Mark Obbie | Longreads | March 2020 | 45 minutes (12,427 words)
The three young men sauntering down a city sidewalk showed no signs of alarm as a thin man in a dark hoodie hopped out of the passenger side of a gold Honda minivan. They did not flinch as the man rushed toward them on foot while the van, its windows heavily tinted, continued on past.
This neighborhood on the northeast side of Rochester, New York, has ranked among one of the poorest and most violent in the United States. But it was the trio’s home. A year earlier, one of them, Lawrence Richardson, had been jumped and knifed nearby after exchanging insults with a group of guys he didn’t know. He hadn’t looked for that trouble, and the same was true today. Richardson and Cliff Gardner, his coworker at KFC, had spent the afternoon preparing to look for better jobs. On the city’s southwest side, they stopped at the Center for Teen Empowerment, a nonprofit where Richardson had worked for a year on anti-violence and community-improvement projects, and where he still volunteered now and then. After encouraging Cliff to create a résumé, Richardson suggested they catch a bus to the northeast side, where Richardson had grown up. He wanted to introduce Cliff to Kenny Mitchell, his best friend and fellow Teen Empowerment youth organizer.
The three hung out at Mitchell’s second-story apartment, then walked to a corner store for some snacks. They were just returning to Kenny’s when they encountered the van and its passenger.
Moments later, three calls hit 911 operators in quick succession. Callers described a chaotic scene with two bodies crumpled on the ground while a third, trailing blood up the stairs to Mitchell’s apartment, lay at the feet of his panicked father.
The 911 operators could overhear shocked bystanders. “Oh. Oh my god. Oh my god.” “Oh, shit.”
A neighbor told one operator how the shooter, who had let his targets pass by on the sidewalk, had fired into the young men’s backs with a silver pistol. In another call, the distraught father relayed the operator’s questions to his wounded son Kenny, but elicited no useful information. “Get an ambulance and the police, please!” the father pleaded.
The third caller, his voice breathless and frantic, lay in a driveway on Dayton Street with his phone pressed to his ear as he gave an account of his own shooting.
“Come to Dayton. We just been shot. Three people.”
He answered the operator’s questions in labored bursts. His name: Lawrence Richardson. His age: 22. No, they hadn’t seen who shot them. The bullets came from behind.
“Please, please hurry up. I can’t hardly breathe.”
He coughed and wheezed. His words grew slurred. “I’m fading. I can’t breathe. I’m fading right now.”
As Richardson’s voice disintegrated into mumbles and gasps, the operator grew insistent.
“Stay on the phone with me. … Lawrence? Lawrence, keep talking to me, OK?”
Three minutes into the call, Richardson’s end of the conversation went silent.
After a five-mile ambulance ride to the city’s best trauma hospital, Richardson lay on an operating table. For 45 long minutes, trauma surgeons raced to save him. After examining his shredded liver and kidney, trying to stanch the bleeding, and administering CPR and blood transfusions, they finally declared him dead. Mitchell and Gardner were gravely wounded but would survive.
Back at the scene, the investigation into the triple shooting had begun. Police cataloged five spent .45-caliber shell casings and one Arizona Iced Tea can found on the ground just steps from where the victims were shot. Later, when investigators went through Richardson’s pockets, they found a stack of job applications.
Lawrence Richardson was murdered on Dayton St. in Rochester, NY, on April 9, 2012. His colleagues in anti-violence activism compiled this video from his past performances as “an open letter to the shooter. (TeenEmpowermentTV)
When observed from a safe distance, violence can lose its capacity to shock if it persists for decades as an everyday occurrence in particular city neighborhoods. And so a triple shooting in which only one victim dies might warrant a mere flicker of local interest in a chronically violent place like the poorest neighborhoods of Rochester.
The investigation into the triple shooting had begun. Later, when investigators went through Richardson’s pockets, they found a stack of job applications.
Judged by that standard, the attention paid to Lawrence Richardson in the days between his April 9, 2012, murder and funeral constituted a great outpouring — all flowing from Richardson’s work as an anti-violence activist with Teen Empowerment, the group whose office he visited hours before his death. News stories portrayed an “ambassador of peace” “on the right path,” “doing everything right,” skipping the exact nature of Richardson’s struggles and his activism. Teen Empowerment staff produced a tribute video, styled as an “open letter to the shooter,” with snippets of Richardson’s public pleas for nonviolence, community action, and personal transformation (“So what if I messed up in the past? I look to the future. I can and I will change because I’m not the same Lawrence as yesterday’s Lawrence.”). One Teen Empowerment counselor told the local newspaper, “I don’t want anyone to say that Lawrence was getting his life together. His life was together.”
The funeral drew hundreds to Memorial AME Zion Church, the storied black congregation where Harriet Tubman sheltered people fleeing slavery, Susan B. Anthony delivered one of her final speeches, and Frederick Douglass often lectured. Against that backdrop of heroic progressivism, the eulogy for Richardson by Rashad Smith, his step-cousin and boyhood companion, spoke to a more elemental need: survival. Smith urged the crowd to carry on Richardson’s peacemaking mission, saying it would “slander his name” to plot retaliation. Invoking Richardson’s family nickname, Smith told the mourners, “Just like my cousin BooBoo did, it is time for us to make a change.”
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Charlie LoFaso, the lead police detective assigned to the murder case, remembers the effect these tributes had on him and his fellow cops. At first, he says, they didn’t buy it. “We’re like, ‘Yeah, OK, right,’” LoFaso says. Inured to cases in which victims are complicit in the trouble that eventually catches up with them, the investigators’ first instinct was to look for the murder motive in the trouble in Richardson’s life, including past arrests and texts on his phone about selling marijuana. Within days, however, investigators knew those troubles were too minor and unrelated to explain the crime. LoFaso began to see Richardson as one of the good guys, a circumstance he considered a rarity. “I’m not even sure I can think of another victim who’s comparable,” LoFaso says.
That idea, says the prosecutor overseeing the investigation, fired the enthusiasm of law enforcement to avenge the death of an uncommon young man “trying to choose something bigger and better and good” for himself and his city. Three years later, when the investigation finally came to its conclusion in a courtroom, the judge echoed the same theme, telling the two young men he in effect sentenced to life in prison, “You didn’t just kill a man. You also killed a lot of hope for a lot of young people in this city.”
In one sense, the narrative of Richardson’s exceptionalism seems only fitting, considering the cruel fate of a truly sympathetic young man. The judge’s prophesy of hopelessness seemed equally justified, coming as it did during a new surge of violence in the same neighborhoods that Richardson had dreamed of calming. Together, these ideas formed two strands in the familiar story of urban violence as a capricious and inevitable force.
‘You didn’t just kill a man. You also killed a lot of hope for a lot of young people in this city.’
A closer look at Richardson’s life and work, and at the young people who stepped up to take Richardson’s place, reveals starkly different lessons. Hope can persist in such a violent place. It can even be cultivated in unorthodox ways among the least likely but most needy converts. But if the lifelines thrown to them are too few and too thin, that hope may prove fragile. The most painful reality of all is that the tragedy of Lawrence Richardson’s death is not defined by how uncommon he was, but by precisely the opposite.
The streets where Lawrence Richardson lived and died have been some of America’s most violent for a very long time. In 1964, 25 years before Richardson was born, residents of the same neighborhoods were so weary of poverty and tensions with police that the city was one of the first in the nation to explode in that decade’s so-called race riots. After dozens more cities followed in the coming years, the federal government’s official response to the unrest, the Kerner Commission’s 1968 report, called the underlying causes “the major unfinished business of this nation.”
More than a half-century later, that business in Rochester remains unfinished, if not far worse. What once was a booming economy attracting African Americans in the Great Migration has shrunk in population by over one third, to 210,000, from its 1950 peak. White flight triggered by a tripling of Rochester’s black population in the 1950s accelerated after the riots, turning the metropolitan area of more than 1 million into a prosperous suburban and rural ring surrounding a city center where two thirds of the region’s black people still live. Pride in the industrial innovation and tens of thousands of high-paying jobs at such local giants as Eastman Kodak and Xerox inspired a local columnist to dub the city “Smugtown U.S.A.” But those companies and jobs are now largely gone, leaving the city smudged with the markers of Rust Belt decline: one of the worst child-poverty rates among all U.S. cities; some of the nation’s highest rates of concentrated poverty, extreme poverty, and racial segregation; a school system roundly condemned as a disgrace, one that took pride when its graduation rate topped 50 percent and where nearly one quarter of teen students report at least three “adverse childhood experiences,” the trauma-exposure measurement that defines high risk. Just this January, Brandeis University researchers ranked Rochester as having the nation’s worst big-city “opportunity gap” between children living in neighborhoods that afford a healthy head start, and those that don’t. The same report cited Rochester’s “extremely high concentration” of disadvantage, with 71 percent of black children living in “very low-opportunity neighborhoods.”
With that degree of economic and social inequality comes, inevitably, violence at extraordinary levels. Violent crime nationwide has been on a downward trajectory since its 1991 peak, settling in lately at levels not seen since the early 1960s. The gains have been felt nearly everywhere, including in Rochester, where murders in the 1990s at times topped 60 per year and remained high into the early aughts, but since then have fallen to the 40s, then the 30s, even dipping into the 20s in 2017 and 2018.
But better is not enough. The soothing statistical averages showing national or even citywide crime rates gloss over the harsh reality that murders in America’s most violent city neighborhoods persist at rates rarely seen elsewhere in the industrialized world outside of actual war zones. Sociologists have given a name to this paradox: “murder inequality,” the dramatically uneven distribution of homicide risk. The inequality applies to people as well as places — particularly young black men, who are murdered by gun violence 18 times more often than their white counterparts. Big cities like Chicago and Baltimore attain national notoriety for their street violence, while midsize or small cities like Rochester that are every bit as dangerous suffer in obscurity. One researcher, John Klofas, put the murder rate for young black men in one set of Rochester neighborhoods in 2014 at 65 times the national average, with one in 200 killed every year.
Klofas has studied Rochester’s violence longer and more deeply than anyone. He and his team at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives have produced a pile of reports adding up to one grim conclusion: “By any way it is measured, Rochester has a serious violence problem and has had it, uninterrupted, for nearly 50 years.”
That problem has shown remarkable geographic consistency. If a map of the city were the face of a clock, the places with the highest rates of homicide and other violence form an arc over the downtown business district, moving clockwise from 7 o’clock to 2 o’clock. When Klofas showed this pattern to the mayor in a meeting about 10 years ago, he says, “I happened to say without giving it much thought that it’s all in this crescent-shaped thing around the city, from the southwest to the northeast.”
‘By any way it is measured, Rochester has a serious violence problem and has had it, uninterrupted, for nearly 50 years.’
The name stuck. The Crescent proved irresistible to journalists and politicians, who sometimes dubbed it the Fatal Crescent, a dark twist on the term Fertile Crescent.
Klofas rues his role in the branding exercise because of how it feeds caricatures of poor neighborhoods as generally lawless. “It’s done more damage than shedding light on anything,” Klofas says. “It paints people who live in poor neighborhoods as criminals.”
The nation’s most prominent violence interventionist, David Kennedy, has based his career on the same understanding of urban street violence. In his 2011 memoir Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, Kennedy described how outsiders peer into these neighborhoods and see “chaos, pathology, irrationality, sociopathy,” a view of everyday street violence that assumes everyone is guilty. This view, Kennedy argues, misses the critical point — that urban violence is driven by a tiny number of young men in small geographical pockets of disadvantage left behind as America’s homicide problem plummeted. “It is a world,” Kennedy writes, “that believes that the community around it does not care,” where “youth soaked in trauma” lack faith that their future will take them anywhere but prison or an early grave. So they take up arms, an act of pragmatic self-defense in a dangerous place, but also an act of nihilism as they avenge mostly minor insults under a misguided honor code, unwilling to leave matters to the police they so deeply distrust.
This is the world Kennedy found when Rochester police asked him in 2002 to teach them his violence-reduction strategy, often dubbed Ceasefire. It has consistently ranked in multiple studies and in dozens of cities as one of the most effective approaches. Rochester’s violence, he realized, was “pretty much the worst I’ve ever seen outside a big city.” Kennedy’s strategy had dramatic effects in Rochester in 2003–04, but almost as quickly the project foundered in conflicts between Kennedy and the police department over how to conduct the work.
This fits a pattern, says Klofas, who worked with Kennedy on that 2002–04 project. Over the past 20 years, through a succession of eight police chiefs and five mayors, Rochester has often served as an incubator for the latest programs. But, over most of that time, the city consistently proved unable or unwilling to follow through on its promising starts and best intentions, Klofas says. “Rochester does a very good job funding innovation and then turning off the spigot no matter how successful that is,” he adds. “So lots of things are born and die quickly here, even though they’re pretty successful.”
In the middle of Kennedy’s doomed project, in 2003, a white Boston-area native, Doug Ackley, moved to Rochester. Ackley had no firm job plans — he was following his wife back to her hometown — but he did have one thing Rochester desperately needed: experience with an approach to helping young people during the most dangerous time of their lives.
When a 24-year-old Doug Ackley answered a help wanted ad in 1992 from an organization just then launching in Boston called Teen Empowerment, he wasn’t steeped in the ideas of youth counseling and violence intervention. But he already knew what didn’t seem to work.
Ackley came to the job with slim social-justice bona fides. He grew up in a white, middle-class neighborhood in the Boston suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts. Belmont borders Cambridge, but Ackley’s family background and accent are decidedly more blue-collar Boston Irish than Harvard Brahmin. During Boston’s racial clashes over school busing in the 1970s, the Ackleys took what counted in that time and place as a stance for racial harmony: They served as a host family for a black boy about Ackley’s age from Roxbury in a school-exchange program. The boys’ mothers ended up becoming friends. Other than that experience — the moms called off the boys’ visits because of interracial beatings in both of their neighborhoods — Ackley distanced himself from the gritty aspects of race, class, and poverty in his decision to study English and French at the elite, mostly white Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York.
While at Hobart, Ackley had a summer job as a counselor at a camp that drew kids from Rochester. “I really connected to kids that were on scholarship there,” he remembers. That led to his first jobs out of college, which included a stint at group homes for troubled youth in Boston. But his enthusiasm for the work wilted in the face of the schools’ authoritarian control and harsh discipline. Witnessing kids’ powerlessness translate into rage and frustration, Ackley said he “couldn’t put it into words, but I wanted to see something different.”
Teen Empowerment’s difference became obvious from the moment Ackley stepped into his job interview and faced a firing line of teens and young adults who “started asking me straight-up, dead-on questions about my life and who I was, what I did, what I thought.” They liked what they heard, as did Stanley Pollack, the group’s founder.
By then, Pollack had the words Ackley lacked to envision a better model. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Pollack’s outreach work with youth around Massachusetts convinced him that the typical approaches only served what he calls a “very rarefied group” of well-behaved youth that would already be drawn to community-service projects or safe after-school activities. The model never varied: doling out services to individual youth, based on what adults decided was good for them. In Pollack’s view, that approach might improve those kids’ lives, but it won’t change the community because it misses “the kids who hang out on the corner, deal drugs, and carry guns.” And it’s those kids whose transformation is critical to solving the most serious problems in places suffering such deep deprivation. Without some sort of effective intervention, Pollack came to believe, the most alienated youth set the standard for how to acquire status and power — acting tough, and carrying out violence, in the quest for respect and money — and they’ll spread these notions by influencing fellow risk-takers or those susceptible to intimidation.
Without some sort of effective intervention, Pollack came to believe, the most alienated youth set the standard for how to acquire status and power — acting tough, and carrying out violence, in the quest for respect and money — and they’ll spread these notions by influencing fellow risk-takers or those susceptible to intimidation.
What if, Pollack wondered, instead of only responding to these troubled teens with police and courts and jail, their very essence as teens rebelling against adult authority and “trying to figure out who they are,” as he puts it, could be turned into a force for good. “It’s the idea,” Pollack told me, “that you look at youth as more than just the creator of problems but you look at them as a resource and as a partner and as an asset that can help you solve problems. And when you’re talking about violence, they’re a critical element of it. They’re not a nice addition. You don’t get there without having them as part of that process.”
The process that Pollack devised became the Teen Empowerment playbook, built on four main concepts:
Jobs: Dangle the prospect of a decent yearlong wage to recruit kids living on the margins who might only care at first about earning money.
Teamwork: Hire for each Teen Empowerment site, which currently ranges from about 12 or 13 youth, ages 14 to 21, from across the spectrum — from high-functioning to hard cases just out of jail or cycling in and out of homelessness — after a series of group interviews to gauge their willingness to drop their street toughness and speak openly about their experiences.
Agency: Let the organizers-in-training enjoy the experience of being listened to by letting them craft their own social-activism agenda aimed at fixing problems that adults have bequeathed to their generation. As Emerald Wilcox, a former youth organizer, explained it to me, “We have never in our lives got paid to be ourselves.” The activism — more precisely, the realization that they can serve as activists and organizers to address social problems — is meant to have intrinsic value, regardless of whether the teens manage to influence public policy.
Peer Influence: Equip them to be evangelists for their causes by taking their message to their peers, which allows the small group of organizers to influence a much broader swath of the teen population.
That last step is Teen Empowerment’s highest aspiration and its most difficult to attain and to prove it’s happening. Without this hoped-for ripple effect throughout a community, the individuals Teen Empowerment can afford to help directly will exit the program to an unchanged neighborhood, surrounded by bad influences. Says Ackley, “We’d be spending a lot of money on 13 young people if our work was just that.” The only path to lasting, systemic change that causes young people to turn away from violence as a lifestyle, he says, “is through growth in numbers of young people starting to get it and think differently and act differently and push back on the system, push back on each other, and start to create a new norm.”
Pollack was putting these theories to an early test when he assigned Ackley to work at Teen Empowerment’s original site, in Boston’s South End near the height of the city’s youth violence epidemic in 1993. Some of the projects that began then have become Teen Empowerment staples. They might be one-off events like a peace conference promoting a gang truce. Others could occupy multiple generations of annual youth-organizer teams to see them through, like a campaign to make school discipline less punitive. Still others, like ongoing youth-police dialogue sessions, are perennials.
Beneath the surface of those events and policy initiatives lies the more subtle, slow-moving work of transforming a youth culture hooked on conflict, everything from street brawls to deadly violence, and driven by a fatalism that nothing will ever change. Timing in this work is everything, considering that “violence is a phase, not a state,” in the words of law professor and criminal justice researcher John Pfaff. He’s referring to research showing how alienated young men are more likely to commit or suffer violence in their early to late teens, but then typically grow out of these tendencies. The trick is pulling them back from the brink before it’s too late.
Pollack’s method aimed to do just that. “You put people in abject poverty with very little hope and bad things are gonna happen,” he says. Shifting “value systems” away from seeing violence as power and toward believing in positive social change is what he calls his group’s “greater purpose.”
Ackley spent the next decade becoming what Pollack would call “my collaborative partner in every aspect of the program.” Along the way, Ackley ran multiple Teen Empowerment offices in the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods. The group ultimately spread to Somerville, a small city bordering northwest Boston.
When Ackley’s wife wanted to return to her native Rochester in 2003, his only plan was to keep one foot in the Boston Teen Empowerment projects he wanted to see through while looking for other work near his new home. Based on the youth violence that greeted him in Rochester, though, he and Pollack promptly started laying plans for Teen Empowerment’s first — and, to this day, only — outpost beyond the Boston area. Pollack saw Rochester as ripe for the Teen Empowerment treatment. After all, he contends, “the higher the level of violence and dysfunction and poverty, the better Teen Empowerment works.”
Beneath the surface of those events and policy initiatives lies the more subtle, slow-moving work of transforming a youth culture hooked on conflict, everything from street brawls to deadly violence, and driven by a fatalism that nothing will ever change.
The only way to find out whether it would work in Rochester was to establish a name for itself citywide, then dive into longer-lasting neighborhood work. Ackley hoped to start out working in tandem with an established local nonprofit. But none did the sort of work Teen Empowerment envisioned — and few were interested in trying it. “I was met with a lot of territorialism,” Ackley remembers. “A lot of ‘get out of here, beat it, go away, we got this.’”
There was no denying Ackley’s status as an outsider. “He is a white man from Boston, right?” says Danielle Ponder, an African American criminal defense lawyer, activist, and singer who now serves on the Teen Empowerment board. “We’re like, ‘Wait, where’d you come from?’” Another point of friction with other youth programs is that Teen Empowerment pays its youth. Ackley says those programs believe “youth should be volunteering and giving back to their community” — he calls that a “very middle and upper-middle class concept” — and that paying youth would lure them away from established programs. “The idea of valuing and paying young people for their work, they didn’t get, they saw as a threat,” Ackley says.
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The perceived threat ran even deeper, says a veteran of Rochester’s youth-focused nonprofits. Teen Empowerment’s unique approach can work to its disadvantage in the fundraising and nonprofit world of social services, says Brigit Hurley, advocacy director at the Children’s Agenda, a nonprofit that studies youth interventions. “They’re doing the least appealing work with the hardest population. They’re not giving them coats and food and things that people can feel really good about,” Hurley says. “Social change is not a particularly popular thing with people who are very accustomed to the way things are.”
So the launch would have to be mounted from scratch. Relying at first on the Boston headquarters’ financial support, Ackley recruited a group of teens to organize a citywide youth conference and “speak-out” on Rochester’s problems. That eventually led to an invitation from the mayor for Teen Empowerment to serve as his youth advisory council. As the group’s visibility rose, enough local donors chipped in to pay the rent on a downtown storefront and to wean the operation — then just Ackley and two other staff people, plus the youth organizers — from the Boston budget.
The citywide focus spread Teen Empowerment’s intended influence too thin to serve as anything more than a launch strategy. Says Ackley, “You try to be everywhere and you end up being nowhere.” There was an even more practical problem. Inviting youth from throughout the city to apply for jobs and commute to work at a central location meant they must cross neighborhood boundaries, a dangerous proposition in a city rife with territorial gangs and cliques.
It would take six years to gain enough traction to advance to the next step: focusing intensely on one neighborhood. As that shift got under way in 2008, the group planned one last citywide recruiting effort for its downtown office. Among the applicants was an 18-year-old Lawrence Richardson. He’d been in and out of trouble and had been referred to Teen Empowerment by a counselor at another youth agency.
Richardson made a good enough initial impression to get one of the coveted jobs. But, when the youth organizers dove into their work, Richardson revealed a terrible case of stage fright, even when his only audience was his fellow youth organizers. “Everything that Lawrence did, he would turn his back to the group” to say what he wanted to say, Ackley remembers.
This one, Ackley thought, is going to take a lot of work.
When the baby of a family is a boy with three older sisters, it’s easy to imagine a pampered childhood. Richardson’s sisters, though, had no time to spoil their brother. Soon after his birth, their mother’s struggles to care for them prompted the county to pack all four children away to foster care. Not long after, their father went to prison for molesting one of them.
These were the first of many episodes in Richardson’s upbringing that constitute adverse childhood experiences — the traumas that send a childhood off the rails and lay the foundation for bigger trouble in young adulthood. For Richardson, they accumulated in an almost unbroken string. In and out of foster care. Back into the clutches of his father, only to see him rearrested and on his way back to prison on new sex charges (the family remains deliberately vague about the particulars, but hint that Richardson probably was among the victims). A sister’s death from a massive heart attack. Chronic truancy landing Richardson in a local group home, then in a yearlong detention at a juvenile home across the state in Albany, before he dropped out of school altogether in 10th grade. Running wild with a tough crowd, small-scale drug sales, and ending up in minor trouble with the police over and over.
Richardson found his only sustained periods of stability and safety thanks to Gary Cooper, the man Richardson’s mother brought into his life during his father’s first prison term. The boy everyone called “BooBoo” was still in diapers when he came to live with Cooper and a three-generation clan of Coopers and Richardsons all within a few blocks of one another in northeast Rochester. Cooper, a soft-spoken, gentle man whose living room walls are crammed with family photos, recalls Richardson as a “feisty” but “fun, joyful” boy who blended into the combination summer school, sports camp, and stage that Cooper made for everyone’s children. “I had about 12 kids in the house at one time,” Cooper remembers. “Plus the neighborhood kids coming over, everybody wanting to spend the night.” He alternately drilled the children in math and reading lessons, then hosted kickball tournaments until dusk and backyard jams with songs, skits, and dance.
By age 8, Richardson was back to circulating among family, from Cooper’s home to Richardson’s father’s, who’d emerged from prison, over to his mother’s or sister’s, and back again. By his adolescent years, Richardson trusted Cooper enough to confide in him about things like his first sexual experiences (Cooper laughs as he recalls hearing the details and declaring, “You did it right!”). But he routinely tested Cooper’s patience with his affinity for hanging out on the streets. Cooper pushed back. “I was really hard on Lawrence,” he says. “Really hard on him.” One thing Cooper couldn’t abide was Richardson’s dabbling in drug sales. “There were many nights I walked out there lookin’ for him, make sure he was safe,” Cooper remembers. One night, he searched door-to-door in the rain until he found Richardson in a drug house. Face to face with strangers who ran the place, Cooper insisted he wasn’t leaving without Richardson. “My son shouldn’t be up in there,” he told them. Finally unable to tolerate Richardson’s defiance of Cooper’s curfew and rules about drugs, Cooper gave Richardson an ultimatum: Live by the house rules or leave. “So,” Cooper says, “he left one day. He didn’t come back.”
None of the adversity in Richardson’s life dimmed his vivacious personality. “He was always high-spirited about everything,” says Richardson’s sister Shenqua Ellison. “Happy. Everything was like a party to him.” He could instantly drain the tension from a family argument, she says, when he would call a truce by declaring, “You’re still my sister. I don’t care. I love you.” Richardson, who barely topped 5-foot-6 and whose high-pitched voice invited teasing mimicry from his cousins, would barge in, turn up the music, and invite friends over. Family members share laughs as they recount Richardson’s many “little girls,” as Shenqua calls his girlfriends, and how he preened in the mirror. “He just thought he was Don Juan,” Cooper says.
But they worried about where his aimless ways would take him. Richardson, Ellison says, was “just taking one day at a time.” So Ellison didn’t hide her suspicions when a skinny clean-cut white man started pulling up to the curb outside her home to drive Richardson somewhere. Richardson offered only vague reassurance. “Oh, he cool, he cool.”
It was Doug Ackley, providing Richardson with shuttle service to ensure that he showed up for work at Teen Empowerment.
Richardson’s initial awkwardness in sharing his thoughts in front of a dozen peers did not cure itself quickly. “Lawrence was not by any stretch an overly dynamic youth organizer” at the start, Ackley says. As the group went about its work, bonding over their stories of struggles and practicing turning those stories into performances to reach teens in the neighborhoods, Ackley and other staff coached Richardson and helped turn his inchoate thoughts into more polished speeches and skits.
In one exercise, Richardson wanted to deliver a monologue in which he played a character — really, an extension of himself — caught up in cycles of retaliatory violence. His initial draft was rough. The staff coaxed a more vivid story out of him through question and answer. By the time he took the stage, his character was fully formed and fully informed by the dangers Richardson was seeing on the streets of northeast Rochester. “Once I retaliate on him, who’s gonna get me?” Richardson’s character said. “So I’m stopping the cycle. That won’t be me.”
In other performances, Richardson talked openly about his own life. Speaking to police at a symposium, Richardson told the audience, “So many young men are out there with no Teen Empowerment, no guidance, no support. We are not lost causes and it is not too late to have an impact on us. We might look tough or even act tough, but under that, most of us are hurt, scared, and don’t know what else to do. So when you encounter us, please remember this.” He also talked about the pain of losing his father to prison — not mentioning what the charges were — and how he dealt with the loss by “doing all the things I thought would keep my mind off of how I felt.” Staying out late, staying away from home, drinking, smoking.
‘We are not lost causes and it is not too late to have an impact on us. We might look tough or even act tough, but under that, most of us are hurt, scared, and don’t know what else to do. So when you encounter us, please remember this.’
In appearances at a juvenile lockup and group home for youth, Richardson showed a flair for engaging reluctant crowds. “Come on, man!” he’d tell them. “Come on, get up. We can do this.” Police who’d seen him speak in Rochester invited him to make a presentation at a forum on gangs in Niagara Falls. He commanded attention.
One skill Richardson needed no training to master was caring for and connecting with his fellow youth organizers. Dominick Hagan, who worked with Richardson at Teen Empowerment, calls Richardson’s temperament and personality “iconic.” “Once he really got to know you, man, he’ll move you, as a person,“ Hagan says. “He moved everybody, man. He brought us together.”
Beneath the protective shell of Richardson’s omnipresent do-rag and cap was a prankster deft at defusing a situation. He seemed driven to keep others happy and laughing, says Emerald Wilcox, who also was an organizer. “He brought the party to the room,” she says. She and Hagan both remembered one of Richardson’s trademark sayings — “clickety,” an invented word he used to lighten a mood. After Hagan got in trouble with Ackley for his involvement in a gang-related brawl, his pay got docked. Hagan was ashamed and upset. “I can just remember Lawrence saying, ‘Man, Dom, don’t worry about that. Man, forget it. Clickety.’”
Richardson didn’t tell his family much about the work he was doing. But Ellison could see the changes in him. “He slowed down a lot,” she says. “You seen a whole different attitude, atmosphere, about him.” Cooper, hopeful that Teen Empowerment might change Richardson’s prospects, asked his stepson for details about his work. But Richardson shared little. “Doug helpin’ me,” he told Cooper.
As Richardson’s year of paid work wound down at the end of 2008, he feared landing back on the streets. “It’s hard to change 18 years of bad information, bad role models, and a bad environment in a year,” he would say later.
Ackley shared his worries. He saw Richardson making a classic mistake: keeping one foot on the streets and one in a more positive lifestyle, by remaining an active presence and volunteer at Teen Empowerment and by seeking legitimate forms of income, albeit in the only part-time, menial jobs he could find. Ambivalence about which side of the line to choose can make a youth vulnerable. “You can’t do that street stuff half-in,” Ackley says.
Teen Empowerment had given Richardson everything it could offer him. But, says Ackley, “Lawrence’s life was by no means stable and on track.” Maybe if the program had more time to keep working with him, or if there were better jobs in the neighborhood for someone like him, or more programs to reach more young men, or if Rochester’s violence had been dealt with more effectively — maybe then he’d face better odds. For someone in Richardson’s circumstances, though, “there’s a really good chance that you’re going to cross paths with something that could be deadly,” Ackley says.
When that happened, no one — not Richardson, not his family, not Ackley — saw it for what it was.
In the summer of 2011, Richardson got into an argument with another young man in a corner store late one night. Richardson ran from the store, hopped on his bike, and started to pedal away. The man and his friends chased him, knocked him from his bike, beat him, and slashed his neck and back with a knife. Richardson told his family he’d simply fallen. He told Ackley the truth but assured him, “Nah, it’s nothing.”
It wasn’t nothing to the group he’d tangled with. The man in the store, Marquis “Dap” McMillian, ran a notoriously violent drug crew in that neighborhood. His brother Devante Spencer was part of the group that chased, beat, and stabbed Richardson. Spencer, in particular, couldn’t let it go. The 19-year-old wanted to teach Richardson a lesson. “He just didn’t like him and he just kept going after him, going after him,” prosecutor Robin Catalano says. It wasn’t really a feud. “Lawrence never really did anything back,” Catalano says. “Devante told other members of his crew he didn’t like that kid’s face — he was sick of seeing his face in the neighborhood.”
Almost a full year later, Spencer still nursed the grudge when he saw Richardson and his friend Cliff Gardner walking back to Kenny Mitchell’s home from a corner store. Police pieced together the rest of the story in a painstaking investigation leading to a trial more than three years after the triple shooting.
After recruiting a 17-year-old member of his drug crew, Chauncey Reid, to serve as triggerman because Richardson wouldn’t recognize him on the street, Spencer drove Reid to the ambush and in their getaway without being identified. A running beef with a neighboring crew ended with Reid getting shot three weeks later and permanently paralyzed. After a brief chase, Spencer was arrested with the gun, complete with one of Reid’s partial fingerprints still on it. Police matched the gun to the triple shooting. But they still lacked enough evidence to prove guilt.
In Detective LoFaso, Richardson’s family had the kind of ally that black victims’ families often lack. With a blunt manner, shaved head, and boxer’s build, LoFaso’s intimidating look belied an unlikely intellectual bent and a tender side. He had a law degree and later would retire to pursue a doctorate in sociology. Throughout the lengthy investigation, LoFaso kept the family informed of his progress. “That guy played no games,” Ellison remembers. “He was on his job. He worked that case.”
Two years into the investigation, a federal drug indictment against several members of the crew provided the police with an opening: an opportunity to gain leverage and the cooperation of an insider trying to avoid a longer prison sentence. That witness testified he heard Spencer and Reid admit to killing Richardson and wounding his friends.
At the men’s trial in 2015, the randomness of Richardson’s murder — a chance encounter at one corner store leading to an attack after another trip to a store — struck Richardson’s step-cousin Rashad Smith as he listened to the testimony: “Your life can change walking to the corner store.” The family also got to see the defendants up close. Reid seemed contrite. Some even felt sorry for him. Spencer mocked and sneered at the family in the courtroom. “He would say things under his breath,” says Cooper. Once Spencer gestured furtively at Cooper, miming masturbation. “What’s wrong with this kid?” Cooper thought.
What was wrong came out in the courtroom. Spencer, at age 13, was almost killed by gunshots to his stomach and head. He had witnessed the murder of a friend and had been arrested multiple times on a variety of gun charges and was even convicted of a violent robbery in a park. Reid’s troubles were similar: lost a brother to murder, disabled by a gunshot wound, imprisoned on another gun charge.
Spencer, at age 13, was almost killed by gunshots to his stomach and head. He had witnessed the murder of a friend and had been arrested multiple times on a variety of gun charges and was even convicted of a violent robbery in a park.
During the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Robin Catalano used the defendants’ histories as an argument for harsher punishment. Reid, she told the judge, “did not alter his path, mindset, or choices in any way,” while Spencer’s troubles “made no impression on him.” The judge effectively sentenced Reid and Spencer to life in prison without the possibility of parole for at least 44 years.
When the prosecutor concluded that Devante Spencer and Chauncey Reid learned nothing from their lifelong exposure to violence, she stood the science of trauma and teen development on its head. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say their experiences had everything to do with their crimes.
“Most violence is not just a matter of individual pathology — it is created,” violence interventionist Danielle Sered writes in her 2019 book, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair. “Poverty drives violence. Inequity drives violence. Lack of opportunity drives violence. Shame and isolation drive violence. And like so many conditions known all too well to public health professionals, violence itself drives violence.”
What Sered means — and it’s backed by a mountain of evidence — is that the untreated trauma people experience after suffering or witnessing violence, especially chronic community violence that instills a constant sense of danger, makes them far more prone to committing violence themselves. The research of Northwestern University sociologist Andrew Papachristos refers to violence — specifically among young urban men — as a “social contagion” that spreads, virus-like, based on someone’s proximity to people who already have fallen victim to violence.
All of that research helps explain why violence remains embedded in particular neighborhoods. It also shows the changing nature of urban violence. The gang feuds and drug-trafficking turf wars of the 1980s and early 1990s have given way to “high-risk social networks that promote violent norms to settle disputes,” as criminologists Anthony Braga and Rod Brunson described it in their study of Boston from 2015. A pithier term crime scientists use is “the code of the street”: defending personal honor from even the slightest insults or threats, in a misbegotten expression of wounded masculinity.
As the nature and geographic concentration of violence has evolved, so too have the strategies to reduce violence. Most of those strategies center on policing and prosecution. But, over the years, one set of effective strategies often overlooked is community-based solutions — violence-prevention work by community groups that complements law enforcement and incarceration — according to research published in 2018 by Patrick Sharkey, who is now a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.
In his book Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, Sharkey showed that community groups played a major role in the dramatic drop in crime nationwide since the early 1990s. He argued that community-based strategies — at the very least listening to the needs of the community, but at times even turning over the job of crime prevention to community groups — are essential to continue the job of violence reduction in the pockets where it tenaciously persists. “These kinds of organizations are easily dismissed,” Sharkey said in an interview. “And I think they’re easily dismissed because we don’t think of them as confronting violence.” One community group, in isolation, is unlikely to change a neighborhood, much less a city. But when many groups tackle complementary goals, they can have a big effect. If run well with sustainable funding, “they are collectively extremely effective,” Sharkey says.
Proving their effectiveness at causing violence to drop is difficult. The clearest evidence comes from randomized controlled trials, isolating the true causes for crime drops rather than only showing a correlation between a strategy and a crime drop. Those higher-quality tests — costly and complicated to conduct — have never been used to evaluate Teen Empowerment in the Boston area or Rochester. The best evidence Teen Empowerment founder Pollack can point to is the strong association between his group’s work and a plunging violence rate in the Boston suburb of Somerville in the 2000s, where the city has paid Teen Empowerment at least $350,000 per year to function as its youth program based on the city’s faith in Teen Empowerment’s violence-reduction benefits.
Klofas, the Rochester Institute of Technology criminologist, says Teen Empowerment shouldn’t be judged solely on the absence of a formal evaluation. “One of the dangers of reliance only on statistical outcomes is you shut down the other efforts and the innovation,” he says. “Right now the state of this knowledge is so tentative and so limited that I don’t think we can afford to do that.”
Nor can Rochester afford to spurn efforts like Teen Empowerment’s, he says. Its approach “makes perfect sense,” Klofas says — “the idea that there’s a group of young people on the street who have somebody’s ear and whose views are seen as legitimate, I think that in and of itself has great power to it, to be honest with you” — and it has taken on the daunting challenges of seeking to foster hope in an especially tough neighborhood and clientele.
That hope is in short supply, at least among adults. “Rochester has had such a long run of serious violence that people now fully accept the fact that 40, 45 murders is OK,” Klofas says. “I really think that’s the problem here, is that everybody in town is thinking we’re not doing badly because it’s not getting worse. That’s the saddest part of it. I think people here have been just shocked into a semi-comatose state on this one.”
Decades of grinding poverty and related social ills will do that to a city, says Kit Miller, director of Rochester’s M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. “People’s resilience is lowered. They’re tired,” she says. “I think most of us get through by thinking that things will be better, or things could be better, for the kids. And I think we’ve gone back so far in some respects that for some people, especially older people that I know, there’s a lot of heartbreak. And it’s harder to trust that we’re on a trajectory that we can feel good about.”
That trajectory seemed hopeless in the years after Lawrence Richardson’s 2012 death. A new “heat map” depicting the concentration of gun violence lights up a still-clearly-defined crescent in angry red and orange. In 2014, when the national homicide rate hit its lowest point in half a century, at nearly 5 murders per 100,000 people, the rate for young black men in Rochester’s Crescent neighborhoods stood at a grisly 520 per 100,000. In one study, for 2011–14, young black men comprised 69 percent of the city’s gun homicide victims, even though they make up less than 6 percent of the population.
The summer of 2015, when Richardson’s killers went on trial, proved especially bloody. In one 93-day period, 84 people in Rochester were shot, the equivalent of more than 1,100 shootings in a city the size of Chicago. In one incident, seven teens and young adults were shot after leaving a Stop the Violence basketball tournament at the Boys & Girls Club just three blocks from Teen Empowerment’s building. Three of the victims died, including a Teen Empowerment youth organizer, Raekwon Manigault.
The summer of 2015, when Richardson’s killers went on trial, proved especially bloody. In one 93-day period, 84 people in Rochester were shot, the equivalent of more than 1,100 shootings in a city the size of Chicago.
Manigault was the third Rochester youth connected to Teen Empowerment to die in gun violence in just more than three years. Besides him and Richardson, there was Kemari Hodrick, an 18-year-old shot dead in December 2013 while two blocks from Teen Empowerment. He was on his way to his final Teen Empowerment job interview.
Police later characterized 2015 as an aberration, but the citywide homicide rate in 2016 rose by 30 percent to notch its highest level in six years, at rates rivaling Chicago’s and Washington, D.C.’s. In February 2017, nine shootings within nine hours included a quadruple drive-by shooting just up the street from Teen Empowerment. Ten months later, on Christmas Day, one of those wounded in that February shooting was shot again at the very same spot. This time he died.
Violence in Teen Empowerment’s neighborhood since then has been “way better than it was a few years ago,” says Joseph Morabito, a deputy chief of the Rochester Police Department. He and other police officials praise Teen Empowerment for its efforts to calm youth violence in that neighborhood and for working to improve police-youth relations. No one can say with certainty how much of the credit for lowered violence goes to Teen Empowerment. Violence is down citywide, thanks in large part to the police department’s embrace of evidence-based strategies paid for since 2014 by a state anti-violence program. Murders in 2017 and 2018 stood at about half of the murder count in 2003, when Teen Empowerment started. In 2018 there were 20 percent fewer shooting victims and nearly 14 percent fewer violent crimes overall compared to 2017. Although those numbers ticked up in 2019 — homicides rose to 32 and the number of shooting victims was up nearly 12 percent from 2018 — shootings are down slightly from 2016–17. More significantly, there were 22 percent fewer shootings in 2019 than in the bloody 2015 surge.
Fewer shooting incidents aren’t the only sign of improvement. A few years ago, brawls were an almost everyday occurrence on the street outside Teen Empowerment’s office. Shawn Brown, who grew up in this neighborhood and left his job at Boys & Girls Club in 2014 to join the Teen Empowerment staff, says bands of young men jumped rivals while groups of teens raced to the scenes of fights that seemed to ignite spontaneously. “You had gangs coming from the east side, chasing people up the street,” Brown remembers. He and Ackley regularly paused work sessions to rush outside to break up fights. “Sometimes it would be like, ‘Did I really just put myself in the middle of that?’” Brown says.
One city agency deployed in that neighborhood is Pathways to Peace, which uses “street outreach” workers — often former gang members — to counsel youth believed to be on the verge of violence. Combined, Pathways’ 17 outreach workers citywide and Teen Empowerment’s solitary presence in one neighborhood can dampen some violence but can’t conquer the problem, Ray Mayoliz acknowledges. Even now, says the manager of youth outreach and violence prevention (who oversees Pathways), students walking to the high school just up the street from Teen Empowerment must take a detour because of the threats lurking on certain street corners. “A walk that takes five minutes [is] taking you 25 minutes ‘cause you’re afraid to walk in front of a crew,” Mayoliz says. Still, the environment is better with Teen Empowerment than without it, he says, and it’s making a long-term difference in teens’ lives in ways that are hard to measure. He just wishes Teen Empowerment had the resources to do its work citywide. “We know that we’re able to save lives,” he says.
Kemari Hodrick’s death hit Mayoliz especially hard. The veteran violence interventionist had worked closely with Kemari, who, like Lawrence Richardson, was working to turn his life around, but whose “past came back to haunt him,” Mayoliz says. Sitting in his cubbyhole of an office on the city’s west side, he fingers the lanyard around his neck that holds a photo of Kemari. “I’ve worn this since 2013,” he says. “He’s the reason I can’t cry anymore.”
Even Ackley sounds uncharacteristically dejected when I ask him why Teen Empowerment hasn’t expanded and why other groups have not imitated it. Over the years, he says, Teen Empowerment has become the go-to source for placing teens on committees and panel discussions to talk about changing street culture. Others in the nonprofit community see those teens and ask Ackley, “Where do you get these amazing kids?” He shakes his head. “Where did we get them? They’re all over the place. You could hire them and develop their skills and give them a platform to use their voice also.”
Fifteen years after he started work in Rochester, he watched thousands of people flock downtown for a March For Our Lives protest in 2018 organized by suburban high school students after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Four Teen Empowerment youth were invited to speak about the everyday street violence they’re most concerned with. The event made Ackley wonder where such crowds were after Lawrence Richardson’s death, or after the Boys & Girls Club shootings. “That would have been amazing to have 5,000 people on Genesee Street,” he says. “But they’re not seeing this as their children.”
Amid this despair, a curious thing happened after the Boys & Girls Club shootings: Record numbers of teens flocked to apply for Teen Empowerment’s limited number of jobs. Starting at a memorial at that shooting scene, where Teen Empowerment helped teens fill out applications, the youth organizers canvassed the neighborhood to bring in about 400 applicants for the 2015–16 program, about 150 more than usual. For a time after the mass shooting, neighborhood youth feared attending outdoor events on that street. But the sense of danger only drew them closer to Teen Empowerment. The teens already on staff there and their neighborhood peers alike realized, Ackley says, “This is why we do this work.”
Amid this despair, a curious thing happened after the Boys & Girls Club shootings: Record numbers of teens flocked to apply for Teen Empowerment’s limited number of jobs.
In a southwest Rochester neighborhood of sagging houses and seedy corner stores, one building strikes an original pose. Glass blocks encase the ground floor of its curved facade, a flamboyant remnant of the building’s past as a beauty parlor and dress shop. The second floor’s ungainly balcony is ringed in a rusty iron railing. Imagine a top-heavy barge that somehow ran aground miles from deep water. A sign proclaims the name Teen Empowerment in retro block lettering over a peace symbol. The oft-locked front door affirms that not everyone who passes by is ready to make peace, as do the posters covering a set of windows to block the view of inside from the street. The posters show teens at work, two rows of three photos plus one on top — a close-up of Lawrence Richardson.
On an early fall day in 2016, 14 young men and women fidgeted in chairs inside Teen Empowerment, waiting for their first group interview as applicants for a youth organizer position. This was one year after the spike in applications, and the numbers had settled back to the normal, not-good odds for the applicants: 270 vying for 13 positions. The jobs paid $10 per hour (the rate has since increased to $11.80) for an average of 50 paid hours per month from September through June. I had come to observe the program year at its start, with plans to check in periodically throughout the year and on the youths’ lives after their paid year was up.
The staff had already winnowed the original list to 50 finalists, telling the other 220 applicants to try again next year, encouraging them to attend Teen Empowerment events in the meantime. The finalists were assigned to groups of 12 to 14 youths, to make the interviews resemble actual Teen Empowerment work sessions. The selection process aims to find roughly equal shares of boys and girls filling three tiers. Shawn Brown, the adult leading today’s session, refers to them in private as the “goodies,” the “hardies,” and the kids straddling those two circles. Too many goodies mutes Teen Empowerment’s potential to reach the most-at-risk teens in the neighborhood. Too many hardies yields managerial mayhem. A questionnaire, one-on-one interview, and series of interactive group exercises will help Brown, Ackley, and their colleagues on the staff achieve the right mix. First, they must see who’s up for this kind of work.
The first youth to catch my eye qualifies most definitely as a hardie. Isiah Hester, 16, sits slouched in his chair, eyes downcast, earbuds firmly in place while the kids arrayed with him in a circle make small talk before the meeting starts. The bad impression he makes seems almost deliberate. Early in the meeting, though, another applicant in the circle trash-talks Raekwon Manigault, the Teen Empowerment youth organizer killed nearby a little more than a year before. Manigault, he says, courted trouble and got what was coming to him. He was, he sneers, a “dirty nigga.”
Hester snaps to attention. He’s here, I’ll later learn, in homage to his friend Manigault. Turning to face Manigault’s accuser, Hester’s words grow so heated that the girl next to him places her hand on his arm to calm him. No one deserves to die so young, he says, especially one who tried to change his ways. Brown jumps in on Hester’s side, acting as a pressure valve. “That change,” he agrees, “gotta count for something.” Hester has just landed his first job.
During the remainder of the interviews, and in the group’s first work sessions, I’ll learn more about Hester, who tells the group to call him Zaha. Just five months before he appeared at Teen Empowerment’s door, when he was still 15, he was shot in the thigh on the street near his family’s apartment. He thought he was going to bleed to death, but after a long and arduous recovery suffers only residual stiffness. He claims not to know who did it or why, though he admits he was “hanging out with the wrong people.” I later ask him how many other shooting victims he has known. Silently counting for 12 long seconds, he gives me the tally of friends and relatives: 13 shot, nine fatally. (This past May, Hester lost one more friend.)
I later ask him how many other shooting victims he has known. Silently counting for 12 long seconds, he gives me the tally of friends and relatives: 13 shot, nine fatally.
Up till now, he’s never been arrested but, like most young black men in this neighborhood, Hester has been stopped and questioned by police repeatedly. He’s also been suspended from school repeatedly for fighting. At his first day on the job at Teen Empowerment, he shifts in his chair and out of his hoodie pocket a weed grinder pops out and hits the floor with a clang. The kids around him snicker. He mumbles an excuse but Brown cuts him off: “I ain’t that old.”
Hester tells me later how his fears dictated his first reactions to the Teen Empowerment interviews and meetings. Seeing mostly strangers, he put his guard up. “When I’m in a room with people I’m not really familiar with, I just feel like I’m on attack mode, you feel me?” Hester says. “I just gotta keep my eyes open, watch my surroundings, watch my back. I just can’t be — what’s that word? — I can’t be vulnerable.”
One face in that room was familiar to Hester, and not in a good way. It belongs to an older youth organizer, Je’Carl Hill, who’s returned for a second year. Neither Hester nor Hill was in a formal gang. But they hung with loosely defined groups that fought each other over perceived insults. Hester puts it simply: “We wasn’t cool.” The unspoken rule was that they must fight each other on sight. One look at Hill and Hester told himself, “When we leave, we gonna fight. I already know.”
Hester’s tension visibly begins to dissolve in the group’s first interactive exercises. That’s by design. The adult staff’s 435-page instruction manual scripts games meant to break down inhibitions and assemble the group members into a functioning team. In one exercise, “name-talent-motion,” each person in the circle gives their name and describes a talent that’s acted out in a motion. Hester flicks an imaginary basketball toward a hoop.
A game in which the teens toss bean bags in a particular sequence to memorize each other’s names explodes in shrieks of laughter. When a warm-up question asks each person to state why they are here, Hester is already opening up. He says he’s a role model in his neighborhood, so he feels pressure not to lead others into bad behavior. He’s also here to reassure his mother that after his shooting he’ll spend at least part of each day in safety. “Places like this, you don’t see a lot,” he says.
Handsome and lanky, sporting fashionably torn jeans and immaculate kicks, Hester begins to jump in to answer Brown’s questions first, flaunting a sparkling intellect — bragging at one point about his GPA. He even manages to resolve the unfinished business with Hill, in an exercise called “concentric circles” where two people sit face to face and share their answers to an assigned question. Huddling privately, the two use the opportunity to hash out their need to get along for the greater good. “After a certain point” in the conversation, Hill tells me later, “We didn’t even need to say it. It wasn’t like ‘Oh yeah, we cool now.’ We knew it. Everybody knew it. It just happened.”
The more common interactions in the group are far from subtle. From the very first exercises meant to shed the tough poses of the street to bond over shared vulnerabilities, the teens treat their meetings like an unusually rambunctious form of therapy. Led by Brown, who was then 40 but acted 16 in shorts and T-shirt, his long dreads whipping from side to side as he bobs and weaves around the room, the teens let loose a torrent of trauma when prompted to describe their neighborhood in a word. Gangs. Dangerous. Hectic. Negative. Guns. Brown grabs a marker to scribble on a pad on an easel as the teens brainstorm the issues they’re concerned about. Drugs. Fighting. Oppression. Killing. Hunger. Police brutality. Brown pauses on certain words for discussions about snitching, retaliatory violence, and relations with police and teachers.
A big part of their work will require public rap, speech, and skit performances. To practice, Brown assigns them to three-person groups to write and perform skits depicting people who do and don’t want to change their ways. After 15 minutes, they’re ready with scripts full of pathos and drama. Though the topic is open-ended, they all gravitate to the same themes: drug dealing, violent death, racism (they’re all black), and self-loathing. On every team, the young men play the miscreants; the young women portray their disappointed elders. In one skit, Hester and another boy play a pair of young men in heaven voicing their regrets. Another team produces a full-on soap opera with screaming and crying over a drug-related shootout, though it’s not without dashes of ad-libbed humor. One of the actors wears body armor as a fashion statement. After he gets “shot” and is lying on the floor, a girl tugs at his supposedly bulletproof vest and declares, “I knew this was cheap shit.”
M.G.M. – Durango by Isiah Hester. Hester made an album as 20BankFi$her called Bank Fi$hing. Listen to it here.
Within a few weeks, they have managed to pack their calendars with events: 11 “youth peace initiatives” that would be attended by more than 500 neighborhood kids and dozens of adults; 17 more three-hour dialogues led by the team that attract hundreds more neighborhood youth; a field trip to Albany to testify in front of the state education board about the teaching of pan-African history; dozens of local meetings to provide youth voices in policy debates on such issues as school discipline.
Along the way, they sharpen their speaking skills. Hill, in his second year as a youth organizer and one of the older teens, is a keynote speaker at a dressy fundraiser held at a swank corporate law office, telling the mostly white donors, “You never know who the next big thing is, or who can make the perfect support team for them. That’s why we take chances. TE did that with us.” Hester’s style is rawer, more suited to street rallies. At one, he exhorts a small gathering to counter “bad things happening” in Rochester with activism. “If no else gonna do it, we gonna do it. Awright? Yeah! We gonna do it. You feel me? Nobody else doin’ this but Teen Empowerment!” But Hester can get dressed up and woo the donor crowd too. Facing an audience of hundreds at a luncheon, he speaks confidently from a podium. “I went from being on the corner to having a corner, a corner of support,” he tells the crowd.
The year isn’t without its bumps. Rehiring an unprecedented five youth from the previous year’s program discouraged the full development of new talent, as Ackley and Brown realized too late. Turnover in the police department led to hiccups in the youth-police dialogues. Plus the usual challenges inherent in managing this kind of group: arrests and jail, school suspensions and truancy, mental health crises. Hester himself ended up expelled from his charter school for fighting (he says it was once again in defense of Manigault’s memory). Two organizers got fired for breaking the group’s rules.
But they all survived. Seven current and former youth organizers graduated from high school, two more got their GEDs, and four of the graduates enrolled in college. As always, every one of Teen Empowerment’s youth gatherings was entirely peaceful.
At the year-end party, on a sweltering June afternoon, a DJ spins classic 1990s hip-hop (“for the old folks,” one teen helpfully explains). Youth organizers on the second-floor balcony shout down to friends passing on the street, luring them inside for burgers and dancing, all of which, for their own protection, must end before sundown. Hester grabs the mic while standing on a chair in a corner, gyrating in a sweat-soaked white tank top. Hill, celebrating his 19th birthday, raps a plea for peace during the hot summer months.
Summertimes can be gory. Or full of glory. Either way, we should be able to tell our side of the story. … No more mamas cryin’. Homies keep dyin’. … Just chill with me.
Since that event, Teen Empowerment has stepped up its campaign to expand beyond southwest Rochester. It’s eyeing the northeast quadrant next. The state of New York promised a $400,000 grant, the first big infusion of government money for Teen Empowerment in Rochester, but it’s contingent on the group raising at least $2 million over the next few years. Ackley and his staff, now five full-time people strong, admit it’s a stretch. Donors jump at the chance to fund programs helping “cute and cuddly” youngsters, Ackley says, but that enthusiasm wanes when the beneficiaries are troubled teens.
Even so, the local board and staff are scrambling to meet the grant-match challenge. First, they need better data showing the most immediate impact they have, on the youth organizers’ lives, so they’re surveying their alumni to compare their experiences before and after their Teen Empowerment work. They’re also hiring a full-time fundraiser and an “advocacy coordinator,” to help Teen Empowerment youth in their search for needed social services, something the existing staff cannot handle if the operation grows to 40 or 50 youth organizers at three sites around the city.
Two of Teen Empowerment’s stalwart fundraisers, Kathy and Ted Nixon, say the organization’s main money-raising luncheon had to move to the convention hall to accommodate more than 900 attendees last year. The couple — he’s a retired middle school teacher, she a retired nonprofit executive — appreciated the focus of the group’s mission and got involved after observing the group interviews and realizing how few the organization could afford to hire. “There were all these kids I was really impressed with, and they didn’t make it,” says Ted.
If the expansion happens, Hill is angling to get a permanent staff position at the hoped-for northeast office, in the neighborhood where he now lives. In the meantime, he’s working at a grocery store and, for a time, he helped to conduct Teen Empowerment’s alumni survey. Now 21 years old, Hill says he hasn’t been in a fight since he was 17. His younger self got pulled toward teen “drama,” he says. Being tall and muscular at a young age made him a magnet for getting jumped. “There was always at least five people coming at me at a time,” he says. Now, he tells me, “I’m always very calm. I don’t want anything to escalate, so I stay at the same level at all times.”
Hester’s post–Teen Empowerment trajectory has been more wobbly. After deciding against applying to work at Teen Empowerment a second year, Hester was a regular enough visitor to the office and at events that the staff convinced him to take paid positions on special projects. Brown gives Hester credit for trying to stay straight, but remains worried about him. Hester, Brown tells me, still has not resolved the central tension at the heart of Teen Empowerment’s work, between legitimacy and street life, safety and danger. “The thing that we talked about with him all year was, ‘Are you gonna live your life as Isiah Hester or are you gonna live your life as Zaha?’” Brown says. “Because Zaha and Isiah are two totally different people.”
Hester says he is determined to avoid people and situations that can lead to violence. But he can’t be sure everyone else around him will do the same. Staying positive is good for his peace of mind, he says. “Who want to be walkin’ around, gotta be lookin’ over his shoulder every second, you feel me?” he says. “I want to walk around and be loved. I want to be known for being positive.”
At one point, he decided to leave Rochester. “I just can’t stay here,” he told me. “I just want to stay safe for my mom.” All around him, he sees negativity and threats. “It’s normal for somebody to get shot,” Hester says. “I wake up, I look at my phone, ‘Oh, somebody died.’ It’s not supposed to be like that. I go to sleep knowin’ somebody goin’ to get shot. That’s not right. It’s not right.”
After flirting with thoughts of quitting school to join the Navy, Hester stuck to his vow to work toward his diploma from the high school that admitted him after his expulsion. One cause for his brighter mood: He started earning adulation and money in his side hustle as a rapper, aided by his prolific writing and the production skills of two of his friends. Performing first as MGM (Money-Gettin’ Muthafucka) Wop and then as 20BankFi$her, his art revolves around money and weed — lots and lots of weed. Sounding like a practiced pitchman, his multiple Facebook posts before school and late at night beg friends to “bump” his work on social media (“available on Tidal, Applemusic, Googlemusic & Spotify!!”). But adversity was never far from the surface. Last June, Hester was denied that diploma over a failed class — he made it up in the fall and says he will don a cap and gown one year late — and then in July his perfect record of no arrests got marred by misdemeanor charges and a two-day jail stay.
Perhaps 18-year-old Hester is only incrementally different from the 16-year-old I saw enter Teen Empowerment for the first time. Personal growth takes time, as does changing a community one person at a time — things Dominick Hagan has learned in the 11 years since his Teen Empowerment staff position and seven years since his coworker Lawrence Richardson was killed.
Like BooBoo and Zaha, Hagan came from the harder end of the youth spectrum when he joined Teen Empowerment. He’d been involved in a “little gang, clique, whatever you want to call it.” He got in lots of fights. He’s 27 now, but says “a lot of the people I was with still doing the same thing.” We met at his modest house. A small child’s bicycle lay in the front yard. His 6-year-old daughter, one of his three children, plopped down on the couch next to him while the aroma of pies baking wafted in from the kitchen.
Stocky and muscular, with heavily tattooed arms, Hagan says one project that sticks in his memory from his time at Teen Empowerment were the dialogues with police. Sitting face-to-face, both sides could open up and talk about how they saw their opposites when they met on the streets. He learned as much as he taught, he says. It felt rewarding to educate police officers that the street kids they encountered were more complicated than their image. And while he still harbored skepticism about their good will—”it’s the line of work they chose”— the talks opened his eyes to the fear police experience as they race from one emergency to the next.
Once in a while, Hagan volunteers for some Teen Empowerment projects. Mostly, though, he’s supporting a family. He’s held a variety of jobs — restaurant cook, working with adults and kids with disabilities, building furniture — but his passion outside of work and family is the motorcycle club he founded with his brother. Some clubs focus their time on “foolishness,” he says, but his crew substitutes family gatherings for drunken partying. Every month the members commit to work on a community project. Their favorite project is to pay for and prepare meals for the homeless, which they hand out either in a shelter or from a picnic table on a sidewalk. Anyone is welcome, he says, even “the knuckleheads that’s on the corner hustling.”
Their favorite project is to pay for and prepare meals for the homeless, which they hand out either in a shelter or from a picnic table on a sidewalk. Anyone is welcome, he says, even ‘the knuckleheads that’s on the corner hustling.’
He doesn’t see Rochester improving, he says, “not even a little bit.” But Hagan finds satisfaction in influencing his circle of biker brothers. The New Empire Motorcycle Club has bought Hagan’s pitch to help the poor, even though the members hardly come from positions of privilege. “What I try not to do is look at the city,” he says. “I would rather look at the group of people that came in to receive the help. And if I move them, then I move the portion that I was given to help. Everything else, I can’t take it on the chin, because I’d never be happy.”
One person in particular he can influence is his own 9-year-old son, whom he brings to club events in mini-me biker gear. “He got his little vest,” Hagan says. “I put his vest on and I go ‘Let’s go. You know what time it is.’ And he passes out the bread.”
Mark Obbie’s Sicilian-emigre family began its American life in the same Rochester, N.Y., neighborhoods where this story takes place. His career as a reporter and editor took him from Ohio to Texas to New York City and then back to the Rochester area, where he focuses his journalism on stories across the U.S. about crime victims, policing, and the prevention of community violence. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The Trace, and Pacific Standard.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Matt Giles
Copy editor: Jacob Gross