Gangster’s Path to a Peace Prize

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King: “I’ve done more harm than good.”

San Francisco—A round-faced man whose attire suggested modest means stood in the sun-splashed lobby outside a ballroom at the St. Regis hotel last month, waiting to be handed a $25,000 check with his name on it.

Brian King is not often found in places like the St. Regis, where a glass of wine fetches $12, a marble table in the center of the gym displays home design magazines and a bowl of fruit, and the blinds in the rooms can be raised and lowered only with a touch-screen next to the beds. Few of the 200-plus social worker-types at this reception could have afforded anything in this hotel, including a night, unless someone else paid, which in most cases someone else did.

Dangling from King’s nametag was a purple ribbon that said, “Honoree.”

“What are you being honored for?” he was asked.

He smiled, tilted his head and said, “For screwing up my life.”

That moment – the jacketless casual business attire, the humble tone, the allusion to a dangerous past – said a lot about why King was there. The California Wellness Foundation, which hosted the event and covered most of the rooms, had selected him as one of three winners of its 2009 California Peace Prize.

Perhaps it’s cliché now to say, “He’s come a long way from the streets of Chicago ...”

Yet for anyone who works with violent and gang-involved youth, King’s story is worth hearing because it is both commonplace in its theme and remarkable in its details. So many youth workers at the peace prize banquet and the next day’s Conference on Violence Prevention were ex-gang members that it almost seemed like a prerequisite. King’s path from child drug dealer, thug and addict to CEO of a youth-serving nonprofit shows how troubled young men are sometimes saved, and how youth work is often built on collaboration, serendipity and investments that don’t pay off for years.

Gangs made sense

“My father was a Cook County sheriff, and he had a drinking problem. He would get drunk, and it would escalate into violence against my mother.”

That’s how King told his story in the 2004 book Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities, in which Barbara Elliot – an analyst of faith-based and community initiatives who worked in the Reagan White House – invited inspirational people to write about their lives. King lived in a violent neighborhood, and wrote that by the middle of grade school, “I could see that with no protection from inside the house, it got to come from somewhere.”

He became a sort of junior member of the Disciples gang, which “allowed me to have protection in the streets or wherever I’d go.” By age 11, he was running drugs and smoking pot. He started on heroin at 12, and got arrested for the first time in eighth grade. “I didn’t know at the time that there was any else way to live,” he wrote, “because everyone else in my environment lived this way.”

He grew into a teenage drug addict and alcoholic and got kicked out of his home by his mother. (His father had left.) Even the gangs had no use for him. One day, at age 21, he woke up in an abandoned building to find that the man sleeping next to him had died. That shock sent him to a detox program, Haymarket House. After he cleaned up, he returned to dealing and gangs.

Then a youth worker stepped in. Earl Williams ran a small youth program in the neighborhood and often asked King and his buddies to come over, King recalled in an interview after the California Wellness conference. “We would brush him off.”

One day, when police were out in force “looking to bust anybody they could,” King finally accepted the offer – as a way to hide. It turned out that Williams had plans for the men. He ran workshops to teach police, judges, teachers and the like about gangs, and ran similar sessions for youths in school. He persuaded King and several friends to join him, to tell the real story about gang life.

“But at night,” King said, “we would go back on the street.”

The way out

The youth program eventually closed for lack of money, King said. (It has started up again as Williams Youth Service; Williams could not be reached for comment.) Then in 1993, King went to Fresno to stay with an old buddy for Christmas. That buddy persuaded him to start a new, gang-free life there. King was in his early 30s.

That life included becoming a devout Christian, after attending church at the behest of another friend. “I started going out and doing everything,” King said. That meant all sorts of community work, as well as jobs as a city missionary with World Impact Fresno, an outreach worker at Hope Now for Youth, and a youth coordinator at what is now the One by One Leadership Foundation.

One night in the early 2000s, King and several pastors were standing in a parking lot after a community meeting when a woman they knew approached and recalled with them a horrible experience: Her son had been killed in a double homicide, and during the funeral reception, her nephew went out to get ice and was killed as well.

“She was crying her eyes out,” recalled pastor Lee Pointer, who also attended the conference. “We prayed with her.” Then the men got to talking, and “we said we wish we could find some men in Fresno” to form a group to take on violence and poverty. They were tired of seeing programs come from the outside.

“Because of lack of funding, those efforts would leave,” King said. “What would happen if we created something that couldn’t leave, in west Fresno? That was made in west Fresno. That was built by the people in west Fresno.”

At home that night, Pointer watched The Magnificent Seven, the popular western about a group of gun-slingers hired to protect a Mexican village. “They did what we wanted to do in Fresno,” Pointer says. “They wanted to clean up the town.”

Pointer enrolled six other men, including King, to form the Magnificent Spiritual Seven. For several years, the group ran mentoring, after-school, meal and other services for kids. But the men wanted to reach more people and to create an organization separate from the church that had been the group’s foundation.

Saints on a shoestring

King turned to old colleagues at the nonprofits where he had worked, including Linda Gleason, who had been at One by One before forming the Gleason Group, a consultancy that helps organizations combat social ills. “We didn’t understand how to build infrastructure, sustainability,” King explains on a short video on the Gleason Group website (www.thinkgleason.com).

With Gleason’s help, the men created a group named after Elliot’s book (with her permission): Fresno Street Saints. The Gleason Group said it set up meetings between the founders and local business leaders and trained the street-level activists “how to strategically plan, build capacity, scale their efforts and document their outcomes.”

King’s experience at nonprofits made him the choice to be CEO – a concept that makes him laugh. “It’s different,” he said. “It’s enlightened me to grow.”

Street Saints’ services include mentoring, after-school and summer programs that focus on educational achievement, and job training through graffiti abatement.

For the first few years, King said, “we were funding everything out of our pockets,” with money, manpower and facilities provided by churches and businesses. Street Saints’ first federal tax return – Gleason says it incorporated just last year – lists $64,000 in income and $55,000 in expenses, including $19,000 for King, the only full-time employee in fiscal 2008.

Things have gotten better. Gleason, the chief operating officer, said the organization’s funders now include California Wellness ($220,000 over three years, according to the foundation), Kaiser Permanente and the American Humanics Department at California State University, Fresno. King said his agency has expanded to three full-time staffers.

King’s finances have improved as well, thanks to the peace prize check, which was accompanied by a medallion.

As cited in last month’s Youth Today Awards column, the other California Peace Prize winners were Phalen Lim, youth program director for The Cambodian Family, which provides health, employment and youth services to refugees and immigrants in Orange County; and Olis Simmons, founder and executive director of Youth UpRising, a youth leadership development center in Alameda County.

King said this about his award: “I’ve done more harm than I’ve done good. It’s hard for me to accept stuff,” such as prizes. “I was in gangs for 33 years. I’ve been in youth work for 14.”

Contact: Fresno Street Saints (559) 860-0166, http://www.fresnostreetsaints.org; The California Wellness Foundation Peace Prize, http://www.calwellness.org/leadership_recognition.

Youth Today is a grantee of The California Wellness Foundation.

  • thinkgleason

    Great article on the power of transformed leadership that causes a smile when you consider the reality of the contrast provided by the setting.  What is needed next is a deeper conversation about the potential power of these leaders like King.  Gangs are winning our youth across the country in large numbers.  What does it look like when leaders like King are empowerd and resourced to effectively use the same business model they grew up with to build organizations that recruit youth into opportunity and a way out of poverty?