Listening Over Lecturing – Dallas Community Leaders Light the Way on Reducing Gang Violence

The young man said he had one goal in life: To cut people up and eat them.

Pastor Omar Jahwar had heard that kind of talk before. On the streets of Dallas, he sees kids walk around like they’re made of stone, like death is nothing. And that’s what most people don’t understand when it comes to gang violence. These kids don’t see themselves as victims or sad stories.

“No, they feel like they’re in a war,” Jahwar said. “So a warrior has a warrior’s life, and you can’t tell them it ain’t a war, because they’ve seen it.”

That’s why you get kids saying wild stuff – even talk of eating people. The only way to go about it is to just keep going.

“I never let anyone shock me out of my position,” Jahwar said. “I just told this young man, ‘Alright, brother, when do you plan on starting that?’ and after awhile, once I’d been engaged with him, he told me it was just something he said to come off as crazy.”

For most of these kids, it’s all about survival. So you hide yourself in a persona. You don’t let people know that you’re intelligent, as this young man was, or that you can speak three languages, as this young man could, or that you’ve got a kind heart, as this young man had.

Better just to say you eat people and keep yourself protected.

Well, as for Pastor Jahwar, he has his own goal in life: To teach the kids of his community a better way forward.

“They feel like they’re in a war. So a warrior has a warrior’s life, and you can’t tell them it ain’t a war, because they’ve seen it”

That’s why he and fellow community leaders created the “Think Before You Thug” program, an initiative that aims to steer gang members on a path away from violence and toward prosperity, in order to make the Dallas community vibrant again. Think Before You Thug was born out of Jahwar’s and Lucky work to reinvigorate the poorer areas of Dallas through community engagement, as highlighted in Opportunity Lives‘ “Comeback” series.

The program is unlike the gang-intervention programs of the past. Gone are the sweeping initiatives of the police, in which success is measured in patrols and arrests. Gone are the social programs of liberal politicians, in which success is only measured by dollars spent. This program, instead, is led entirely by community members and former gang members, real people who want to see change in their community and a better future for the kids who live there.

By working on their own, within their own neighborhoods and without government or police control, they’re spurring a drastic change in the way gang violence is addressed.

Can it be done? Well, according to Antong Lucky, the former leader of the Dallas Bloods, anyone can be taught a better way.

“I’ll never forget it, when the judge sentenced me to prison, he told me I was a menace to society,” Lucky said. “I went back to my cell, thinking, ‘That ain’t me, that ain’t me,’ but I truly had become this other person. I had put on this persona in order to survive in my neighborhood.”

That’s how Lucky saw it, at least. As a kid who grew up in the housing projects – his father behind bars, his mother a single parent on food stamps – he did what had to be done.

And for awhile, Lucky checked all the boxes for what a good kid should be: honor roll student, polite, despite not having any role models. But as he grew older, when the Crip gangs around town kept threatening him and his friends, survival meant more than just good grades.

“We started the very first chapter of the Bloods in Dallas,” Lucky said. “I was about 13 years old.”

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Jahwar and Lucky have teamed up with Dallas native and pro football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders to provide mentors for young men in Dallas schools and prevent them from joining gangs. | Photo: Free Beacon

In another five years – after getting rich enough to buy nice cars and live a lavish lifestyle – Lucky was behind bars. There, things began to change. Guilt arose. A feeling that this idea of his – Blood gang life, be tough, hold it down – was destroying the kids who followed in his path.

“I would ask these young dudes who came up to me in prison, I’d ask how much time they got,” Lucky said. “They would be proud and tell me they got a life sentence, or 50 years, or 80 years, not even understanding that they’re going to be in prison for the rest of their lives.”

Lucky felt responsible, in a way. After all, he had started the Bloods in Dallas. So he began to look within himself, devouring books in the library, considering his path, and ultimately denounced the gangs.

“Now that’s not something you do in prison, because that makes you a target,” he said. “But I did it anyway, and I think people respected it because they could see my sincerity. It doesn’t matter Bloods or Crips when you see we have more in common than we have different.”

Years later, Lucky is still involved in gang life, but now he serves as a representative for a different path. His status as an OG – or original gangster, a guy who’s been there and seen it all – earns him the respect of the neighborhood kids, so much so that Pastor Jahwar says he doesn’t talk to the gangs without Lucky “translating” anymore.

Unlike government social workers, Lucky can explain truths in a way that is relatable to kids on the streets. When you grow up in a life without role models, your father locked up and your mother working long hours, you lose a sense of where you should be heading. These kids don’t have a problem with processing information; they just don’t have access to the information. Removed from family life, disconnected from the church community or any sense of spirituality, they become lost by accident.

“It’s like telling a kid he’s got to do more family stuff, and this kid doesn’t even understand what that means, because he’s never experienced a real family before,” Lucky said. “A lot of these kids, in the way they view life, it’s shocking. They’re going from dislike to hate, lingering on this heaviness, and they truly understand the influence of their parents being there by their parents not being there.”

“It’s like telling a kid he’s got to do more family stuff, and this kid doesn’t even understand what that means, because he’s never experienced a real family before”

What is needed in the community, according to both Lucky and Jahwar, is not government intrusion on their problems. Rather, the community needs a collective of older men and women to serve as guides toward a prosperous future. Kids look up to those in their immediate environment with whom they are familiar, and so these community leaders and former gang members aim to get out there and show them the way.

This means that the community must talk to kids in a manner that isn’t about preaching or lecturing, but truly listening.

“You listen to them not just to hear for your turn to speak, but you’re actually listening to hear for where the pain points are,” Jahwar said. “Most times when people try to do this work, they try to administer their solution like a vaccine. But maybe your solution doesn’t work for this problem, so you have to go in like you don’t have any preconceived notions of what their life is like.”

At the beginning, according to Jahwar, you have to let the kids know you are open enough to hear something real. Open enough to listen to all the bloody stories and tough talk. Open enough to wade through the murk and get to the heart of the matter: the pain, the abandonment, the heavy sense of lost hope that drives this problem more than anything else.

Lucky himself never had access to that part of himself while he was gang-banging. It was only until he had the time to brew on his past and the influences that knocked him off track that he was able to consider a change. Now he spends each day trying to undo his own past influence.

“We’ve gotten kids to open up, to be involved with us, and some of the successes we’ve had have been phenomenal,” Lucky said. “Once you get them to open up, then you can build. My life, my story and where I’m at now says to them that it can be done. It really can. Now I have a duty to show them how.”

Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.