof that black lives don’t matter to black people. This is proof of our collective failure.

Credible messengers provide ‘crisis intervention’, but they also do more than that, he said: ‘It’s accompanying them to a graduation, accompanying them to a barbecue, teaching them to tie a tie, to accompany them to school if necessary. This is to check their parents or caregiver.

It’s giving them someone who will stay in their lives for a long time. This commitment is built into the organization’s goals for credible messengers, but it’s also the nature of connecting with someone who understands and supports you.

“Once you establish a relationship with them, you can’t let them go,” Raequan McIver said.

McIver was not yet a teenager when he found himself in DC’s criminal justice system. At 19, he was assigned two credible messengers. Now, at 25, he is.

McIver said he went to live in a group home after he was released and his credible messengers came into his life when he had little support. He credited them with helping him find a job and anger management therapy “when I was embarrassed to go to a counselor.”

“They never gave up on me,” he said.

The night we spoke, he received a phone call. It was from one of his credible messengers.

“He’s still my mentor,” McIver said.