Former NFL linebacker Aaron Maybin’s new book, ‘Art Activism,’ is an ode to Baltimore and its challenges Former first-round pick includes his own paintings, photography and poetry

The words and images are searing. They speak to the destructive nature of poverty, miseducation and murder. But they also speak to the power of perseverance and the indomitable spirit that has always allowed African-Americans to find a way out of no way.

Those are but a few of the themes captured in the new book Art Activism, the product of the restless mind and talented hands of former NFL linebacker and Baltimore native Aaron Maybin. The work is both an ode to Maybin’s hometown and a lament of the city’s many challenges. He uses his paintings, photography, poetry and prose to convey both the pride and pain of Baltimore.

In a powerful open letter to his city, Maybin compares Baltimore to that girl from around the way: maybe a little ratchet with a little too much attitude, but with that mix of smarts, moxie and sexy that never allows her man to stray too far. “Sometimes you love her, sometimes you hate her, sometimes you want to light her on fire; but you always stay loyal to her,” Maybin writes.

More than a few people wanted to set Baltimore on fire in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. During the uprising, Maybin grabbed his camera and went into the streets to document what he saw. Inspired, he also painted and wrote. It was only later that he decided to pull his photos, artwork and writing together into a book. The result is a collection that he hopes will add to the national conversation about what racial injustice looks like in the 21st century and how we should address it.

“I don’t profess to have all the answers. I don’t profess to know where to go,” Maybin said in an interview. “But I believe I raise a lot of questions.”

He also offers some suggestions, even if few would call them novel. He wants black churches to do more to lift up the city. He wants lawmakers to put more money into a public school system that does not have enough money to address the problems of its students. He would like to see more economic development in poor communities, and he wants employers to pay a living wage to workers.

He would like to see more drug treatment centers, and “more than anything else, we need to STOP KILLING EACH OTHER!!! How can we expect the outside world to value our lives when we don’t value them ourselves?” he writes. He also would like to see an end to the poverty, the blight, the drug addiction and the hopelessness that he sees as the root of Baltimore’s more than 300 murders a year.

Maybin, 29, was an All-American linebacker at Penn State and a 2009 first-round draft choice who made an estimated $15 million during a four-year NFL career that fell far short of lofty expectations.

But he was an artist and writer long before he played football. Maybin started studying art when he was still in elementary school, and he painted his first public mural when he was 11. Coming up, he also played the saxophone, acted in plays and sang in the choir. He was 6 years old when he read a poem he wrote for his mother’s funeral.

“Poetry for me was always a form of therapy,” Maybin said.

As Maybin started growing into a frame that eventually expanded to 6-foot-4 and nearly 240 pounds, he started playing football. By the time his family moved to a Baltimore suburb for his high school years, his goal was to play in the pros. But he also knew he would return to his art.

Some critics of his underwhelming professional football career have said that Maybin’s outside interests robbed him of the single-minded focus that transforms great athletes into great players. “Maybe there’s something to that,” he said. “[But] the game has always been a game to me. My family, my health, my mental stability have always been more important to me.” Not only that, but Maybin said he feels “more fulfilled in the aftermath of my career than I did as an actual athlete.”

Still, he has no regrets about his detour into football. “Without the platform that football created and the money I made, I would never be able to have the same impact that I am having now,” said Maybin, who heads a foundation that works to enhance art education to Baltimore schools. “Once people say ‘former first-round pick,’ then people start to listen.”

Maybin sees his new book, which is available on Amazon and at select Baltimore-area bookstores, as a weapon against injustice. “I try to use my platform as a basis for social critique,” he said. “I hope this book can start a dialogue, not just in my bubble, but with people across the aisle from me.”

Rhyme by rhyme, a street cop slings his story

Patrol Officer Quincy Iverson The Man on the street 26 years in uniform (retired)

“I get that hate from both sides I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”“I get that hate from both sides, I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”

Black and Blue: A rap soundtrack for a young thug’s journey to the police force

When the lieutenant knocked on the door for the background check, Quincy Iverson was blasting N.W.A. through his stereo speakers and drinking his second 40-ounce of the day. He was four months out of the Army, a newlywed, working as a Sears carpet cleaner and in need of a better job. Iverson let the white cop in and turned down the music.

Three decades later, Iverson still isn’t sure how he got hired by the Akron Police Department. He had a juvenile record from teenage stunts like stealing from the mall. He flunked eighth grade after a house fire forced him to relocate to a hostile neighborhood and fight his way home most days. At 5-foot-5½, he worried about meeting the height requirement. He dreamed of becoming a famous rapper, not a cop. “But the grace of God, some way, somehow, they hired me,” Iverson said.

Before retiring in September, Iverson, 50, spent 26 years as a patrol officer on the same hardscrabble streets where he grew up, got married and raised his own three children. Akron’s population of 198,000 is 30 percent black and has been declining since tire manufacturers such as Goodyear and Firestone began moving factories elsewhere. The poverty rate (26 percent) and murders (30 in 2016) are rising. The police force of 450 officers is about 20 percent black. Despite Akron’s problems, Iverson reps his city as hard as native son LeBron James has. He can hardly walk a block without someone giving him some dap or a hug — and he’s not going anywhere.

Iverson spent his entire police career on the frontlines, riding in a patrol car, responding to trouble of all kinds. He’s grateful he never had to fire his weapon, although he was shot at several times. He’s arrested more young brothers than he can remember, including some who thanked him years later. Iverson often felt tugged in opposite directions by his loyalty to the black community and his responsibility to his job. It’s the same mix of emotions he felt over the police killing of Tamir Rice, 40 miles up the road in Cleveland. He was saddened by another black life snuffed out, and disagreed with how the white officer rushed up to 12-year-old Tamir in his patrol car, rather than checking out the situation more carefully. But Iverson also knew that if the only information he received on a call was black male with a handgun, and that suspect made one wrong move, “the kid probably would have got it. He reaches, I don’t have a split second to say, ‘Hopefully this gun ain’t real.’ How Scarface say, you only got a minute to pray and a second to die? It’s a bad get-down, bruh, either way.”

Rap has always been Iverson’s oxygen. He started performing in junior high school and was inspired by lyrical pioneers such as the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane. His crew gained some local fame, but a rapper in Akron before the internet, and more than a decade before Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony put Ohio on the hip-hop map, had little chance of going national. And Iverson’s day job didn’t help matters, once N.W.A. F’d tha Police and rap became dominated by those who broke the law, not enforced it. Iverson concealed his identity behind a rap name, the Copley Road Bully, that combined his neighborhood and his childhood misbehavior, and he never stopped writing lyrics, making beats and recording songs.

The Undefeated asked Iverson to describe, through his music, his career on the police force. And we followed him with cameras through Akron’s streets, from his favorite breakfast diner to the family gathering spot of his sister’s house, to document Iverson’s story of being “too black for the badge, too blue for the ’hood.”

A Purse With a Purpose initiative pays tribute to female veterans Jackets for Jobs and T.J. Maxx team up to show their support to troops this holiday season

Ten years ago, when award-winning nonprofit organization Jackets for Jobs (JFJ) decided to honor Michigan female veterans, they teamed up with retail giant T.J. Maxx and devised “A Purse with a Purpose.” The charitable initiative distributed hundreds of purses as well as $25 gift cards to the veterans.

“As the daughter of a deceased veteran, this project is near and dear to me,” said Alison Vaughn, founder and CEO of Jackets for Jobs, who added that she knows the road ahead for many veterans is not an easy one.

JFJ is a year-round program that helps thousands of job seekers find employment and has been doing so for 17 years. The agency has assisted more than 21,000 individuals by teaching candidates employment etiquette and providing interview-appropriate clothing.

Along with the work JFJ does daily, it is important to them and T.J. Maxx to foster a healthier veteran community while also empowering them in their personal lives. In November, the companies also participated together in an event hosted by Michigan Women Veterans Empowerment, where female veterans, military members and other organizations gathered to raise awareness to support female veterans and their families.

“We want to let the veterans know how much we appreciate their service to this country,” said Karen Hume, district manager for T.J. Maxx.

Not only is T.J. Maxx an off-price apparel and home fashions retailer in the U.S. and worldwide, operating more than 3,800 stores, the company understands that its business touches a lot of communities, from large cities to small towns, and it is committed to adding value to the communities it serves. Across those communities, T.J. Maxx decided to provide help with issues pertaining to poverty, education and training for at-risk young people, research and care for life-threatening illnesses, and safety from domestic violence. One step to bring T.J. Maxx closer to helping the community is partnering with Vaughn and JFJ.

Besides supporting women veterans, Jackets for Jobs and T.J. Maxx also team up to distribute coats to children during the winter.

‘My Cause My Cleats’: The top 24 Week 13 customs — and why players wore them Reppin’ everything from the American Cancer Society to the Trayvon Martin Foundation to Kaepernick

Week 13 in the National Football League, at least since last season, is all about creativity, customization and cause. Through the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which the league started in 2016, players can bend uniform guidelines and wear cleats designed to represent a cause of their choice.

Typically, players are only allowed to wear custom-painted kicks during pregame warm-ups. Then switch to uniform footwear while the game clock is rolling. But in Week 13, flashy cleats in vibrant colors, featuring unique illustrations and messages, are the norm. Athletes all across the NFL, from every position group, commission the hottest designers in the sneaker game to create the perfect pair of cleats for their cause. This year, around 1,000 players reportedly took part in the initiative, and after games ended, select cleats were sold at auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting causes such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Colin Kaepernick’s #KnowYourRightsCamp, Habitat for Humanity, autism, POW and MIA families, anti-bullying, social justice and criminal justice reform, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and more.

“This weekend, you’ll really see the impact art has had on the NFL,” Los Angeles artist Troy Cole, aka Kickasso, tweeted before Sunday’s games. Last season, he designed every pair of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s anticipated pregame cleats. “Art is a powerful way to tell a story #MyCauseMyCleats.”

Here are The Undefeated’s top 24 “My Cause My Cleats” customs, along with the players who wore them, the causes they supported and the artistic geniuses who brought charitable creativity to life.


Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: #BringBackOurGirls campaign

Joe Barksdale, Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Chargers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Fender Music Foundation

Designer: DeJesus Custom Footwear Inc.

Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: National League of POW/MIA Families

A.J. Bouye, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Cause: American Cancer Society

Designer: Kickasso

Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

Instagram Photo

Cause: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)

Designer: Corey Pane

Kurt Coleman, Safety, Carolina Panthers

Cause: Levine Children’s Hospital

Designer: Ryan Bare, SR Customs

Mike Daniels, defensive end, Green Bay Packers

Cause: Anti-bullying

Designer: SolesBySir

Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Cause: American Heart Association

Designer: Mache Customs

DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Brotherhood Crusade

Designer: SolesBySir

Malcolm Jenkins, Safety, Philadelphia Eagles

Cause: Social Justice and Criminal Justice Reform, Players Coalition

Designer: Sixth-grade class at Jubilee School, Illustrative Cre8ions

Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: International Relief Teams, Hurricane Katrina

Designer: Bizon Customs

Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins

Instagram Photo

Cause: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints

Cause: Social injustices and honoring close friend Dayton Williams, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Euclid, Ohio.

Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans

Instagram Photo

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: SolesBySir

Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: “The Life of a Single Mom”

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: Tragik MCMXCIII

A’shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions

Cause: Leukemia patients

Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: Autism

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

Instagram Photo

Cause: Torrey Smith Family Fund, Show Your Soft Side, Players Coalition, NO More Campaign

Designer: Kreative Custom Kicks, Dez Customz

Shane Vereen, Running Back, New York Giants

Cause: Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles

Designer: Kickasso

Anthony Walker, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts

Cause: Trayvon Martin Foundation

Designer: Desmond J. Jones, Art is Dope

Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans

Cause: Habitat for Humanity

Designer: 5-year-old twins Kayla and Jakwan; Evan Melnyk, Nike

Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: Why Not You Foundation

Designer: Kate Neckel and Dash Tsai

 

Daryl Worley, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers

Instagram Photo

Cause: CeaseFirePA

Designer: SR Customs

HBO’s ‘Baltimore Rising’ shows a city stuck after Freddie Gray’s death An instant-message conversation about the documentary’s portrayal of a community and police department struggling to find solutions

A better name for Baltimore Rising, the new HBO documentary on black life in the city after the death of Freddie Gray, might be Baltimore Stuck. To characterize the city as rising, as director Sonja Sohn does, might be a reach, given the deeply entrenched problems of its poorest residents.

Baltimore Rising attempts to highlight ways community leaders and the Baltimore Police Department are addressing the divide between police and the citizens they’re supposed to protect. It’s a refrain that’s all too familiar: A young black man dies at the hands of police and his community reacts with anger, frustration and contempt for a criminal justice system that appears heavily tilted against them. By the end of the film, which airs Monday night on HBO, there’s not much of a resolution. The city’s problems of joblessness, drugs, violence, racism, structural inequality and intergenerational poverty seem far too complex for one documentary.

One of us (Fletcher) has lived in Baltimore for 36 years and once worked for The Baltimore Sun. When Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police, he wrote an essay about the many circumstances that converged to lead to Gray’s death. He’s also written about Sandtown, the neighborhood where Gray was from, and the parallels in the lives of Gray and William Porter, one of six officers charged after Gray’s death.

We shared our observations of Baltimore Rising in an instant message conversation that has since been edited for length.

Soraya: What did you think of the documentary overall? I felt it wasn’t able to get a granular focus on the historical causes behind eruptions like the ones after Gray’s death.

Michael: I really like how it started. I like how the focus immediately went to the roots of the uprising. It raised urgent questions. Why did this happen? Why do we tolerate entrenched poverty? But, in the end, I’m not sure it answered those questions.

Soraya: It says this tension between the community and the police started when cops began driving their beats instead of walking them. I was a little skeptical of that. Does that ring true to you?

Michael: It is one of those convenient things to say. Like when everybody talks about the good old days when neighbors would discipline kids. I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold. Back when cops patrolled the streets on foot in Baltimore, the city was hypersegregated. For years after they introduced patrol cars, black cops in Baltimore were not allowed to use them. The roots of the problem are so much more complex than the lack of foot patrolmen, or footmen, as some say in Baltimore.

Soraya: Right. I feel like this could easily be a documentary series, broken up into episodes. That would allow for an opportunity to look at everything with more detail and nuance.

Michael: That’s it. Just to linger on the police for a moment, you often hear things about policing such as cops should be from the communities they patrol, as if that would be some panacea. But here in Baltimore, where more than 40 percent of the cops are black, many officers are from the neighborhoods they patrol. Some of that is captured in the doc. But the tensions and distrust persist. Why? You could do an entire episode on that.

I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold.

Soraya: You mentioned in your essay that Baltimore’s policing problems aren’t necessarily about race. So is it class? Is it just abuse of power? Given the Fraternal Order of Police’s reaction to any sort of community oversight, it seems like there’s just way too much concentrated power. And that always ends up screwing over the people with less.

Michael: Probably a bit of both, along with a lack of empathy. I am often struck by the disdain some cops display to people they are sworn to protect and serve, just as I am sometimes appalled by the lack of respect some people accord to cops. Add to that what I think is Baltimore’s biggest problem, the tens of thousands of people addicted to drugs, and you have what you have. Not to be too cynical, but I think you could staff the cops’ trial board with nothing but ACLU lawyers and the city would not be much better off. The issue is attacking poverty. We have to figure out how to do it as a society, and we haven’t.

Soraya: I kept thinking as I was watching that you have to address the social issues that lead to crime in the first place: namely, poverty. And Genard Barr, one of the community organizers working with the cops, said that too. When police commissioner Kevin Davis is asking him what’s needed to prevent another uprising, he’s like, ‘Jobs.’ He seems to have the most realistic perspective on what’s needed. And that’s not something that can be solved overnight.

But I was also frustrated with Davis. Because if you know that’s so much of the problem, is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

There’s this line in the movie where Davis is meeting with cops and community members and someone says that they want residents to ‘value [their] city.’ But it doesn’t seem to value them. And they know that. How are you supposed to feel ownership over something that’s not really yours, that really wasn’t built for you?

Michael: Exactly. And we have to be clear-eyed about the investment that takes and the frustration that is involved. And it is more than jobs, per se. We have to get people ready to work. National coverage sometimes creates the impression that Baltimore is an economic wasteland. It is not. I looked it up: Baltimore’s official unemployment rate is 5.2 percent (however flawed that number is). Yet, it is more than double that figure for African-Americans. And this city has had black leadership for more than a generation. But walking around town, you see ads for $13-an-hour jobs at the Amazon warehouse, for decent-paying jobs in restaurants and the tourist trade. So it’s all very complicated.

Soraya: So we’re also talking about specific neighborhoods within Baltimore, not the whole city, right? Is that because of redlining?

Michael: It is partially because of redlining. It is partially because of middle-class flight. It is partially because of the rise of poverty in some areas, and all that comes with that: disinvestment, crime, drugs, the disintegration of community and even many families. These issues plague huge swaths of West and East Baltimore. But there also remain many strong black working-class communities populated by teachers, bus drivers, postal workers, etc.

Is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

Soraya: The film focuses on the neighborhood of North Penn, although Freddie Gray was from Sandtown.

Michael: They are basically adjoining neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Very similar too. Thurgood Marshall is from over there. Billie Holiday, and many other legends, performed on Pennsylvania Avenue during its heyday. Interestingly, the young activists we meet in the film seem to be from the ‘other,’ more prosperous (but still black) Baltimore.

Soraya: Let’s talk about them for a bit. Sohn [who played police Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire] focuses on three main characters: Genard Barr, Makayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Roseborough. Makayla was a high school senior, and Kwame was 21 at the time this was filmed. It’s that age when you see things that aren’t right and you want to protest them. It’s always young people who are on the frontlines of that. Genard’s a little different, though. He’s a former gang member whose father was a cop.

Michael: They added an intriguing element to the film. To my mind, Genard — who works at a drug treatment center and has connections with gang members, and works to get the formerly incarcerated into the workforce — is the one most deeply immersed in the hard realities of Baltimore. The others, as you say, are committed, bright and passionate, but young. I found the conversations between them and their parents especially illuminating. At one point, Makayla is reading an autobiographical piece and her mother basically tells her she doesn’t recognize the person described in the essay. I found that fascinating. Kwame’s brunch with his parents, who are at best ambivalent about his choice to quit work to be an activist, was also interesting.

Soraya: Their parents seem much more pragmatic. And they’re side-eyeing their children’s idealism a bit. The parents are like, ‘Get your education so you can do something substantive about this.’ And the activists are like, ‘We have to raise our voices about this RIGHT NOW,’ which I can understand. When you see someone your own age or younger be killed, and no one faces any real consequences for it, I imagine that’s incredibly galvanizing. And also scary.

I wish the film, again, had a little more focus. Because Makayla actually seems to have a bit of a journey from when we first see her. By the end, she’s talking about recognizing that protest by itself doesn’t bring about change. I’ve said this about other documentaries, too, not just this one, but I always find myself wanting to know more about policy and what can be done to change people’s lives. I want to see illustrations of the way structural racism or bad policy is baked into governing and how that ends up resulting in black death, mass incarceration, etc. I don’t think we got enough of that. Though, given the FBI’s targeting of ‘Black Identity Extremists,’ I do think it’s important to include how modern protesters and organizers are targeted for retaliation. I had questions about Kwame, in terms of where he fits within Campaign Zero or other Black Lives Matter orgs that funnel money to protesters for bail funds, legal assistance, etc. Is he outside of that network? What’s going on there? I wish Sohn had spent more time on the Justice Department’s findings from its investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and tying that back to Gray’s death, and others.

Michael: I agree with all of that. And here’s maybe my bottom line on the film: If all I knew about the state of Baltimore police-community relations was what I saw here, I’d be confused. As portrayed here, the police are the only ones really getting their hands dirty dealing with Baltimore’s harshest realities. Talk about black death: The city has already seen more than 300 murders this year, as it did last year. The cops we see: commissioner Davis, Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, Detective Dawnyell Taylor, are shown on the street fighting what looks like an unwinnable fight.

There is no mention of the cops on the city’s gun squad indicted for stealing drugs and reselling them. Or the cops accused of planting evidence on suspects. Or the millions paid out to brutality victims. There is a backdrop of injustice, as we hear about the cops charged in the Freddie Gray case acquitted one by one. It feels infuriating, because Gray’s case is so stark. He is arrested, put into a police van and comes out with his neck broken.

But as someone who followed the trial closely, I can tell you that the evidence was thin. The presiding judge (who was the decider, as these were all bench trials) was a black man who formerly prosecuted bad cops for the Justice Department! I say all that to note that there is so much more to explore.

Soraya: Oof. I’m not sure, if you do a deep dive into all that, that you can still call the movie Baltimore Rising. It doesn’t sound like an accurate name. What I see is a city that’s stuck. And I just don’t think things like football games between gang members and cops fixes that. It’s a tiny, tiny Band-Aid.

Michael: At first, the football game came off to me as almost trivializing the deep issues the film raises. But its one virtue is that it humanizes people on all sides. Perhaps that is the only hope here: if we can see the humanity that exists behind these labels we all use — gang member, cop, ex-con, poor person.

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark says criminal justice is more than locking people up The first woman of color to be elected district attorney in New York is working ‘to change minds and hearts’

Outside the office of Bronx, New York, District Attorney Darcel Clark, a protest rally for Pedro Hernandez this summer began and closed with prayer.

Hernandez, 18, had spent 13 months awaiting trial in Rikers Island prison on questionable weapons charges in the shooting of another teenager because his mother couldn’t afford his $255,000 bond. Eventually, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights group paid a reduced bond of $100,000. Between the prayers for people unjustly locked in the criminal justice system, those gathered at the rally called on Clark to dismiss the shooting charges.

Some local politicians and advocates said the situation was painfully reminiscent of the case against Kalief Browder. Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement, because he was unable to make $10,000 bail after being charged with stealing a backpack as a 15-year-old. That case was eventually dismissed, but it left Browder a broken man who later took his own life.

The Browder case has haunted Clark. The first woman of color to be elected district attorney in her state, she campaigned as a change agent who understood the burdens the criminal justice system imposes on black and brown lives. But in her previous role as a judge, Clark presided over six of Browder’s 31 court dates while he languished in jail — and admitted during her campaign that she couldn’t remember them.

“This happens all the time,” said Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother, a few moments before the rally for Hernandez in August. Clark grew up in the Bronx, he noted. “Like, you were raised in our community. You should use it to our advantage and not to lock up kids.” Browder, a long-shot Green Party candidate for mayor, said the presumption of innocent until proven guilty often does not apply to black and brown residents of the Bronx. “District Attorney Clark is guilty of this,” Browder claimed. “The community has to say enough is enough.”

Weeks after the rally, Clark’s office dropped the weapons charges while continuing to pursue an unrelated robbery case against Hernandez. DNAInfo reported recently that the prosecutor in the shooting case is being investigated over allegations that he helped coerce people into falsely identifying Hernandez.

“Prosecution of violent crime is challenging,” Clark said in a statement after the charges were dropped, “especially when victims and witnesses decline to cooperate, but this is the reality we face in the Bronx every day as we continue to build trust with the community.”

“I am very thankful and very appreciative that they did the right thing,” Hernandez’s mother, Jessica Perez, said at the courthouse that day. “But let’s not forget, Pedro is just one of them. I hope this exoneration of his bail can be used for another kid who’s in the same need.”


Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark (center) during the Another Chance event, which allowed participants to resolve outstanding summons warrants, clear their record and attend a resource fair.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Numbers have long painted a cruel reality in the Bronx. The borough north of Manhattan is home to 1.5 million people, most of whom are black or Hispanic. More than 8 percent are unemployed, almost double the national average. More than 30 percent live below the poverty line. The South Bronx has the bleak distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the country.

Lawyers in its court system routinely handle crimes of poverty, such as subway turnstile jumping. The Bronx also has the highest rate of violent crime in the city and a notorious backlog of felony cases. It’s a system that processes misery day in and day out.

Clark came into office promising a new day. “I want to change the narrative of the Bronx,” she told the crowd at a community meeting last December, a few weeks shy of her first year in office.

Clark, 55, was elected in November 2015, as national headlines questioned the police-involved deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and the acquittals of the officers involved. She is one of several people of color recently elected as local prosecutors who are vowing to aggressively pursue a reformist vision for the criminal justice system, especially in its interactions with people of color.

In Chicago, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx argued as a candidate that prosecutors have a conflict of interest in handling police-involved shootings because they must work regularly with law enforcement. In St. Louis, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has said she will work to restore residents’ trust in the criminal justice system and work to divert nonviolent offenders from entering a courtroom.

Clark has a 30-year résumé as a former prosecutor, a criminal court judge and an appellate judge. But her election was controversial. Her predecessor, Robert Johnson, held the job for 27 years. After running unopposed in the Democratic primary in 2015, Johnson resigned a few weeks before the general election to seek a judgeship. Critics blasted the move as politically corrupt, saying it essentially allowed the Democratic Party machine to handpick the next district attorney: Clark. In the Bronx, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 12 to 1. In the general election, Clark won 85 percent of the vote, easily beating Republican Robert Siano. With the party registration numbers so lopsided, insiders say Clark can be district attorney for as long as she wants.

During the campaign, Clark said she would push the office to be more effective, cut the colossal backlog and build a stronger relationship with residents who distrust the legal system. Clark said she would send prosecutors into neighborhoods to hear firsthand the concerns of residents and work with them to prevent crime, particularly gun violence.

“A 21st-century prosecutor is not just about prosecuting cases, you know, having people arrested and locked up and throw away the key. We are here to service the entire community,” Clark said in an interview earlier this year. That includes defendants as well as victims, she said. “Criminal justice includes all of the community,” said Clark, “and as a prosecutor, I have to see myself in that way.

“You have to change minds and hearts,” Clark said, “and somewhat the court culture, in order to get it done. But you know, it’s doable. You just have to do it.”

Some say she’s not doing it fast enough, though, and question how much Clark can truly reform a system in which she was a longtime cog.

More people are in jail waiting for their trials in the Bronx than in the rest of the city’s boroughs combined, Siano said. “Hopefully we see changes in four years,” Siano said. “When her term is over, I hope the Bronx will hold her accountable.”

“A 21st-century prosecutor is not just about prosecuting cases, you know, having people arrested and locked up and throw away the key. We are here to service the entire community.”

Clark has been in office less than two years, arguably not enough time to judge her office’s results. But others are hopeful about Clark’s ability to bring change.

“We were obviously very happy and encouraged that one of our own, a black woman lawyer and judge, would be in this role,” said Paula Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “When there is diversity in thought, diversity in experience and someone who has committed so much to justice in the Bronx, change has happened.”

“She grew up like us,” said Aldo Perez, a community activist who has met with Clark. “She knows what we need, but she also knows her role. She also knows that we don’t need to prosecute for low-level crimes but focus on violent offenders.”

Perez believes that Clark’s experience growing up and living in the Bronx offers hope. “There’s nothing she cannot understand when it comes to how we feel about crime,” Perez said, “how crime affects the community, because she’s seen it. She knows who was selling drugs in the neighborhoods. She knew how to stay away from that. She knew what was going on in the projects. She can identify with the common person who is the victim and the common person who is being tried. She knows. She knows. And you can’t fool her.”


Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark (center) during a news conference during the Another Chance event sponsored by her office and the Bronx Defenders.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Clark grew up in the Soundview Houses public housing development in the South Bronx. Her father, Daniel, worked there for more than two decades as a groundskeeper. Her mother, Viola, a nurse’s aide, headed the tenants organization. Clark said she was the first in her family to attend college. “It was just really, you know, it took a village,” Clark said of growing up in the Bronx. “It was like if you did something wrong, before your mother came home from work, she knew because someone had already told her. There was always that kind of connection with people. That’s what I grew up on.”

She still lives in the Bronx with her husband, Eaton “Ray” Davis, a detective and 30-plus-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. His perspective deepens her understanding of the police, she said.

After Clark graduated from Boston College in 1983, and from Howard University Law School in 1986, she was hired as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. She spent 13 years in the office, was supervisor of the narcotics bureau and later deputy chief of the criminal court bureau. In 1999, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed Clark as a judge in criminal court. In 2006, she was elected to the Supreme Court in Bronx County, the trial-level court in the state’s system. In 2012, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed her to be an appellate judge covering Bronx and New York counties. Clark stepped down from the bench in 2015 to run for district attorney.

Clark is described by colleagues as laser-focused, a clear thinker and down-to-earth, as well as someone who possesses a holistic understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in the criminal justice system.

“I think she is a formidable individual,” said Daniel Karson, who co-led Clark’s transition team, recalling how she came into office “brimming with confidence.”

With a 2017 budget of $71.6 million, Clark began hiring, adding new prosecutors, for a total staff of more than 850 people. There is no reason that her office should not be ready for trial, she said. “And if there is, we need to take that in account as to what our approach is going to be on those cases.” Clark said she meets with her staff weekly to review upcoming cases and the oldest cases to determine whether they are still viable. Those measures have cut the backlog from more than 15,000 pending cases at the end of 2015 to just over 11,000 at the end of 2016.

Clark shifted the office to a vertical prosecution model in order to cut delays and build accountability. That means one assistant district attorney handles a case from beginning to end, from charge to disposition, instead of cases being handed off to other assistant district attorneys at various stages.

“She can identify with the common person who is the victim and the common person who is being tried.” — community activist Aldo Perez

Clark opened a 14-person bureau on Rikers Island that includes investigators, administrators and prosecutors to work on cases against inmates and correctional officers. Clark also created a conviction integrity unit. One of its first cases involved Steven Odiase, 31, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 2013 for the killing of 15-year-old Juan Jerez.

Odiase’s attorneys later came across a redacted police report in evidence that the district attorney’s office had turned over. Blacked out was a witness’s description of Jerez’s killer that did not match Odiase, said Odiase’s attorney Pierre Sussman, who alerted Clark’s office. Prosecutors then asked for Odiase’s conviction to be vacated. In April, he was released from prison, and Clark announced last week that he will not be retried.

“We don’t know whom eliminated it,” Sussman said of the evidence that four years later cleared his client. He did, however, credit Clark and her office for their response. “Once they turned that over to us and it was discovered by us, they did the right thing and the only thing,” said Sussman. “They joined us in helping the court overturn the conviction.”

Sussman also credited Clark for staffing the conviction integrity unit with veteran defense and appellate lawyers. “That tells me that she’s taking it seriously,” Sussman said. But he cautioned: “It’s a nascent unit, so we’ll see what happens in the next few years.”

Clark’s time as district attorney so far shows the complexities and contradictions of her role.

At the community meeting in December, many residents voiced concerns about policing and police brutality. Clark assured them, “If the police want to run wild, they have to come through me.” Many applauded, but one man stood up and challenged her. Even if her office brought charges against a police officer, he said, Clark had little to no sway over a conviction. Some applauded in agreement.

Asked about that moment later, Clark said that “still, the district attorney is the gatekeeper.”

“Police could arrest a whole lot of people, but if the DA doesn’t prosecute them, what is the point?” She added that she has a “fair relationship” with the New York Police Department “and they get that message loud and clear.”

“I’ve had to work side by side with the police. We need the police. You know, people say they don’t like the police until they need them.” Still, Clark pointed out, the Police Department in New York and others throughout the country also need reform.

“How many times are the courts going to dismiss cases?” Clark said. “How many times are there going to be federal monitors on a police department? How many times is a judge going to declare that the tactics of the police are unconstitutional?

“If they keep getting that message over and over, then they’re going to have to change with the times as well.”

Last year, Clark confronted the shooting death of Deborah Danner, 66, by a police officer.

Emergency crews and police officers had come to Danner’s seventh-floor apartment in the Castle Hill neighborhood on Oct. 18, 2016, in response to a 911 call about an emotionally disturbed woman screaming in the hallway. Danner allegedly refused to go to the hospital. At some point, she held a pair of scissors, then swung a wooden bat toward Sgt. Hugh Barry. Barry opened fire, shooting Danner twice.

The mayor and police commissioner both criticized Barry, saying he should have used a stun gun instead of his gun. But the state attorney general, who has the power to investigate police shootings of unarmed people, declined to proceed, stating that Danner was armed when Barry shot her. In response, Clark impaneled a special grand jury to hear evidence in the case.

In May, seven months after Danner was shot, Barry, 31, was indicted for second-degree murder, manslaughter and other charges in the killing of Danner. The grand jury found that Barry should have used other ways to subdue Danner or should have waited for a specialized emergency service unit to arrive before he used deadly force. He was released on $100,000 bond. His next court date is Nov. 27.

In a statement, Clark offered her condolences to the Danner family and acknowledged “the heartbreaking loss they have suffered.” She also thanked them for their patience.

“The men and women of the NYPD protect and serve us and face the possibility of danger every time they respond to calls of emotionally disturbed persons, domestic violence incidents and other crises,” Clark said in her statement. “They answer thousands of these calls each year without incident. I hope that measures will be taken to prevent another tragedy such as this.”


Joseph Ramos cleared a warrant for an open container, a summons he received on his birthday, during the Another Chance event, where participants can resolve outstanding summons warrants, clear their record and attend a resource fair.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Organizations such as the Legal Aid Society have been pressuring Clark and other borough prosecutors to stop pursuing low-level crimes such as subway fare evasion and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately targeted for such violations, advocates say.

“When you think about justice and the communities that are being impacted, this goes all the way to the womb,” said Edgar, of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “If you have a broken system, there are so many things that fall into the brokenness of that system. … It’s that long-standing institutional racial bias that affects our communities in a much more detrimental way than other communities.”

Over the summer, Clark held a second Another Chance event as part of an effort to address the concerns. In the first event, held during her first year as district attorney, she partnered with public defenders and judges to bring a warrant forgiveness program to the Bronx. In a makeshift courtroom at Mount Hope Community Center, 270 people had 355 summons warrants erased, many for offenses such as public alcohol consumption, disorderly conduct or possessing a small amount of marijuana. Because these offenses are handled in criminal court, convictions can prevent people from getting housing, employment and immigration visas.

During the event in August, held in the basement of Eastchester Presbyterian Church, a few men sat in metal folding chairs waiting for their cases to be called. In case after case, the summons was for having an open container of alcohol on the street. Bobby Diago, 56, had eight summonses, the oldest from 2011. After his case was called, the judge vacated his warrants in a matter of seconds.

By noon, more than 100 warrants were dismissed. It was “a drop in the bucket,” Clark said, compared with the 355,000 open summonses in the Bronx and the 1.5 million throughout the city. Many of them, Clark admitted, could not be tried.

As a judge, Clark said, “I presided over these very same summonses when people had them in court, and I can tell you that a lot of them are not prosecutable.” Sometimes the records are missing addresses, the defendant’s name is incorrect or the allegations don’t sustain the charge, she said. “So that’s why I really wanted to do this.”

Standing outside the church and holding his disposition certificate, Diago, a construction worker, said that he had not taken the summonses too seriously (“What, they gonna give me life for an open container?” he said), until his wife told him a police officer had come to their home looking for him.

Clark said outside the church that more of such offenses are being moved to civil court from criminal court. “We’re doing anything that we can to try to keep people out of the criminal justice system and provide them with resources so that they can be stable and really be productive members of the community,” she said.

Another certificate holder, Joseph Ramos, remembered the date of his summons clearly — it was his 26th birthday, June 12, 2015. The whole block in his Bronx neighborhood was seemingly outside celebrating with him, Ramos recalled. “The cops came and gave everybody tickets,” according to Ramos, who said he works as a security guard. One officer, Ramos said, took the plastic bottle Ramos had in his hand and poured its contents, an almost full bottle of Hennessy, onto the ground.

Now, Ramos said, “I don’t have to stand outside and be worried about getting locked up.” But he predicted, “Most likely it’s going to happen again.”


The Bronx court system still runs on delays. On any given day, a long line of defendants with court appearances snakes out the door and onto the sidewalk. A holding room is filled with those transported from prison, awaiting trial. Judges routinely adjourn cases, attorneys say. “It’s a horror show,” said Sussman, who has been an attorney for more than 20 years.

“The Browder case was the kind of illustration,” said Sussman, “the horrible illustration for what can go wrong when a backlog means that a case for theft of a backpack, if that is even what it was, takes three years to unfold in court. And the result is breaking a man. It’s not that Browder was shot down in the streets. He took his own life. They broke him.”

With the Browder case still echoing through the system, Clark says the most challenging aspect of her job has been dealing with youths.

“It’s scary that we really might be losing a generation to some of the things that are happening,” said Clark, who made a point to note the many young people who are succeeding in lives that don’t make headlines. “When I was judge, those were the most difficult cases. Because even though they’re accused of criminality, and may in fact be guilty of it, what do you do really with them? You don’t want somebody’s life to be ruined forever, but you don’t want them to think it’s OK to just prey on their community and do the things that are wrong and that there are no consequences. So it’s just really deciding to figure out that balance between what is wrong and what is right, and how to go about getting a result that is going to be beneficial to the whole community.”

Time will tell which case will determine that balance and define Clark’s tenure as district attorney.

Author Jesmyn Ward talks about enduring hurricane season, the South, and what it means to be a MacArthur ‘genius’ She has a deep love for the South, but isn’t sure she wants to finish raising her children there

Winning a MacArthur “genius” grant can be a little bit like winning the nerd lottery.

Not only are you recognized for your intellectual prowess and contributions to society, but it’s publicly announced to every major media outlet in the country that your bank statements will be a bit bigger. MacArthur fellows get $625,000, with zero strings attached, spread over five years.

“It didn’t feel real until everyone knew, and then, of course, you speak to people that you haven’t spoken to in years, and everyone congratulates you,” said author Jesmyn Ward, one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation this month. “It’s a huge, huge honor, but it is overwhelming. It is overwhelming. Everyone immediately wants to borrow money.

“Everyone is already like, ‘Oh, so we’re rich now. We’re rich.’ ”

Ward, 40, was already a superstar. Her novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and this year her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is short-listed for it. Inspired by James Baldwin, Ward also edited a 2016 essay collection, The Fire This Time, which assembled thoughts from luminaries such as Isabel Wilkerson, Kiese Laymon, Clint Smith, Edwidge Danticat and Emily Raboteau.

Ward, who teaches at Tulane University, grew up in Mississippi with modest means. After stints in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and New York, she elected to return, buying a home in DeLisle, Mississippi, a 57-mile drive to New Orleans and her university job. Salvage the Bones, which followed a poor black Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, was inspired by her own experiences living through the storm. Despite her deep love for her home state and its most vulnerable citizens, Ward is not sure how much longer she’ll remain there.

We talked about writing, the strangeness of becoming a public figure, making it through this year’s harrowing hurricane season, and the hyper-abbreviated nature of black childhood, which Ward explores in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her latest novel follows a 13-year-old boy named Jojo, and his young mother, Leonie, who serve as alternating narrators. They’re poor and live in rural Mississippi with Leonie’s mother, who is dying of cancer, and Leonie’s father. Leonie decides to take a road trip with Jojo and her toddler daughter, Kayla, to pick up their white father, Michael, from prison. Every generation of the family is grappling with death and unresolved loss in some way, but Leonie is particularly striking because of her inability to reckon with the death of her brother, Given, who was murdered by a white schoolmate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What is the moment like when you find out that you’ve been awarded a MacArthur grant?

It’s totally surreal. When it’s happening, when they’re telling you that you’ve won a MacArthur grant, it just doesn’t feel real. It’s such a huge award and such a huge honor that it’s never the call that you expect to get. I don’t think it feels real until the announcement. When everyone else finds out, that’s when it feels real. [The MacArthur Foundation] prepares beforehand, because they send a video crew out to your house and you spend an entire day with them.

Most writers are not extroverts. Once you started accumulating this snowball of acclaim, what did that do to you?

It’s difficult, especially because I am naturally a shy person, or at least I was, in high school and afterwards for years. One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak. It’s really odd for me to now have to develop and assume a public persona and to share. I have to figure out how much of my private self am I willing to reveal. How comfortable am I, will I attempt to be, when I’m sharing my life with other people? It’s something that I have to work at.

When did you first realize there’s Public Jesmyn and Private Jesmyn?

I didn’t really realize that I would have to develop a public persona until Salvage the Bones was nominated for the National Book Award. That’s when everything changed for me, because I wrote Where the Line Bleeds as my first novel, my baby novel. A fair amount of people read it, but it didn’t get a ton of serious reviews and I didn’t do a lot of interviews. And then Salvage the Bones came out, and the reception was better, but it was before it was nominated for a National Book Award. Then everything changed, and then of course once I won, everything really changed.

I devoted years of my life to becoming a better writer. I’ve learned how to read like a writer. I worked on my craft and just tried to improve with everything that I produced, with everything that I created, but I never really thought about what it would mean to actually get better and get good enough to the point where other people start recognizing it, and then you’re reaching more people, wider range of people, reaching lots of readers. Suddenly you have an audience.

“One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak.”

Writing is such a solitary thing, so it was a total surprise for me when I realized that my life as a writer would not just consist of me sitting in a room typing or reading.

But you know what helps? Teaching, because I’m a professor, and that helps me a lot. I was put in plenty of situations where I had to think quickly, speak quickly, plenty of situations where I had to attempt to be eloquent and to learn how to talk about something that I was very passionate about, because that’s what teaching demanded.

Is it more difficult talking to a roomful of college students or talking to reporters?

It’s definitely talking to a roomful of college students! This has not happened to me at Tulane, but I’ve definitely taught at other schools where the college students I’m teaching do not think that I am the smartest person in the room, and in fact they think they are the smartest person in the room. That’s always a little difficult to navigate.

What did you mean by “learning to read like a writer”?

For me, that meant reading poetry to attempt to figure out how figurative language can create beauty, how figurative language can make a reader feel. I read poetry to also figure how sentences can create rhythm, how paragraphs can create rhythm.

I read literary fiction to attempt to figure out what was pleasing to me as far as a prose style. I also read literary fiction to figure out how to develop a character, how to make a character come alive on the page. I read literary fiction to figure out pacing and how to balance narration and scene, and what was pleasing to me as a writer, what kind of balance was pleasing to me, whether I liked lots of dialogue and a little narration or more narration and less dialogue.

And then I read other genres, like fantasy, like sci-fi, like children’s books, middle-grade books, YA books, even romance, because I feel like those genres taught me different things about — I feel like I wasn’t necessarily reading them to learn lessons about prose and about what I felt worked well and what didn’t. I think that those books taught me things about how to create suspense, about plot.

What are you excited to be reading right now?

I have a poetry anthology next to my bed. Czeslaw Milosz. A Book of Luminous Things. That’s nice, to have books that I can open up and read a short piece and get some satisfaction from knowing that I’ve read something.

I recently read a children’s book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which was amazing. In the last two chapters, I was tearing up the entire time. It was insane, but it was such a pleasure to read that because I could just enjoy it. I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit. It’s just a lovely, beautiful book.

You have spent a lot of time thinking about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. What was it like for you living through this hurricane season?

It’s been difficult, especially seeing the devastation in Houston, seeing the devastation in Puerto Rico, seeing the devastation in Florida, being witness to the current administration’s ambivalence towards that suffering, and sometimes outright hostility that echoes some of the ambivalence and hostility that at least New Orleans, and somewhat the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that we experienced during Katrina. It’s hard, and I didn’t realize how difficult until I saw Houston was flooding, and I thought, ‘I should write something about this,’ and I couldn’t write a thing. I couldn’t write anything, and then I realized how deeply affected I was and how haunted I was by Katrina and by what happened after Katrina.

And then I realized that again, when we were preparing for Hurricane Nate. Nate was a Category 2 storm, and we were losing our minds. I was trying to get a solar-powered generator. I was stocking up and preparing in a way that you would prepare for a Category 5, and yet so was everyone else. It wasn’t just me. It was everyone else here, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in New Orleans. That’s the long shadow of Katrina. I think that every time it happens, that we’ll react like that, because of Katrina, because we’re still struggling with it. I think there’s a lot of unresolved anxiety and terror that people carry from our experiences in Katrina.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, you bounce back and forth between Jojo and Leonie, who are both young, as narrators. Jojo is forced to grow up faster than his years, and Leonie, his mother, doesn’t quite feel like a real grown-up yet.

I think that black childhood is not something that’s granted to black children in America, and so I think that my characters reflected that. Jojo, his experience reflects that in the present moment, as he’s going through it, but I feel that Leonie is the kind of character who comes to life when a black person has — when their childhood has been denied. When that childhood has been stolen, she’s the result, where she’s sort of stuck in this extended adolescence, especially with her selfishness and her inability to process hardship, to face hardship and to live with hardship and to thrive, really. That’s what happens.

“I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit.”

It’s funny, because then I think about Richie’s character, who is a ghost. He’s a ghost, and he should be nearly as old as Pop is, but yet he, too, is stuck in some sort of adolescence because his childhood was taken away from him, because he was robbed of his childhood.

I think about Mam and I think about Pop, and I wonder why they did not break, why they don’t seem broken in the way that Leonie’s broken, or that Richie is broken.

When I think about Kayla and Jojo, I don’t think that they will be broken people like Leonie or like Richie. I think that they’ll be like Mam and like Pop, and maybe the reason why I don’t think that they will be broken people, and maybe the reason why Pop and Mam aren’t broken, is because there was something there that sustained them. I think for Mam, it was the love of her family, and also these things like black spiritual traditions, voodoo and hoodoo and herbal medicine. I think that that sustained her. With Pop, I think it’s family. I think that that definitely sustained him, and maybe a sense of community that he has or a sense of responsibility that he had to that family and to that community.

You go so hard for the South. So often it’s discussed as a place where the best thing about it for black folks is that they can leave. What makes you want to stay there?

I am writing about the kind of people who I grew up with. I’m writing about people who are like my family members. I’m writing about people who are like people who live in my community. I think, because I’m writing from that place, that I can love them, but I can also be critical of them. And I think, too, that I’m very aware of how history bears on the present in the South, and of how it complicates people’s lives, and how it is this really underacknowledged force in the region. I want to acknowledge that, and I think that that’s also what is fueling some of that critical eye.

I wanted to come back for so long, and I am here now, but I have gotten to this point in my life where I can’t say that I will stay here forever.

Why not?

It’s just motivated by my kids, because I have a 5-year-old daughter and I have my son, who [is now] 1. I love my kids, and I want the best for them, and I don’t know. I feel like, in some respects, that I would be failing them if we stayed here through the years when they were teenagers, because this is not a kind place, in many ways, and I worry for them. I want them to live, and I want them to thrive, and I don’t know if this is the best place for that to happen.

Is there any place in America that’s safe for them, where they can be children?

I know that there’s nowhere in this country where they could be completely safe, but I do feel like there are places in this country that would be safer, and made safer, because of where I have worked, because of where I’ve gotten in my life. Classwise, I could afford them different opportunities that if I were poor, or if I lived in poverty, and if I were moving to the Northeast or Chicago or the West, they’d face more dangers. But there’s some opportunities that I can give them because of where I am right now.

I don’t know a single educated black person who has risen to a certain place in society who doesn’t have family members who aren’t as lucky.

It’s difficult. I do what I can, but I think that — how do I say this? I do what I can for my extended family, but I think that their ideas of what I have and the demand on what I have are different from my knowledge of what I have and what I have to give. It induces a lot of guilt, because you want to help. When you’re personally in that situation, you want to help your extended family. I feel guilty because I’m in this position, and they’re not, and then I also feel guilty that I can’t do more. But I can’t. I’m not a millionaire. I’m not a billionaire. I’m a thousandaire.

How much did the death of your brother figure into Leonie and the way she’s working through Given’s death?

I was worried about that when I discovered Given’s character, when it worked out that Leonie had a brother and that he died when they were teenagers. I was worried about writing him, because I know that readers know about my brother, and I didn’t want them to confuse me with Leonie. I didn’t want them to confuse my brother with Given, but I felt like Given was the key. Given was the key to understanding Leonie. His death was the key to understanding her — who she was, her trauma, and understanding why she does what she does. And so I felt like I had no choice, in some respects. I had to write him.

But then, those fears eased a little bit once I got further into the manuscript because their relationship took on a life of its own. It became real, and it was very different from my relationship with my brother. And so, once I got to the point where I felt like their relationship took on life, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re nothing like each other.’ But knowing that Leonie lost a sibling helped me to really understand her, understand that pain that she basically shies away from dealing with and living with.

You talk about the resilience of Mam and Pop, but I wonder if her cancer is basically her internal grief welling up inside her?

I read an article … that was about health and racism. The article was making the argument that racism is a stressor, and that that stressor affects black people’s health in many different ways, and that when you control for class, that still you see a big difference in the health outcomes for black people at a certain class and health outcomes for white people in a certain class.

That was really striking to me. They’re looking at things like heart disease, like diabetes, like maternal health. They’re looking at things like premature births, and then the health outcomes for the children. The article was really making the argument that racism has lasting effects, health effects on black people. I was thinking about that a lot while I was writing Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Michael Jordan’s $7 million health care donation has made Charlotte residents very happy The funds will help launch medical clinics in the N.C. city

When 47-year-old Carla Ford-Johnson was raising her three sons, access to medical care was not an issue for her. She and her husband at the time were both employed and had health insurance. But now, although she does not have small children, the Charlotte, North Carolina, resident has concerns about today’s health care crisis.

Over the years, she’s noticed the services that Novant Clinics in Charlotte have been providing to the community. So when she learned of the recent donation from Charlotte Hornets owner and NBA great Michael Jordan, she was excited.

Last week, Jordan announced his largest philanthropic donation. He is donating $7 million to launch medical clinics in Charlotte, and he hopes it will help at-risk communities in the community. Johnson says it’s right on time.

“It’s a positive move for bettering black communities,” she said. “It’s hard for a lot of families since Obamacare is in the process of being shut down, and this will help. It will also help encourage families to continue to seek solid health care.”

Jordan’s donation addresses a community need for access to affordable health care. The clinic sites are projected to care for nearly 35,000 children and adults who do not currently have access to primary and preventive care or who use the emergency room for nonurgent medical needs.

The donation can also help decrease the number of health disparities and will also go toward two Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Clinics, which are due to open in 2020. According to a release from Novant, the clinics will provide an avenue to affordable, high-quality care — including behavioral health, physical therapy, social work, oral health and family planning — to individuals in the community who have little or no health care.

“Through my years of working with Novant Health, I have been impressed with their approach and their commitment to the community,” Jordan, a North Carolina native, said in a release Monday. “It is my hope that these clinics will help provide a brighter and healthier future for the children and families they serve.”

Jordan’s spokeswoman Estee Portnoy told The Associated Press on Monday that the Hornets owner “feels so great about being able to impact the Charlotte community and help people who really deserve it. Michael and Novant are really excited about this project.”

Portnoy said Jordan, 54, was motivated by a study that found poor children in Charlotte have the worst odds of those of any of the top 50 cities in the United States to lift themselves out of poverty.

The clinics can likely decrease emergency room visits by 68 percent and decrease hospitalization by 37 percent for the residents of these neighborhoods, according to Novant.

“This gift will transform the lives of thousands of families and children living in poverty-stricken communities,” said Carl Armato, president and CEO of Novant Health. “We are thankful to Michael for his generosity. The gift will remove barriers to high-quality health care in some of the most vulnerable communities.”

Andrew Collins believes in second chances so much he’s helping kids avoid needing them The former inmate launched Stain Your Brain while in prison to help save at-risk youth

When community activist Andrew Collins found himself facing prison time, the first question that went through his mind was, “How did I get here?” He leaves the moment that got him to his temporary fate as “making a bad decision by being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong crowd.” That decision landed him a sentence of 35 years for second-degree murder, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary. He served 13 years, five months and two weeks.

He was given a second chance. During his time in a West Tennessee prison, he launched Stain Your Brain (SYB), a nonprofit organization designed to meet youths where they are in an attempt to stop them from going down a similar path.

“When I went before the parole board, I had a plan,” Collins said. “I was told I was the first guy out of thousands of cases that came with a plan and stuck to it. As a matter of fact, I have been out for 12 years now, and to this day members of the parole board still check in on me and send people my way and give referrals and everything.”

Collins was riding in a car with a friend. The friend made a stop, went to a home and a man was killed. Collins faced charges because he was in the car.

“It was my first time being caught up, but I still had to pay the price,” Collins said. “Being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong crowd can cost you your life; even though I wasn’t the triggerman, I was there. Our youth need to know that it will happen to them if they go down the wrong path. I am trying to save lives.”

Collins was 25 years old. According to its website, “SYB is designed to attack the growing epidemic of juvenile delinquency, at-risk youth and potential offenders through the lives of previously incarcerated inmates.”

Youths participating in the program gain encouragement through “real-life testimonies from real life situations that led to real life consequences.” Their main focus “is to present a message of hope. No matter what temptations they are faced with, we want to encourage, motivate, and help them stay focused.”

SYB is not only beneficial to at-risk youth, but it also gives former inmates the avenue to give back to their community by allowing them a platform to share their stories and placing them in a position to mentor.

The programs are presented in “raw and uncut” language that youths understand. SYB states that its vision is “Using realistic situations to relay the harsh realities of prison life, we believe, can deter juveniles from becoming delinquents and giving over to a life of crime. Stain Your Brain was designed to be confrontational (stain) as well as educational (brain).”

Collins believes that youths are more likely to listen and respond to individuals who have “lived the life” rather than traditional authority figures.

Bridgette Bowman, an attorney who works for the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court in Memphis, Tennessee, where the organization is housed, believes programs like SYB are needed for the community.

“I think Stain Your Brain is a great program, but it wouldn’t be great if it wasn’t for people like Andrew,” Bowman said. “Stain Your Brain is great because you have an African-American male who lived the life in the system. It’s not a person who has gone to school and got a degree and has book knowledge. Andrew is one those people who is a good guy, got caught up and had to pay the consequences.”

Bowman believes the youths need real-life figures, not just storybook fake figures who might not know what they’re going through.

“Andrew had a great opportunity, he made bad choices and he had to go to jail for them. That’s a lot of the things the kids in this city are facing,” Bowman added. “Andrew went to jail as an accessory to the fact. The other part of the lesson is that whole adage we teach our kids, ‘snitches get stitches.’ Through Stain Your Brain, Andrew has the opportunity to undo some of the negative messages we’ve put in our kids’ head. Messages like ‘snitches get stitches’ have caused our communities to go to hell because people don’t want to open their mouths and talk. They have allegiances to criminals instead of their own standard of living, and we have to change that.”

Collins recently spoke to The Undefeated about his mission to steer at-risk youth in the right direction and his desire to give them hope.


Why are second chances so important to you?

I received a second chance. … I was blessed with a job as a data installer. The company saw what I was doing with the kids in the community and offered me a job. That’s why everyone who is associated with Stain Your Brain is so resilient. Everybody that speaks with me, they have been through something. I’m talking about ex-gang members and ex-gang leaders. Now they are grown men who received second chances at life. Now they’re married, they’re pastoring and giving back to the community.

We don’t look like what we’ve been through, and we don’t look like where we come from. We can sit amongst a crowd; they don’t know who we are until we open our mouths to give our testimony.

Why was it important to start a program like Stain Your Brain?

Well, I had just returned from a church service, and I was looking at the television and I kept seeing what was going on in Memphis. I knew I was going home one day, I just didn’t know when. When I was sitting on my bunk looking at that television, I said, ‘Lord, I need you to tell me, why am I here?’ I had a talk with God, and he revealed to me that I needed to keep as many kids as I can from making unwise decisions as I did. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to use my testimony to educate the youth about perils of criminal life and let them know it is real.

I called my best friend, who is a graphic designer, and relayed to him the things I needed. After talking to my friend, I had everything I needed to start my own nonprofit organization. I had my own letterhead and business cards. It was important that I started Stain Your Brain while I was in prison. I didn’t want to go before the parole board without a plan. I had six different churches who wrote to the parole board on my behalf because they needed me to speak to the kids.

One of my main statements is ‘If we change the inner man, then the outer man is going to change.’ We teach kids to be independent thinkers, to be leaders and not followers. We teach them to think before they act.

How are parents involved in the program?

I meet with them on every third Saturday. It’s mandatory that the parents come in, meet us and talk to us. We tell parents that we really can’t help their children, we really can’t do this without you. We say, ‘If you want us to help you, you’ve got to help us so we can do this thing together.’ It takes a village to build a neighborhood.

We have to let parents and guardians know that we are not part-time fathers, we’re not part-time dads. We do what we do because it’s in our heart and it’s in our passion, and because of what God allowed us to go to and through.

Basically, the parents’ involvement is critical. We just don’t get involved and don’t deal with the kids if the parents do not get involved. And one of the main things is that a lot of the kids are being raised by their grandmother, their aunts, their sisters.

Do you think it may be certain generational issues are contributing factors to juvenile delinquency?

It’s a generational thing. We have several of the kids be like, ‘Hey, I’m not scared to go to jail. My uncle’s been in jail,’ or ‘My daddy been in jail.’ … If they’ve been exposed to it, then nine times out of 10 they’re going to tap into it in some type of way.

All that has a lot to do with the actions that they take, and it’s not going to change until everybody comes together. I tell it everywhere we go. It’s kind of like, poverty has a lot to do with it, but a lot of these kids have emotional problems they are coping with as well. They’re at home, they’re at school. All of that has a lot to do with their actions and their behavior. Of course, they can’t help what school they go to.

David Robinson’s advice on effective social change: ‘Slow down’ ‘The Admiral’ says it took years to get his school and investment fund up and running

SAN ANTONIO — The students making their way through a first-floor corridor at Carver Academy and College Prep grew wide-eyed when they bumped into the school’s founder. A few gasped when the still-trim, 7-foot-1 Spurs legend David Robinson stopped to wave, and they beamed when he posed for a few selfies.

Most of these young people were not yet born when Robinson’s Hall of Fame NBA career ended in 2003. But, to them, the man nicknamed “the Admiral” is as much a star for what he has done off the court as for what he did on it.

Robinson launched what was then called Carver Academy 16 years ago with $10 million of his own money. It began as a small parochial school serving elementary students, but it is now a publicly funded charter school that enrolls more than 1,100 pupils. Most of the students are Hispanic or black, and most of them are from low-income families. Nearly all of them are on track for college, school officials say.

We’re in an age when athletes are embracing social activism in a way that rivals anything in the past. Following the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, scores of NFL players have stirred a national debate by taking a knee or sitting during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice. Others have worn T-shirts or hoodies to protest the deaths of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin. Many athletes have started foundations or otherwise tried to leverage their wealth and fame to spur social change.

It is a level of consciousness that heartens the 52-year-old Robinson. And while Robinson is careful not to criticize any protesting players, he says it remains to be seen whether their strong words will be matched by meaningful deeds — or make the kind of difference that is happening at Carver.

“There is certainly more awareness now. Guys understand their influence and opportunity,” Robinson said. “I’ve talked to a lot of young athletes. They care. They want to do something significant. The question is, how? How do they do it?”

It is something Robinson knows firsthand. It took him years to turn his dream of a school into reality. He says the athletes eager to make change should be prepared for a similar struggle.

A line of students eagerly greet David Robinson as they walk to their next classroom at the IDEA Carver College Prep campus. “I’m a teacher at heart,” said Robinson. “I’m a lifelong student.”

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“Guys in the NBA visit Carver all the time. Some of them say, ‘This is great. I want to start a school too,’ ” Robinson said. “My reaction is usually, ‘Wait. Slow down.’ You’ve got to be sure this is what you want to do. There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

Robinson’s patient brand of activism led him to not only open a school but to also co-found Admiral Capital Group, a private equity firm that helps pay for his good deeds. Admiral controls more than $1 billion in office space, hotels and apartment developments. The company also has invested alongside several NBA and NFL team owners in an online platform that helps coaches at all levels break down game film as well as a separate online platform that automates management of youth athletic leagues. The firm sets aside 10 percent of its profits for donations aimed at making social change.

“The business is a sustainable way of making a long-term impact,” said Daniel Bassichis, a former Goldman Sachs banker and the firm’s co-founder, who once served on Carver’s board. “It has a constant income, which is key. Most [athletes’] foundations do not have this kind of income.”

Admiral has also helped guide investments by other professional athletes, including Spurs guard Tony Parker, former NFL defensive lineman Justin Tuck (who served an internship with the firm as an MBA student) and retired major league outfielder Torii Hunter. Not only are the investors immersed in the details of their investments, but they also receive advice on how to make lasting social change.

“There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

For instance, each year the firm hires 25 Houston-area high school students to work in a Hilton Garden Inn hotel it owns there. The idea is to expose young people to careers in the hospitality industry. If students take to the work, they are given scholarships to the University of Houston, which they attend as Admiral scholars.

Robinson’s vision for social activism came into focus three decades ago during a two-year military commitment after his graduation from the Naval Academy. During that time, Robinson visited a couple of dozen Washington, D.C.-area high schools to deliver a simple message: Just say no to drugs.

Most students seemed thrilled to have the basketball star in their midst. Still, Robinson’s words frequently fell flat, particularly with the students who most needed to hear them. He realized he had to do more than say something. He had to do something.

“I realized it was like trying to put a Band-Aid on a big wound,” Robinson recalled. “Some of the kids would say, ‘This ain’t reality to us.’ From what they knew, drug dealers were making money. Or education wouldn’t change their lives. I found myself wondering, what can I do to help these kids? How do I make change?”

Robinson, a devout Christian, prayed on it. The answer he got convinced him that he should one day open a school to help guide young people to make better choices, regardless of the difficult circumstances they may confront.

“You can talk until you are blue in the face, but you can’t change people,” he said. “But you can plant seeds, and education is a natural way to plant seeds.”

Robinson nurtured his dream for most of his NBA career, making donations and connections and learning what he could about educational policy. Finally, he made his move, opening Carver Academy in 2001, two years before he retired from basketball. As a parochial school, it had just 120 students. To expand its reach and relieve the constant fundraising pressure, Robinson agreed in 2012 to convert Carver into a publicly funded charter school by joining forces with IDEA, a nonprofit that operates 61 schools serving 36,000 students across Texas. Robinson is now a member of IDEA’s San Antonio regional board.

The school, renamed Carver Academy and College Prep, now has more than 1,100 students in kindergarten through 11th grade. (It will add 12th-grade classes next year.)

David Robinson originally founded George W. Carver Academy in 2001. Eleven years later, he partnered with IDEA Public Schools to expand his goal of accessible quality education for all children.

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“When I started Carver, I did not know what I was doing,” Robinson said. “It is a huge undertaking: fundraising, curriculum, finding partners. It is a commitment, and it takes a long time to learn.”

Carver is located not far from the Spurs’ home arena. “We have students in homeless shelters, or who have lived in cars for periods of time. There are all kinds of life issues,” said Guadalupe Diaz, principal of Carver’s elementary program. “But there is an abiding belief that they can overcome. They can do it.”

One of Robinson’s core beliefs is that tough circumstances should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles to achievement. He named the school after George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery but nonetheless went on to become a widely respected botanist, inventor and teacher. He thought Carver’s life story contained a lesson for young people today.

“If you think you have a bad situation, that man grew up in a worse situation,” Robinson explained. “But Carver knew there was a reason he was here. That led him to do amazing things. We have to start where we are, use what we have and make something of it. And never be satisfied.”

Robinson says another one of his core strategies is to inspire young people to tap into their own gifts and leverage whatever opportunities they have.

“Every time you turn on the television, people see rap stars, athletes and actors. You don’t see the everyday people who are doing well. The culture points us to these unattainable roles. How many of us are going to be athletes? Practically nobody. Success is not being Jay-Z. There is only one Jay-Z. Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important? The idea is to get them excited for the life before them.”

Too often, Robinson said, schools that serve low-income students succumb to the instability and low expectations that often accompany poverty. It is a problem identified by many educators but one Carver has apparently found a way to conquer. Its elementary school students consistently score near the 70th percentile on standardized math and reading tests, an achievement that officials attribute to their individualized focus on the students. Parents have responded: This year the school could enroll just 120 new students out of 300 who applied through a lottery.

“Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important?”

“What I think Carver has figured out is how to help students grapple with community issues that might come up and not hold them against the kids,” said Brittany Hibbert, an assistant principal at Carver’s upper school. She said students and administrators do home visits, staff Saturday school and take calls from students at night. “We literally do whatever it takes.”

High expectations and individually tailored instruction help. But it is also helpful that one of San Antonio’s best-known celebrities is a regular presence at Carver. The first floor of the upper school has a small museum dedicated to Robinson, a two-time NBA champion, 10-time All Star and former league MVP. There are jerseys from the Naval Academy, the Spurs and the two U.S. Olympic teams he played for. There are also medals and trophies, and even a small section of basketball floor marked with the footprints of Robinson and some of his former teammates and coaches.

“His presence is significant,” said Chang Yu, principal of Carver’s upper school. “His name appeals, and it resonates quality, sportsmanship, education — all good things that people gravitate toward. He definitely is a factor in our success.”

Robinson says that is where many people who command the spotlight can be helpful. Robinson applauded stars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and others who have backed up their calls for social justice by donating millions of dollars for things such as after-school programs and college scholarships. As he watches more athletes find their voice embracing the new civil rights movement, he said he will be dividing them into two categories: those who just say things, and those who back their words with action.

“I can say anything I want to say, but you can also go back and track what I’ve done over the last 20 years to see if what I’m saying matches up,” Robinson said. “Where is your money going? What have you given to? So you have the nerve to make a public statement. Now I am going to check and see how much you’ve done so I can determine whether your statement has any value.”