Eighteen months ago a black Impala drove up to 19-year-old Rasheed Shepherd in the south side of Richmond. He was suspicious that the people inside were from some sort of law enforcement agency. In fact, members of the Richmond Police Department Gang Unit, Probation Department and the US Attorney’s office had put Shepherd on a list of 25 Richmond residents most likely to be shot or shoot someone else within six months.
But the women in the car weren’t there to arrest or threaten him. They came to ask Shepherd to end gun violence by signing up for the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship through the City of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS).
As a participant in the program Shepherd would have to commit to ending gun violence in Richmond and work with ONS staff to come up with a plan for his future. In exchange ONS would financially help him to achieve his goals, and provide opportunities to travel outside of Richmond.
Shepherd’s son Rasheed was born five months before the Impala pulled up and he was looking for a way to change his life. “I never wanted to be a deadbeat dad,” said Shepherd. So he agreed to come to an informational meeting about the program with several others from his neighborhood.
At the meeting ONS Director DeVone Boggan told them that what they were doing was going to lead them and others to jail and death. “And we cared about them and wanted to provide them with some help,” said Boggan.
The Office of Neighborhood Safety held three different information sessions about the fellowship because the perspective fellows were from three rival neighborhoods.
“If I’d a seen one of them, they probably would have shot at me. I probably would have shot at them,” said Shawn Morris Jr. from North Richmond.
Boggan also told the young men ONS assembled that if they stayed out of the gun violence and started achieving their life goals he would take them to Africa. The caveat: if they wanted to go, they would have to ride on the plane with guys from other neighborhoods.
“I was like hold on,” said Rasheed Shepherd “you mean you gonna put us on the plane and we’re gonna be arguing and fighting on the plane?”
All 21 of the young men who showed up at the info sessions signed up to be Operation Peacemaker Fellows, but none of them were willing to get on a plane to Africa with people from a rival neighborhood. At first.
Instead, they each worked with ONS staff to make a life-map of their goals for the future.
“I was one of the ones that thought like a lot of people around me that the only way they could see success is either through a jump-shot, street dealing or gangster rapper or something like that,” Shepherd said. “You feel me?”
But when ONS staff asked what he wanted to do with his life, Shepherd said he wanted to become a merchant seaman, working maintenance on cargo ships. ONS offered to pay $5000 for him to get his license.
“If they wouldn’t have put it on the table for me I never would have did it cause I never would have asked for no $5000,” said Shepherd. Now he has his license and he’s waiting to head out to sea.
But it hasn’t been easy for Shepherd to change his ways. “At the beginning of the program I was in and out,” said Shepherd. “Shots fired off in my neighborhood, one of my boys get hit. That’ll hurt you.”
But he’s stuck with the program because the ONS staff didn’t give up on him. “They understand when you in the streets for so long you get a certain kind of hunger,” said Shepherd.
Shepherd also got a chance to go on out-of-state excursions through the program, but he’s had to travel with fellows from rival neighborhoods. The first trip was to Bishop T.D. Jake’s ManPower conference in Texas with Rohnell Robinson from central Richmond.
The only reason they were willing to get in the car with each other was because they trusted that the ONS staff with them wouldn’t let them get hurt. When Robinson got in the front seat of the car with Shepherd sitting behind him it was a quiet for about 10 to 15 minutes.
“Basically you alert and trying to see what’s going on,” said Shepherd. But then talk of a football game broke out and the tension eased. From then on they hung out every day of the trip.
Shepherd has had some trouble with friends from his neighborhood who don’t like that he is hanging out with guys from rival neighborhoods. But he’s gotten most of them to understand that he’s safe and that he won’t put them in any danger.
Eventually Shepherd realized that for him to stick with the program, he needed his friends to be a part of it too. “I thought of it like, ain’t no way I can really just change myself cause my heart’s still in the streets with the ones that grew up with me and the ones that protected me,” said Shepherd.
So Boggan found the funding to increase the program to 40 fellows. Even though Operation Peacemaker Fellowships are run through the Office of Neighborhood Safety at the City of Richmond they cannot use public funds for the program. “There is a great deal in our population who would say they don’t want to spend funds on these guys,” says Boggan. Instead he was able to get money from The California Endowment to continue the program.
When they were able to expand the fellowship Shepherd convinced most of his friends to join. “We did the worst together, so why can’t we do the good together?” asked Shepherd.
Shawn Morris Jr. of North Richmond heard about the fellowship after serving two years in prison. Many of his friends were already in the program and he was looking for something positive to do to avoid returning to prison. He kept showing up to fellowship events until they let him in the program. He’s now 24 years old, getting his GED and starting a record label with his friends. He started rapping when he was 11-years-old, but since signing up with the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship his rhymes have changed.
“I used to rap about nothing but street stuff. Nothing but talking about shooting and stuff like that,” said Morris “But now I rap about straight girls, straight money, straight club.”
Morris was shot in a drive-by when he was 5 years old. Because he was too small to use crutches, it took him a year to learn to walk again and he was held back a year in school.
“It’s alright I still run fast, and all that,” Morris said.
As he grew up he was pulled into street life and gun violence. Morris used to react impulsively, but now he stays out of street violence by stopping to think before taking any action. He also talks to others in his neighborhood when he knows they are about to react violently to a situation. Sometimes you can’t stop people from doing something, Morris said, but oftentimes he is able to get people to think before they act.
Guys from rival neighborhoods in the fellowship no longer want to shoot at each other. “Since we in this program, I see you it’s love, man it’s like family,” said Morris.
“It’s people that really mean something to their hood that they got together to go on these excursions,” Shepherd said, sitting next to Morris.
Sometimes they talk with each other about the rumors they hear about what someone from a rival neighborhood did. Most of the time they realize that the rumors aren’t true and they are able to prevent any violent backlash.
“Really we find out we got a lot in common too,” said Shepherd.
In early September The California Wellness Foundation and The California Endowment sponsored ONS to take Shepherd, Morris and Robinson and three staff to the World Health Organization’s 5th Milestones Global Campaign for Violence Prevention Meeting in Cape Town, South Africa where Boggan was presenting.
This time Shepherd, Morris and Robinson were willing to get on the same plane. All three said seeing South Africa profoundly changed their lives. They visited the Robben Island museum at the former prison where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner. They traveled around Cape Town and Johannesburg learning about the history of the country and present day issues facing South Africans.
Seeing the high levels of poverty in the townships of South Africa made him appreciate what he has in the United States, Morris said.
“I’m telling people, man we ain’t even hurting right now,” said Morris.
But he also felt welcomed home by the South Africans he met. The most memorable part of his time in Cape Town was spent with their taxi driver, Maxwell. “He treated us like his family,” said Morris “He let us know nothing was going to happen to us if we’re in his hands.”
When Morris returned from the trip he said many of his friends who had been critical of the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship said they wanted to join so they could go to Africa. “I’m trying to get all my partners to get passports I’m not even gonna lie,” said Morris.
DeVone Boggan says he feels like the trip was a promise fulfilled.
When he was a kid most of the promises people made to him fell through, Rohnell Robinson said. But now at 25 years old, everything Boggan promised has happened. “It makes me feel like a big kid. It’s like ‘yes!’ I didn’t get lied to for once,” said Robinson.
Sometimes the biggest challenge in their work is to convince these young men that they can be forgiven and create a new life for themselves, Boggan said.
Robinson just wants people to give him a chance. “I’m a man and I made mistakes,” said Robinson “but I think everybody has room for change.”