For 367 days, the people of an East New York City neighborhood lived without any shootings. Woman sat on benches watching their children play. Kids rode their bikes beyond the block they lived on. This peace was a cherished by-product of the work done by an organization called Man Up! inc.
That stretch of life without violence ended with a shooting outside a school late last month. Now a new count of peaceful days has begun. The Brooklyn neighborhood is by no means returning to the days when shootings were daily occurrences and families barricaded themselves inside their houses.
“We are putting ‘neighbor’ back into the ‘hood,’” says Andre T. Mitchell, founder and executive director of Man Up! inc.
Man Up! inc. has built a sense of community in East New York by having its members get out into the streets to talk to people and find out their needs and help fulfill them, while also requiring residents to take responsibility for the neighborhood.
“Each neighbor needs the other,” says Mitchell. “What happens next door is my problem. If my neighbor’s children are hungry and my cabinets are full I have an obligation to assist my neighbor, not ignore them. If you see the elderly coming in with groceries, help carry them. When (hurricane) Sandy came through, we checked on our seniors and homebound to make sure they were okay. That’s our obligation.”
Members of Man Up! inc. “try to get in front of situations,” and mediate peace. Of the recent shooting, Mitchell notes, “This situation took place at 9 in the morning, so we couldn’t get in front of it. But we don’t want people to go to our record low, where there was a lack of hope, lack of confidence, and fear of safety.”
After an incidence of violence, Man Up! inc. provides counseling to help assure that residents are not traumatized or feeling unsafe. People talk to and listen to Mitchell, partially because he is a resident and they see him as one of them.
“I was a troubled young boy raised by a single mom,” he says. “She couldn’t provide all the things I wanted—she gave me all I needed—so I chose to go out in the streets.”
He says he spent time in prison for a crime he did not commit. He educated himself, reading a lot. And when he came home he wanted to “redeem himself and make his family and community proud.”
He did what he teaches others to do today: He volunteered in the community. He founded Man Up! inc. nearly a decade ago, shortly after an eight-year-old named Daesean Hill was killed by gunfire intended for someone else.
“We began with rallying the men and getting brothers out to talk to the community, especially to brothers,” says Mitchell. “We began to do simple things—talk to people, trust them and really hear the young people. They had valid things to say. There was nothing for them to do, no place to go.”
Mitchell is careful to emphasize that he did not start this work alone or change his neighborhood by himself. New York City Councilman Charles Barron has been beside and behind Mitchell since the beginning and Barron and his family remain active allies in this anti-violence work. Now there are men, women and children who volunteer with Man Up! inc. The organization’s anti-violence initiative was modeled after an organization in Chicago called Cease Fire.
“We fine-tuned our efforts and we provide other services – job readiness, recreation, after school programs, counseling for the formerly incarcerated,” says Mitchell. “Of course, we can’t save everybody. But say a young man or women goes to jail, we have an obligation to them when they come home. They are still a member of our community.”
He teaches people returning home that by volunteering, the community sees them as necessary and positive members of the neighborhood.
“Then when we ask other people to give them internships, it’s easier for people to see them as people who can be helpful,” Mitchell says.
Juan Rivera, 39, is a former drug dealer who is now a Man Up! inc. volunteer. He talks to youngsters about violence in the community, takes kids to the park, does surveys and cleans parks and other areas of the neighborhood.
“When I was in prison I had to ask myself if that was really what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to live,” River says. “I’ve been a disaster to the neighborhood as a kid and adult. Now I need to put into the community what I helped to destroy.”
He says he wants to be a positive example for his nieces and nephews—and for his son, 13.
“What I told my son before I came home is if daddy comes home and continues doing the same thing I was doing, how can I say I love you? If I put myself in a position where I could be gone again, what does that do for him?”
So now Rivera proudly cleans his neighborhood and talks to boys who remind him of himself.
“It feels good. This organization gave me a whole different outlook. I love the feeling I get when I talk to the kids or clean a park. I look forward to getting up every morning to get to work.”
Melinda Perkins, a native East New Yorker, says Man Up! inc. has stood up for the community in many ways, even getting it a seat at the table with big developers with projects in their neighborhood.
“Man Up! inc. focuses on children, makes them see there’s a greater world, that where you live does not have to determine who you are. They get to the heart of the issue because they always have a multi-prong approach to issues. Here in this community, we face a number of issues that seem rooted in crime and violence. But there are other issues that lead to people acting out in that way.”
Perkins, who is also associate executive director for the nonprofit East NY Restoration LDC, says she and her three children are Man Up! inc. volunteers. She has twin girls, 19, and a son, 15 who attended Man Up! inc.’s after school program and now serve as junior members of the organization.
“They’ve all been through the MU training, which is excellent because they know how important it is to give back,” says Perkins, who notes that people feel safer just by the mere presence of Man Up! inc. volunteers in their t-shirts walking the neighborhood and talking to residents.
“We are the Marines in the community,” says Mitchell. “We go in further than the police department can. And we develop relationships with people the police department cannot.
The count of 367 is the longest time the neighborhood has experienced nonviolence and Mitchell says good, sound funding by the state has made a difference in what the activists have been able to do.
“We want to build community. The police can’t solve our problems. We are the frontline workers. We are the first responders.
“It takes everybody to make a neighborhood turn around, to make a neighborhood be better,” Mitchell says. “Now parents are talking more to their kids, teachers are willing to give beyond the call of duty, police officers are willing to help and the clergy is more involved in issues happening right around their churches.
“We know what peace feels like now. We know what it feels like to see community engaged in activities that make it prosper. We have a long ways to go, but we are on the right path.”