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Meet the father-son team that is changing the way parents reconnect with their children after prison

Out of The Ashes - Sunday, March 03, 2019

There is no shortage of stories in the news media about fatherless homes. Every day there is a new study detailing the negative impact on larger society on the number of growing families that don’t have a male presence in the home. However, little attention is paid to the realities behind the statistics, to the real-life devastation visited upon those whose fathers were never there to teach them the bare necessities of life. 

But one family is looking to change this. In their three act play “Out of the Ashes”, real-life father and son duo Coley Harris and Ahmarr Melton dive deep into the impact Harris’s absence had on both their lives. 

When Melton was 2 years old, his father was sent to prison. While they saw each other intermittently over the following years, they didn’t fully resume their relationship until 14 years later when Harris was released. To say that their relationship was strained is putting it mildly. 

As you can imagine, it was no easy task dealing with the pain of a near decade and a half long absence. There were just too many milestones missed along the way. And one of the most impactful lessons that Melton never received was learning how to shave.

He states the profundity of this during the play as he tells the audience, “When you were watching your father shave, I was cutting my throat.©” In that moment, one is forced to reckon with the image of a sad, lonely boy holding a blade to his throat, without anyone there to guide his hand to safety.

As most of the audience is generally comprised of men and boys who have been in the same predicament, most of them are aware of exactly how that feels. And it is this sense of connectedness that is at the core of the play; the kind of empathy that gives it its power. In that vein, “Out of the Ashes” creates a form of drama-therapy to give their audience the tools necessary to help navigate these difficult  situations and relationships.

These are the types of stories that the statics don’t show. The tales the news reels don’t run. The play highlights the central question that is never asked because the answer is presumed to be an impossibility: “What happens when the fathers come back?”

However, with more than 2 million children in America who have at least one parent in prison, it is a reality that cannot be ignored. It is this question that is the theme of “Out of the Ashes.” It is this question that Melton and Harris are using their own family to answer.

For these two, it seems as though the key to success in rebuilding their relationship was patience and consistency. Initially, Melton was understandably reticent to let his father back into his life—particularly at such a tender age. However, Harris rightfully took the lead role in attempting to repair their bond and made a standing weekly date with his son at the park. And it was during these weekly walks that that wall built over 14 years of incarceration began to chip away. And slowly the love that it was shielding began to pour through. 

It was also during these walks that the idea for “Out of the Ashes” began to germinate. And on January 3, 2015, “Out of the Ashes,” the play premiered to an audience of 200+ people. As of 2019, the duo has helped hundreds of families begin to heal after being torn apart by incarceration.

By telling their story publicly, Harris and Melton put faces to those suffering under this national crisis. And in their healing were able to offer up what those in their situation want most—the hope of reconciliation.

For more information or to book Out Of The Ashes, please contact 302-507-4623 or click here.

The Real and Raw Impact of Out of the Ashes Posted by Christopher A. Brown

Out of The Ashes - Thursday, November 15, 2018

National Fatherhood Initiative's recently released Out of the Ashes: Where a Seed Finds Life DVD and Discussion Guide is having a big impact across the nation.

I recently interviewed several staff in organizations that use Out of the Ashes with diverse groups of dads who are currently or formerly incarcerated. Every person I spoke with said the film resonates with dads at a deep emotional level regardless of dads' race or ethnicity. They also said it's an excellent compliment to NFI and other fatherhood programs because it enhances their impact.

Here is how three organizations use this outstanding resource.

out-of-the-ashes.jpgCatholic Charities West Michigan (Grand Rapids, MI)

Timmy Smith, Coordinator of the Fathers Matter Program, reports that he uses Out of the Ashes with two groups of dads. One group includes dads reentering Muskegon County after their release from the county jail. (Some of these dads transitioned from state prison to the county jail before their release.) Timmy says that the film reminds them of the relationships they didn't have with their children. It showed these dads some of the things that might transpire as they reunite with their children. 

The other group, which Timmy refers to as the "community group," includes dads referred to Fathers Matter by staff of the Wisconsin Department of Human Services, including staff of Child Protective Services. It is with this second group of dads that Timmy uses Out of the Ashes to compliment a fatherhood program. He's found that many of the dads in the community group were once incarcerated, so it's had a meaningful impact on them. For the dads who haven't been incarcerated, Timmy says he hopes it serves as a deterrent by giving them a preview of what would likely happen to the relationship with their children should they go down the wrong path.

He says that even though the film focuses on two African-Americans it resonates with dads of all races and ethnicities because they experience the same family dynamics caused by incarceration. One of the most powerful messages it sends to any incarcerated or formerly incarcerated father, for example, is that the choices and decisions a man makes early in life will impact him and his children for years to come and might, in fact, impact his children for their entire life.

Northeast Denver Islamic Center (Denver, CO)

Abdur-Rahim Ali, Imam of the Northeast Denver Islamic Center, also uses Out of the Ashes with currently and formerly incarcerated dads. Imam Ali uses it to compliment NFI's evidence-based InsideOut Dad® program that he facilitates with dads in the Jefferson County Jail. He also uses it with dads who have already reentered the community after their release from prison. He said that you can hear a pin drop when the dads watch the film. It makes dads think deeply because they can see themselves in the film. It makes them think about the broad impact of being incarcerated (e.g. on their children) and that dads should take their life seriously. It sends a message that dads must set an example for their children and grandchildren by exhibiting healthy behavior.

He also reports that the film resonates with dads of all races and ethnicities. And that's vital for Imam Ali because most of the fathers he works with are White or Hispanic.

Sav-a-Life Pregnancy Resource Center (Hoover, AL)

Steve Longenecker, Director of Programs for Sav-a-Life Pregnancy Resource Center, also uses Out of the Ashes with two groups of dads. In this case, however, both groups include formerly incarcerated dads. One of the groups includes dads who live in a halfway house having just been released from prison. The dads in the other group returned to the community some time ago and participate in a program the center calls "Converge Dads." Steve says the film starts a conversation about reconciliation and, specifically, the realities around dads reconciling with their children. He and the other staff who use the film like that it doesn't look at the dynamics around reconciliation through rose-colored glasses. As he says, it's "real and raw." 

If you've thought about using Out of the Ashes but haven't yet made the decision to acquire it, rest assured that it will help your organization or program have an even greater positive impact on currently and formerly incarcerated dads, their children, and their families. Don't hesitate to use this real and raw resource! 

The One Resource Grayson County Detention Center Uses to Open Dads' Hearts and Minds to Group-Based Fatherhood Programs

Out of The Ashes - Thursday, November 15, 2018

Facilitator Certification Training

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I regularly interview staff and volunteers in organizations that use National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) programs and other resources. These interviews often provide insight into creative uses of our programs and resources that I share in this blog to help organizations become even more effective in serving dads.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Morris Basham. Morris facilitates InsideOut Dad®—NFI’s evidence-based program for incarcerated fathers—at the Grayson County Detention Center, a facility in Leitchfield, Kentucky that houses federal and state inmates.

As Morris and I talked about InsideOut Dad®, he told me he uses another NFI resource for incarcerated dads, Out of the Ashes: Where a Seed Finds Life, to enhance his delivery of the program.

Out of the Ashes Facilitator Certification TrainingIf you’re not familiar with Out of the Ashes, it’s a powerful 32-minute film—a one-act play, of sorts—that generates dialogue and a healing process among incarcerated dads. Organizations can also use it with the children and loved ones (e.g. moms of dads’ children and dads’ relatives) impacted by a dad’s incarceration. It includes a Facilitated Discussion Guide with questions that help incarcerated fathers, their children, and family members explore the issues, thoughts, and feelings caused by a dad’s incarceration. (Click here and here to read two posts in this blog about this film.)

Morris uses Out of the Ashes to provide dads who express interest in joining an InsideOut Dad® group with a taste of what it’s like to participate in a group-based program and, most important, the emotionally intimate environment the program creates. Morris says that the discussion the film generates helps dads understand the commitment they must make to get the most out of the program.

Demand for InsideOut Dad® is high at the Grayson County Detention Center. Unlike running a fatherhood program for dads in a community, recruitment is rarely an issue in a corrections setting. Facilitators of InsideOut Dad® report that they often have more demand than they can handle. In many facilities, there is a process of promotion, application, and selection into the program. Dads not selected to participate end up on a waiting list and must either wait for a new group(s) to start or go through the entire process again.

Morris has a well-developed and tested selection process that he’s enhanced with Out of the Ashes. The process to select dads to participate:

  • Starts four weeks prior to the start of several InsideOut Dad® groups.
  • The facility posts in cellblocks the availability of the program.
  • The posts inform dads that they can apply to participate.
  • After a review of the applications, Morris selects 70-80 dads to participate in the program and divides them into three “orientation sessions.”

Each 1.5-hour session starts with dads watching the film. A 1-hour discussion ensues that Morris facilitates using the discussion guide. Morris says that the film generates such an in-depth and intimate discussion that he typically has to abruptly end the session. The film shows the dads what participating in InsideOut Dad® is like and the impact their incarceration has on their children.

After the orientation sessions, some dads choose to not continue in the program. This self-selection leaves Morris with dads who enter the first program session with “eyes wide open.” A bonus is the orientation session makes dads more comfortable early on in the program with being transparent and honest with themselves and other dads about who they are and their relationships with their children and children’s primary caregiver(s). 

Whether you use InsideOut Dad® or a 24/7 Dad® program in a corrections setting and have a selection process to identify dads to participate, use of Out of the Ashes as an orientation session is a fantastic idea worth exploring. You can also integrate an “Out of the Ashes Session” into one of our programs, as some other facilitators have done (e.g. between the program’s transition from a focus on the man to a focus on the father). It’s also useful as a stand-alone resource in corrections and non-corrections settings for generating discussion about the impact of incarceration on dads, children, and loved ones.

Have you considered using Out of the Ashes as an orientation session or integrating it into one of our programs?

How effectively do you use (e.g. combine) NFI’s programs and resources?

Out of the Ashes: U of D Student Impact

Out of The Ashes - Sunday, January 07, 2018

University of Delaware Student Impact: How Out of the Ashes Touched Our Class.

November 2017

Coley Harris and Ahmarr Melton presented to the Dr. Ann Aviles's students in her Family Studies and Human Development class. The students responded with a warm video impact statement. We are thankful for your support.

Come out and witness this powerful presentation on January 18, 2017 at Stubbs Elementary School


Beauty in the struggle

Out of The Ashes - Sunday, September 04, 2016

I can remember walking home, to my cousin/brother's house in WIlmington, Delaware at 11pm from 8th street to 38th street. I had to be back to work by 7am. I was never late. I can remember asking people to allow for me to volunteer at their youth programs, so that I could get into the field where I was passionate. They blew me off, lied to me and spun me.Then Mike Barbieri gave me a shot!

I love this process! I love the growth through the struggle. It took spiritual enlightenment to for me to understand that the gatekeepers knew not what they did by trying to keep the message from the people. It was yet another piece of the "master plan unfurling before my eyes, manifest and real."

Thank the Most High for this journey as we move forward. As I left my son this morning after our walk I experienced a familiar feeling. It is a cataclysmic mental shift that takes place before the breakthrough. Oh yes, a familiar feeling. I often tell our children on the inside to shift that energy and do not allow yourself to be denied ANYTHING ON GOD'S CREATION of the good.

Did I tell you that I love the struggle?

The light in their eyes.

Out of The Ashes - Saturday, August 13, 2016
I had an opportunity to enjoy one of life's simple pleasures. Watching my grandchildren play.
My middle grandson is turning 4 tomorrow. See if him and his siblings play and enjoy the love of their parents warms my heart.

Children do better when they have both children in their life. Even if a parent is outside of the home children
do better academically and emotionally when they have the support of mother and father.

Sometimes it hurts and it can be challenging, but we have to keep the real goal in mind.
The light I see in my grandchildren's' eyes is the same light that guides a human vessel throughout lifes storms.
Make sure you do your all to ensure the light shines bright in them all.

"One for the home team"

Out of The Ashes - Thursday, August 11, 2016
I just want to send a shout out to the young men in my community who are stepping up to make a difference. Over the last few months we have been working hard to promote life and peace. Our sons are listening. Salute!

US election: The year of the angry voter

Out of The Ashes - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

It's Tuesday, and I find myself once again covering the race for the United States presidency. I have lost count but I think this is the fourth of fifth Tuesday of election coverage. This isn't normal. Usually the fight for the nomination is wrapped up by now. If there is one thing you can say about 2016 this is by no means a typical year.

                                                 Changing the system

The people in those communities definitely don’t agree. I went for a tour of one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods with two men who grew up there. They explained the issues facing their community better than anyone else could do. Coley Harris and Dubard Mcgriff told me that when the crack epidemic swept through the city and the war on drugs was launched, the vast majority of the men in the community were sent to prison. 

Mcgriff didn't have a male role model at home, so he says he looked up to the drug dealers. They didn't struggle to eat, they had money, nice clothes and nice cars. He followed their lead and at 16 was sentenced to five years in prison for robbery. He was sent to an adult prison. Statistically both he and Harris, who spent 14 years behind bars for second degree murder, should have been sent back to prison soon after getting out. 

The recidivism rate for former prison inmates is incredibly high. They admit they were on that path, but then they met Charles Madden. He runs a charity called the HOPE Commission. They work with men getting out of prison. They develop a plan to help these ex-convicts. They determine what they need to live outside prison, jobs, a place to live or treatment for addiction. 

They haven’t been around for very long, but in just over a year he says that only 6 percent of the men they’ve worked with have been sent back to prison for committing another crime. I asked him what was the secret? He said it wasn’t magic, it is leadership and actually caring about the men they are helping.

He believes that until men are brought back into the community, the cycle of violence and poverty will only continue.

In his view, the government has set up a system that will insure it continues.

He said: "The social structures that are designed to help people are failing them and we know they are failing them. Anytime you have neighborhoods where 75 percent of the people drop out of high school or school, that system is failing the people. Any time you have correction institutions that were designed to rehabilitate people where 75 percent of people coming back to those institutions those institutions are failing and our leadership stands by and allows that to happen."           

Despite living among buildings that are falling down and rampant crime, my tour guides explained to me that this is a community that is resilient. They pointed out a man who was mowing the grass in a public square. It wasn’t his responsibility but he wanted his community to look nice. Mcgriff explained that the people who were driving the crime would rather not be, saying: "Even a lot of time they do horrible stuff they still want their children to have opportunities for the most part. They don’t want to do the things they are doing – they are disenfranchised."

The men I spoke with don’t think the politicians are actually interested in helping them, so they are working to help themselves and their community. Still, they know only the politicians can actually change the system. That might explain why so many are looking for something new, something different and someone from the outside. They think the system as it stands is the reason they see so much suffering.

So here I am with my team in Wilmington, Delaware. I spoke to a Trump voter as he was leaving after casting his ballot. He said he was enthusiastic about Trump because he’s a businessman and he can fix Washington. 

Bernie Sanders supporters will tell you basically the same thing with as much enthusiasm, Sanders can fix Washington because he is an outsider. The best way to describe this election cycle is as the year of the angry voter. It’s here that I saw exactly why so many are so angry.

This city is literally the poster child for income inequality in the US. Delaware is known for its friendly environment for corporations. There are in fact more corporations registered here than actual
people. The reason, they can register pretty much anonymously and they pay very low corporate taxes. These companies don’t actually have to physically locate here. There are plenty of corporations that have. There are some very expensive neighborhoods around here, a sign that corporate America is doing pretty well.

You can find the exact opposite just blocks away from these stately homes. Wilmington has an exceptionally high crime and poverty rate in certain areas. I asked a city council member if he thought they should raise the corporate tax rate even a little bit – a tenth of one percent – in order to pay for programmes to try and help the people who live in such desperate circumstances. He didn’t think they needed to do that. He pointed out that many of the corporations give to charities in the area.

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While Wilmington, DE has a High Rate of Father Absence, it Also Has One of the Best Fathers

Out of The Ashes - Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Wilmington, DE has one of the nation's highest rates of father absence in our nation (65.5%), followed closely by Detroit, MI (63.3%), and Birmingham, AL (61.5%). That's why when we hear a father-son story of healing, reconciliation, and connection coming out of this town, we've got to proclaim it from the rooftops! (OK, maybe not the rooftops, but indulge me for a minute.) 

This story will forever change your perspective on father absence and incarceration. It demonstrates how a person - and a relationship - can come out of the ashes. That relationship is a seed that can find life with commitment and determination.

So let's go back to Wilmington, DE where the story begins with, “ I’m this 18-year-old drug dealer, and I’m stressed out of my mind worrying about myself, my future, my child, and these kids are looking up to me, because I’m the leader at this point.” 

Much of the below originally appeared in a 2014 Newsweek article, MURDER TOWN USA (AKA WILMINGTON, DELAWARE).

we’ve got to fix men and fatherhood.”

Delaware’s recidivism rate is staggeringly high—nearly 70 percent of men released from jail will return within three years. In Wilmington, when these men return home, they find themselves in communities where 6 out of 10 men are either not participating in society or simply not around (i.e., incarcerated). “I don’t think the threat of incarceration is big enough. Because [a lot of these men are] hopeless,” says Charles Madden, executive director of the HOPE Commission which opened its doors last April 2014, mentors men returning home from prison. “Fundamentally, we’ve got to fix men and fatherhood.”

Sentenced to 16 years in prison.


One of those men, Coley Harris, (appearing as himself in the new film Out Of The Ashes: Where a Seed Finds Life recently released on DVD by NFI), represents the worst [a dad] can be and the best [a dad] can become. Coley grew up in a small row-house neighborhood wedged between two housing projects. His family went to church.

By the time he was in middle school, he had turned to the streets. Coley staged his first robbery when he was 12. He started skipping school, smoking weed. He also watched older guys make serious money selling cocaine and heroin. 

By the time his son was born, in 1991, Coley was doing pills, snorting cocaine and drinking. “I’m this 18-year-old drug dealer, and I’m stressed out of my mind worrying about myself, my future, my child, and these kids looking up to me, because I’m the leader at this point.”

In 1994, he shot and killed someone at a local barbecue, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and concealing a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

His son was a stranger.

Coley was released in 2008, after serving 14 years. He was 34. Although his son visited occasionally while he was in prison, his son was a stranger. 

But it wasn't until Coley got out of prison that the story really begins.

Chronicled in Out Of The Ashes: Where a Seed Finds Life, this new film details the struggle both men faced as they navigated their 14 year separation and reunion. Consequently, it symbolizes the struggle faced by incarcerated fathers and their children. To complement the film, NFI created a Facilitated Discussion guide to help incarcerated fathers, their children, and family members explore the issues, thoughts, and feelings caused by the father absence associated with incarceration. And to begin healing.

Their love is solid.

Today, Coley and his son are working to deepen their relationship. It takes diligence, perseverance, and forgiveness on both of their parts, but through encouragement and by challenging one another to excel, their love is solid.

Coley now works as the Director of Community and Special Programs for a national human services organization. In his "free time", Coley works with Cease Violence Wilmington, Make Your Mark Voter Registration Campaign for returning citizens, is a Victim Sensitivity guest speaker and guest lecture for the University of Delaware Black Americans Studies.

Coley's efforts to "pay it forward" by giving back to his community and being the best father he can be are to be commended. 

“There’s a large population of disenfranchised, poor, misguided young boys in this city who are dangerous,” Coley says. “I say that with empathy, because they didn’t wake up like that. It’s a direct result of neglect that came through the crack/cocaine/war on drugs era. It’s a result of guys like me causing hurt and harm on other people.

“I’m not proud of my past, but I have to share it because there’s a lot of young guys out here who believe life is over at a young age, just as I did. Listen, I was a shooter. When I was in the game, I was all the way in. But you never know the course your life will take. People or circumstances will stop you and spin you in totally different directions.”


Learn more about Coley's story by watching the Out Of The Ashes: Where a Seed Finds Life trailer here on FatherSource®.

Wilmington Crime: Hope for the Hood

Out of The Ashes - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Part two in a series explains how men who’ve survived life on the streets intend to curb the violence in Wilmington.



Shawn Allen, Coley Harris and Darryl Chambers (from left) believe young men and boys can identify with their experience and find inspiration in their stories.

Lynell Tucker had left Wilmington at 27 to escape a charge of attempted murder and other offenses. By the summer of 2011, having run afoul of the law in Florida, he was back. During Tucker’s seven years away, things had changed. The boys in the neighborhood were different. Dominique Helm had grown from the impressionable adolescent Tucker once knew into an honor student, a football star and a new father. Having recently graduated high school, he was on his way to the military.

“When Bubbles [Tucker] came back, he told wonderful tales about life in the street,” says Helm’s father, Darryl Chambers. “A lot of it was about belonging, trying to make himself more important than he was. He still saw [Dominique and the others] as 12-year-olds. He tried to establish himself as a leader.” But Dominique, 19, and his friends didn’t look up to Tucker anymore, and they didn’t appreciate his disrupting the neighborhood. They’d decided that, somehow, it needed to stop. Then came the altercation.

Dominique’s cousin, Shakeem, lived with his grandmother a few doors down the street. Over the years, Dominique had spent so much time at their home that she considered him to be damned near a grandson. It was a fact Tucker—Shakeem’s cousin and also a grandson—had come to resent. One September afternoon, as Dominique and Shakeem hung out on the porch, Tucker drove past, yelling, “Anyone who isn’t family better not be here when I get back."

“I am family,” Helm shouted back. Tucker drove away. But he returned a short time later, and a fight ensued. Dominique was getting the best of Tucker when the latter’s father charged in. Dominique backed off. As he walked toward his own home, he called back to Tucker, "You’re lucky your pops just saved your life." Dominique was opening his front door when Tucker rushed up, pulled a pistol from his waist and shot Helm in the back. He died in the doorway, in his mother’s arms. "I’m just now able to close my eyes at night without seeing the blood come out of his mouth,” says Chambers.

For almost 19 years, the number of shootings in Wilmington has been rising. The city, with 11 murders by late April and warmer weather on the way, is on pace to break the record of 29 set in 2010. The most recent spate of handgun violence is characterized by something new and even more disturbing: a brazen ruthlessness among the shooters. In recent months, they have killed on busy streets in mid-afternoon, near schools and in front of churches. As the old systemic causes of urban poverty and crime persist and the city wrestles with policing strategies, a new feeling has grown in the neighborhoods most affected by the violence. “It’s time [for us] to create some order inside our own communities,” says Chambers.

Perhaps no one believes that more than the so-called “old heads” who survived street life. They know that, for every teen or young man taken off the street by a cop or a bullet, there will always be another to take his place. They’ve learned the hard way that they could’ve made other choices—choices many young people haven’t yet learned are theirs to make. They know there’s hope in the hood, even if the younger generation can’t see it. 

In Wilmington’s poorest neighborhoods, many black males feel compelled to provide for their families—or at least support themselves—through illegal activity. The result: 60 percent of the adult black men in those neighborhoods are missing, often because they’re in jail.

A 2011 Criminal Justice Statistical Review Committee report shows that African-Americans make up 20 percent of the state’s general population, yet they account for 64 percent of the prison population. Almost 88 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses are black. The authors take pains to report that the disproportionately high rate of incarceration is not a result of more criminal activity by members of the group. Simply put, black men are more likely to get arrested—six times more likely than white men, according to a report from The Sentencing Project to the United Nations in April. Black men are more likely than men of other races to be convicted, and they are more likely to receive harsher penalties.

The high numbers are nothing new. Social psychologist Yasser Payne, a street ethnographer and professor of Black American studies at the University of Delaware, points out that black men have been hyper-incarcerated since the birth of American slavery, especially in Delaware. The phenomenon has led to unique cultural accommodations. Today their absence has left 85 percent of poor black households in Wilmington to be run by a single adult, usually a mother or grandmother. Young men have grown up without a father in the home and, often, too few male authority figures outside it. Or should we say too few of the right kind of adult male authority figures.

That’s almost three generations, going back to the crack epidemic of the 1980s—unless you measure such a generation by adjusted life expectancies. If that’s the case, make it four or five. So, if you’re 13, your father is likely to be absent and your old heads—or “big brothers”—are street-identified 17-year-olds. Their fathers are also absent, and their old heads are 21-year-olds with dads who are locked up. You’re unduly influenced by someone who’s unduly influenced by someone who doesn’t know much more about life—or the code of the street—than you do. You haven’t had the experience to develop good decision-making skills. And if you’re using and abusing drugs and alcohol—which you most likely are—your thinking is clouded.

Then add guns to the equation. When someone posts on your Facebook page, “Yo, I was with your gurl last night,” you have to make a point. If you roll over and take it, you’re a punk. “It’s deeper than territory or drugs or money,” says Keith James, founder of Voices for the Voiceless, which is working to stop the violence. “They want that respect. And because they don’t know what respect is, things happen. That’s going to be worth killing for, because you don’t respect me. But people don’t respect a gun. They fear a gun. And fear lasts longer.”

Police could keep arresting the criminals, judges could keep filling prisons, the corrections department could continue to periodically empty the jails to relieve crowding, and the men could be returned to streets saturated with other male criminals. But, worse than perpetuating the cycle, this compounds the problems. What I’ve read consistently is that we haven’t seen a commensurate decrease in crime with the increase in incarceration, says Charles Madden, executive director of the Hope Commission. The world is taking note of that on both sides. Where’s the proper balance? We can’t jail everyone. We have to be smart about incarceration. What are we going to do while we have them captive?”

The Hope Commission was established in Wilmington 10 years ago to prevent violent crime. Its year-old Achievement Center on Vandever Avenue works with men leaving prison and returning to the city’s worst neighborhoods to establish life goals and find suitable work. The center also provides other support, like therapeutic counseling for emotional issues and the stress of street life. “When you have a felony conviction on your record, your options are limited,” Madden says. “You can’t take care of yourself or your family. So many men run away, with no hope for change. When the only skills you have are street life, then guess what? That’s what you do. These guys say, ‘This lifestyle was handed down to me.’ They will talk to you with great pride about teaching their sons to hustle.”

The Hope Commission worked with the University of Delaware in 2007 to train 300 people in community outreach. The Southbridge Hope Zone, an area of 1,800 residents, saw a significant decrease in crime from 2007 through 2009, at a cost of $750,000, while seeing better academic performance among young people and an increase in strategic partnerships. In 2009—the year before the city’s murder record was set—resources dwindled due to the recession. There went the plan to replicate Hope Zones across the city. “With three times the number of people on the East Side, we just couldn’t afford it,” Madden says. “It would take $10 million to do it across the city, and that money wasn’t forthcoming.”

The most cited cures for poverty and crime start with quality education and decent-paying work. But true reform of Wilmington schools—the worst in the state—remains some time off, and no one is giving away jobs. If violence is to be reduced anytime soon, the solution is elsewhere. Even a good job can’t replace a feeling of relevance. “Supporting men is fundamental, so that we can strengthen families and strengthen communities,” Madden says. “It’s not the only solution—it’s not a silver bullet. But it’s fundamental.”

And until those men are ready to take their places in their families, their sons continue to need direction and guidance. “Two men can have an influence,” says violence-prevention worker Coley Harris. “The first is at home. Dad is the first teacher. That’s the natural order of things—basic mathematics, because he has the most time to spend with a boy.”

As for the other man: “My old heads, my OGs [original gangsters], my homeys—they played a significant role in my life. That culminated in my taking someone’s life. But the dealers and criminals and robbers played a significant role in me not being wilder than I was.”


Coley Harris grew up at 28th and Church streets. He attended Brandywine and Concord high schools, and though he was an excellent student when he wanted to be, he dropped out of 11th grade in 1989. Now 42, Harris started selling weed when he was 12, and things evolved from there. Unlike most of his friends, Harris grew up with both parents at home, and he didn’t need the money. He wanted something else. “I started out to get more—more money, more prestige, more self-esteem,” Harris says. “It was about fitting in. And it was about maintaining a lifestyle.” He dealt in volume. He ran a crew.  He did well.

One day Harris was at a barbecue in The Bucket—the bottom of Fourth Street—when one of the crew alerted him that another member was in an altercation. Harris rushed to the scene to confront the stranger. They started to fight. When the stranger pulled a gun, Harris shot him in the stomach. “I was drunk—not pissy drunk, but I had been drinking,” Harris says. “My logic was, I’ve got to stop him. I didn’t intend to kill him. I knew I was going to hurt him bad, but I didn’t mean to kill him.”

The next day, Harris fled the state, leaving behind his year-old son. But with no work or housing options, he was forced to return a few months later. He was arrested May 9, 1994, convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced on March 22, 1995. “The first three years in jail, I had the same mentality I had on the street,” Harris says. “I started getting involved with anything I could get involved in.” Then a cousin who was finishing an eight-year sentence introduced him to Project Aware. The program employed inmates to steer youth away from crime.

While working with Project Aware, Harris entered a drug and alcohol treatment program. He found his own mentor. Until that point, I didn’t know what made me tick. I was angry, frustrated, misprocessing my emotions, he says. “My mother and father had their challenges. My father was an alcoholic. There was verbal abuse. It hurt me to see the two people I loved most fussing. I didn’t process that. I bottled it up. So how I dealt with that was warped. I was looking for an understanding of myself outside, on the street.

By the time Harris left prison in 2008, he was far more self-aware than the 23-year-old who entered it. As a violence-prevention worker for a social service provider, he now has the advantage of wisdom born of experience. “I have a reputation,” Harris says. “I’m a shooter in the street. That gives me a leg up. My jagged edges are smoothing out with age, but they can connect with who I was.”

Shawn Allen has been to a lot of funerals. “I’ve been to a lot of families’ homes after it happened. Parents will say, ‘They were just in that kind of life,’” says Allen. “We have to change that norm. It is not normal for a kid to get shot outside your door at 10 o’clock. So we’re saying, ‘Don’t wait for someone to solve a problem in your community. It is incumbent upon us.’”

Before Allen became deputy director of Parks and Recreation for Wilmington two years ago, he’d worked with adjudicated youth for 22 years. There isn’t anything new you could tell him about poor neighborhoods or fatherless homes. He grew up on the East Side. His dad was murdered when he was 5. His mother, now clean, was a heroin addict for 26 years. “I know what it’s like,” Allen says. And it gives him credibility on the street. “A cop can’t walk up to a kid and do a shake-and-pat like me: ‘Hey, man, why are you still carrying that gun?’ Individuals see me now, and I inspire them,” he says. “I’m able to walk into any neighborhood ... and try to convince any young man to put the gun down.”

Six years ago, Allen learned about the Cure Violence program in Chicago. It employs individuals “who were once tearing down the community”—dealers, shooters, other criminals and the formerly incarcerated—to rebuild the neighborhoods. In the 20 percent of Chicago where Cure Violence operates, it has reduced violent crime by 60 percent. “The model shows a 67 percent reduction in places like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Kansas City and New York,” Allen says. “New Orleans just celebrated 200 days without a murder (in March).”

The success of Cure Violence is based on “violence interrupters”—the old heads and OGs—establishing the kind of relationships with street-identified individuals that can prevent them from committing crimes. Allen launched his Cease Violence program in Wilmington in August, operating in the four most violent areas of the city, each with its own violence interrupter. It works to provide for the needs of young men and boys—schooling, job training, work. When someone is shot, it immediately deploys a response team to the hospital to investigate the circumstances and work with family members and others to prevent retaliation.

In a city the size of Wilmington, kinship groups and other social networks are tight. Guys like Chambers, Harris and Allenhave relationships that go back to their school days. They know guys who are still running the streets. They stay close to the families of old friends they’ve outlived. They’ve had to comfort those who’ve lost their sons to street violence. Such personal relationships give Cease Violence an advantage over the police. Ninety-nine point eight percent of the time, we know the mom, a cousin, someone who knows the victim, Allen says.

Between August and March, Allen estimates that Cease Violence prevented 16 shootings. He’s now looking to increase staff and streamline the resources of the 17 nonprofits involved in violence prevention in Wilmington. “No one can sustain the effort on their own,” he says. “We have to focus on capacity-building and sustainability, or else we’re just wasting time and money.”

Members of the community who understand the power of positive male role models believe in the potential for Cease Violence. “Law enforcement is stepping up. What’s missing is the prevention community,” says Kirk Lacey, 54, a retired law enforcement consultant who’s lived on the East Side all his life. “Growing up, we always had big brothers. There aren’t enough males to guide these guys, outside the churches and the community centers. Lots of professional men don’t live in the city anymore. They just work there; they don’t have a vested interest.

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