By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008
On the street corners of their Northeast Washington neighborhood, the young men answer to mafioso nicknames and sport scars from being shot. Some have tears tattooed under their eyes.
These are the Toga Boyz, a group of young men who grew up in the Brookland Manor apartments. The name derives from Saratoga Avenue, which runs through a neighborhood that is at once a source of pride and despair. "Crooked," said one young man, but still home.
On a recent afternoon, a dozen of these brazen but boyish men in their teens and early 20s roamed from aisle to aisle of K&G Fashion Superstore in New Carrollton, laughing as they flipped through an expanse of suits, ties and belts. The $2,200 shopping spree, after six weeks of life-skills lessons, was intended to motivate young men often considered dangerous, apathetic and rowdy.
"I look like money, right?" said Travon "Franktasio" Celey, 18, as he slipped on a jacket.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Community activist William Shelton, who paid for the suits, heard his name over the loudspeaker. Eight Kenneth Cole watches were missing. Security cameras showed that some of his charges had stolen them -- a dispiriting reminder that while Shelton can take young men out of the Toga, wrenching the Toga out of them is far more difficult.
"You disrespected everything we are trying to do," Shelton scolded them a few days later in his office at Brookland Manor, where he is community relations coordinator. "At what point do you make a decision to do something positive with your life? You say you want jobs, but how can I send you out to jobs if I can't trust you? This is your life. You have to get rid of this get-over mentality."
It is a message preached daily by crusaders in the city's toughest neighborhoods: If you don't make better choices, you'll end up dead or behind bars. The message is sometimes heeded, sometimes ignored. But at community centers, schools and street corners across the city, mentors like Shelton are betting that individualized attention can make a big difference.
Most of the programs are aimed at disaffected young black men who are most likely to drop out of school, be unemployed or go to jail. They are either volunteer-supported or receive funding from city agencies, including schools, employment services and recreation, and juvenile justice. Many are tiny, draw from a single neighborhood and act as surrogate parents.
The 14 young men in Shelton's program, Young Men Making Moves, live in Brookland Manor or grew up there. Some are participating because they have court cases pending in the District or Maryland; others just want a job. All come from the Toga, as they call it. Many said they are not close friends and sometimes have internal conflicts, but they lean on each other when targeted by those who live elsewhere.
Young Men Making Moves aims to help them get a GED or high school diploma, a driver's license or learner's permit, and a bank account. To young men who typically dress in jeans and T-shirts, a suit is a symbol of exposure to a larger world. To the same end, they went to dinner at an Italian restaurant and took a trip to New York. But the biggest draw is that, ultimately, the program can help them land a temporary job that could become permanent.
When District officials talk about stopping or reducing crime and violence, they invariably point to dozens of neighborhood crews.
Toga Boyz is among them. The Toga's boundaries are those of Brookland Manor, a 16-acre complex of three-story brick apartment buildings off Rhode Island Avenue, between Brentwood Road and Montana Avenue. About 3,000 people live in the 535 apartments. There's a pool and a Boys and Girls Club. Tributes to the dead -- shrines of teddy bears and liquor bottles -- are markers of the community's darker side.
Babajide "Dorsey F. Baby" Pittman has tattoos on his face, arms and hands. Shelton has told him the tattooed-tears under his eyes (he got one after a close friend was killed in January) need to be removed because they send the wrong message to prospective employers. Pittman, who is awaiting trial on gun-related charges and has been shot, said the daily threat of dying is real.
"It could happen at any time, at any given moment," said Pittman, 22, who graduated from Dunbar High School and hopes to open a tattoo shop someday. As part of the program, he is being trained as an electrical apprentice. People want jobs, he said, but have trouble finding and keeping them because they have police records.
One of the biggest threats, many of the young men said, is a long-standing feud with the young men who live in nearby Langdon Park. As children, they played and attended school together. But as they grew, so did the animosity, escalating from fights to gun battles and fatalities. Over what? The response is a shrug of the shoulders:
"They just haters."
"They don't like the Toga."
Those answers make no sense to Angela K. Spencer, a police officer who walks a beat in Brookland Manor and surrounding neighborhoods and worries that some young men have unrealistic expectations that a single program can magically solve their problems. Beneath the tough veneer, she senses the embarrassment that comes from having no family support and no education to fall back on.
"We need to build up their self-esteem," Spencer said, "because they don't have it. A lot of them just want to fit in."
Fitting in on the block often means going with the flow.
That's what Shelton, Brentwood Manor's community relations coordinator and advisory neighborhood commissioner, is trying to curtail. Shelton grew up with a single mother who worked day and night to provide for her children, a living testament that hard work, rather than hustling, buys clothes and food.
His nonprofit group, Young Adults Corp., received $100,000 from the District last year to ease the transition for former prisoners returning home. He used a small portion of that money for a pilot program of Young Men Making Moves. It was the brainchild of two ex-offenders who work for Shelton. Jermaine Borum, 27, and Reginald Key, 33, grew up in the neighborhood and wanted to keep others from having to learn the hard way.
The goal is to show them a world beyond Brookland Manor. A bank account can free them from the exorbitant charges of check-cashing places. A driver's license opens up job opportunities and "establishes them as someone in this country," Shelton said.
Some of the young men have worked before -- at least in city-sponsored summer jobs -- but have not remained employed. As Shelton finds suitable employers, he sends the young men out to jobs that are subsidized by the city's Department of Employment Services for three to six months. The hope is that they will get hired full time, Shelton said.
Many have completed those tasks, others are trying. Recently, Celey, who was excited about his first new suit, failed the written portion of the driving exam for the third time. Each time, he said, he missed passing by one answer. But he's not giving up.
"It's blowing me, but I'm gonna pass," said Celey, who dropped out of school in 10th grade for "family reasons" that he did not elaborate on. His brother and a cousin have been shot. Whenever rivals from other neighborhoods cross on the street, trouble ensues, he said. "It's rough out here."
Key, a program adviser, was first charged, for selling cocaine, at 13. His mother was on drugs, he said, and he and his siblings needed to eat. He joined what he calls the "walking dead," going in and out of prison for two decades, waiting for letters and visits that never materialized. Four close friends were killed before age 30.
"I had to grow up fast," said Key, who has been out of prison for two years. "I can relate to the youngsters. You don't want to be hungry. You don't want to be the dirtiest kid in school. The new Jordans are out, you want them, too."
Which brings us back to the missing watches. As soon as he found out, Shelton called his staff to press the young men to give the watches back. The $50 watches were returned to the store within hours. Store management declined to comment. Shelton said the store only wanted the merchandise back and did not wish to press charges.
During a discussion, several of the young men acknowledged that they took the watches and that their behavior was wrong. Shelton assigned blame equally to everyone on the shopping excursion. Looking the other way, he said, is just as wrong.
The group decided that an apology was necessary, and last week they returned to the store to do that. "I hope you learned a lesson," one store employee told them.
An offer to help clean the store as penance was rejected by the store's manager and corporate offices. Afterward, Shelton told them they had accepted responsibility like men.
"Now can we go to lunch?" one of them asked, meaning at Shelton's expense.
"I'm not that happy," Shelton said, though he clearly was.
The suits he purchased are being tailored for a graduation ceremony.