Brokering Peace
In neighborhoods where violence is rife, Peaceoholics confront troublemaking youths to persuade them to settle their beefs nonviolently.

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Word raced through the wide hallways at Roosevelt High School in Northwest: Troublemakers would be showing up after school. And they'd be bringing guns.

Police were on notice outside the gate as Jauhar Abraham walked up. "Peaceoholics?" asked a security guard, waving him through to the office where his partner, Ronald Moten, huddled with students and worried administrators.

Fights had erupted throughout the day: One student was said to have lost teeth. A brawler wanted a ride home to avoid being jumped. Across from the main gate, a dozen teenagers sat on rowhouse steps as two girls recounted the fight.

Abraham and Moten approached the group and asked if there would be more trouble. Spotting a teenager who had previously tried to sneak a gun into the school, Moten's tone remained light even when the boy confirmed his fear: He had a gun.

Moten looked the boy in the eye, leaned in and whispered so no one could hear: Don't start anything stupid, or you'll go to jail. The two shook hands. The teen shifted for a moment, made eye contact with his friends and turned to leave. The others followed.

Another crisis averted by Peaceoholics.

* * *

Moten, 37, and Abraham, 38, are the brains behind Peaceoholics, a grass-roots nonprofit group that confronts young people with reputations as killers and persuades youths to settle their beefs peacefully. The men have learned to toggle between the streets and the establishment without losing credibility in either world.

Three years ago, they struggled to make ends meet. Now they have more than 20 employees and nearly $1 million in government contracts. Several agencies pay them to monitor youths on parole and probation, counsel others about to be released from Oak Hill detention center and engage teens and young adults in activities to keep them out of trouble. They've crusaded against violent video games and the rampant use of expulsions and suspensions.

Most weeks, they reach 300 to 500 young people.

Nadine Evans is among a growing list of believers.

As principal of Young America Works charter school in Northwest, Evans called in Peaceoholics in September to mediate between rival groups of girls. She was so impressed with the truce they negotiated that she hired two Peaceoholics staffers to teach a life skills and mediation class, offered as an elective.

The staffers roam the halls and have her permission to pull any of the 236 students from class to resolve conflicts. "They allow us to focus on education," she said.

The Peaceoholics philosophy is simple: Most people want help and accept criticism when the person offering it is sincere. In neighborhoods rife with gunplay, where stares can get people killed, they target the troublemakers. "It's a chance you take," Abraham said. "You can't worry about it."

The need is overwhelming. Most of their clients are poor, have no father at home and are victims of physical or mental abuse.

"What you have is children growing up on battlefields," Abraham said. "Fifty percent of the people, staff and children, in my office have been shot or shot at. Everybody has lost loved ones to violence in the last five years."

* * *

Relating to troubled youths comes naturally to Abraham and Moten. They rose from much the same background. That lends validity to their message among youths, but it makes some officials leery of giving felons with few paper credentials access to troubled teens.

Growing up in Southeast and Northwest, Abraham robbed, stole and fought. He was expelled from Truesdell Elementary at 8, and his mother moved to Langley Park. He was first locked up at 9. Three years later, he was arrested again; his mother, to teach him a lesson, refused to pick him up.

"He was a terror," said Lavern Harris, who warned her son that he was headed for an early grave. "It didn't seem to faze him one way or the other."

At 17, Abraham made his grandmother a deathbed promise to finish high school. After reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," chronicling Malcolm Little's transformation from street hustler to the nation's most prominent black nationalist, Abraham decided that he, too, needed to change. He got serious about his studies, graduated from High Point High School in Prince George's County and spent four years in the military.

As Abraham was cleaning up, Moten's troubles were deepening.

At 17, he was kicked out of the District's Roosevelt High School. He said he "went to the streets full time," selling drugs and paying his attorney $25,000 when he caught a charge. In 1991, he spent four years in prison for cocaine distribution. When his brother was shot to death, Moten wasn't allowed home for the funeral.

Stung by his brother's death, Moten began soaking up history: American, Native American and African American. The civil rights movement was particularly moving, the way washerwomen and, especially, young people helped change the world, he said.

"I started learning the power that I had," Moten said.

Upon his release in 1995, he got involved with Cease Fire: Don't Smoke the Brothers, an anti-violence group that works with ex-offenders. There, he met Abraham. They became fast friends, throwing parties and reaching out to youths in trouble.

They formed Peaceoholics in 2003, figuring the name would be catchy on hats, T-shirts and jackets.

* * *

The young man was agitated, stomping his feet and huffing through the bleachers. Moten had come to the football game at Anacostia High School looking for the leaders of Choppa City, the street crew whose members reside around historic Anacostia.

"I ain't with no Peaceoholics," one young man said, loudly, so everyone could hear. A half-hour later, at the urging of some friends, the young man stood near the end zone, listening to Moten's appeal.

"Y'all ain't making no money on the streets," Moten said. "They're charging you as adults when you get locked up. I'm asking y'all to sit down and come to the table."

Abraham was doing much the same at Woodland Terrace, a public housing complex that is home to a group known as Lench Mob. Tension between Choppa City and Lench Mob had led to many street fights and school suspensions. In November, during a fight between the groups, a youth got in a Metrobus and drove it away.

The men offer incentives to do the right thing; sometimes, it's peeling off a $20 bill or handing out a free T-shirt.

This night, Moten dangled go-go music as a hook. A radio station was sponsoring a concert for teens at the Tunnel nightclub in Northeast. He had passes.

A dozen young men piled into three cars, headed for the go-go. Among them, the kid who said that he wasn't with Peaceoholics. That led to dinners, meetings and small gatherings of crew members.

Moten and Abraham began going to court on behalf of those with pending charges.

"We were helping them to make the social adjustment" from the streets to finding a different way to deal with problems, Abraham said.

Weeks later, leaders of the two groups stood near the Big Chair in Anacostia and announced a truce. To ensure that it's more than mere words, Peaceoholics is trying to get the leaders into training programs or find them jobs.

"This is all so fragile," Abraham said. "One little thing, and everything could start up again."

* * *

The entrance to 606 Raleigh Pl., tucked between Malcolm X and Alabama avenues SE, is nondescript. A cement stairway leads to a sparsely decorated waiting room, two conference rooms and a tiny office that Moten and Abraham share.

When the bosses are there, everyone wants a piece. Their cellphones -- two each -- ring constantly. There are papers to sign, grants to apply for, decisions to make. Someone is always asking for money or food.

They act as surrogate parents, securing dresses for young women attending the mayor's inaugural ball, getting prescriptions filled and making sure that children who come to their office have a ride home and a place to sleep.

Some are fleeing abuse at home or have parents who are dead or in jail and no relatives willing to take them in. At Young America Works, where many of their clients attend school, the principal installed a small pantry, a washer and dryer and a shower to allow students to clean up discreetly.

Moten is in-your-face aggressive, demanding change now, dressing down public officials and youths with the same verve. Abraham is contemplative, using psychology and reason in hushed tones to get his point across.

But their goal is the same: to build an army of street soldiers.

Sharece Crawford, 19, is one of their prized recruits.

She drove her first stolen car before she was 12. She got into many fights. Three years ago, she met Moten and Abraham through a lunch program they sponsored at Ballou Senior High School. While eating and listening to informal discussions on life, Crawford developed a kinship with the men. They, too, had seen shootings, walked past dead bodies.

"They had been where we were," she said.

Her confidence grew as she learned how young people had helped change American history. Peaceoholics gave her a stipend and took her to D.C. Council hearings so she could tell her story. She improved her grades, graduated and was accepted at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. Moten and Abraham drove her to school and bought her a refrigerator and a television.

"They help you to see your past and help you become something," she said.

One recent day, Crawford was online looking for a used car -- this time, to buy. A communications major, she has designs on advocating for youths when she graduates, as her mentors did with her.

That suits Moten just fine. The work they do with Crawford -- much of which can't easily be written into a government contract -- is necessary, Moten said, to ensure that people will replace him when he moves on to other work.

"Our goal is to have the youth running this thing," Moten said. "We can't be 60 years old out here squashing beefs."

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