Musa Mahdi could have chosen any success story to share. The one he wanted to talk about on a recent afternoon happened on the day he picked up a young man from a D.C. school.
“Today was the first day I attended every class,” Mahdi recalled him saying.
Another adult might not have seen that accomplishment as worth noting. But Mahdi drove the teenager that day to get his favorite dish, Wings Inferno, at Busboys and Poets.
“I was so happy,” Mahdi recalled. “He doesn’t know how much joy he gave me. To me, that felt like the ultimate success.”
For the past five years, young people who have ended up in D.C.’s criminal justice system have encountered Mahdi as a “credible messenger,” a title that tells them he understands the life they’re living because he has lived it. The D.C. native grew up on the same streets they’ve walked. He has been locked up in the same type of cells they’ve occupied. He understands the pressures they’re up against because he’s been up against them, too.
Mahdi served time in D.C. jail and six federal prisons before getting released in 2017. He was in custody when he turned 18. On that day, guards pulled him from the juvenile block and tossed him into the adult section.
“That was your birthday gift,” he said. “They take you upstairs and throw you in with the wolves. That statement — ‘It can make you or break you’ — is true. It broke a lot of people.”
In some District neighborhoods, the term “credible messengers” doesn’t need to be explained. But in the last year, the mentorship movement has expanded from D.C. to cities across the nation where the concept is new, and people in those places might find themselves wondering what it is all about.
Mahdi, who works for D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said they should know this: “We celebrate every success.”
By “every” he means the big and the small, the life-altering and the habit-changing, the ones that come from decisions made in heated moments and the ones that take repeated, purposeful action.
One young man he mentors is now attending college, and Mahdi still worries about him. “The work is never done,” he said. “It is never done.”
As U.S. cities grapple with how to address juvenile crime, there has been much debate about youth curfews, such as the one that Prince George’s County started to enforce this month. But curfews don’t change lives. They empower the police to force a young person off the street for a few hours. They don’t empower young people in ways that make them not want to be on the street the next night or the night after that.
Forget curfews. We should be spending more of our collective energy examining long-term solutions to addressing juvenile crime and dedicating more resources to the ones that show the most promise.
Any organization that works with vulnerable youth warrants close and consistent scrutiny. The stakes are too high to simply trust that good intentions equal good outcomes. But the concept of credible messengers is rooted in redemption, and it’s easy to see how if recruitment, training and oversight is done right, it could keep some juvenile offenders from becoming adult offenders.
Clinton Lacey, the former director of D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, describes credible messenger initiatives as offering communities a way to employ returning citizens and reduce recidivism among young people. Systems and services often lack cultural understanding of the communities they serve, he said. Credible messengers bring that understanding.
“You’ve got to know communities,” he said. “You have to know families. You have to care about them. I always say you have to love them. You have to have this core belief that they are not the sum total of their problems.”
Lacey developed the District’s credible messenger initiative after establishing a program in New York, where he worked as deputy commissioner of the city’s probation department. The goal in the District was to offer young people who were being released from the detention facility New Beginnings Youth Development Center someone who could help them transition back into the community.
Lacey said DYRS was hosting a summit in 2018 that was attended by people from across the country when he started thinking about expanding the initiative to other cities. In March 2021, he resigned from DYRS and founded the not-for-profit organization Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement (CM3). In the last year, the organization has helped launch initiatives in more than a half dozen places, including cities in Texas, Mississippi and New Jersey.
That more cities are seeking to train and deploy credible messengers shows a growing desire by government officials to do more for young people than lock them up.
D.C. has seen one concerning case after another in recent years involving juveniles. It is also a place with credible messengers. I asked Lacey whether that shows a lack of the program’s effectiveness. He said it shows a need to expand the credible messenger program to youth who aren’t yet in DYRS custody.
An 11-year-old boy’s killing isn’t proof black lives don’t matter to black people. It’s proof of our collective failure.
Credible messengers provide “crisis intervention” but they also do more than that, he said: “It’s coming with them to a graduation, going with them to a cookout, teaching them how to tie a tie, walking them to school if need be. It’s checking in on their parents or caregiver.”
It’s giving them someone who will remain in their life for a long while. That commitment is built into the organization’s goals for credible messengers, but it is also the nature of connecting with someone who understands you and is rooting for you.
“Once you build a relationship with them, you can’t let them go,” Raequan McIver said.
McIver was not yet a teenager when he first ended up in D.C.'s criminal justice system. At 19, he was assigned two credible messengers. Now, at 25, he serves as one.
McIver said he went to live in a group home after getting released from custody and his credible messengers came into his life when he had little support. He credited them with helping him get a job and anger management therapy “when I was embarrassed to go to a counselor.”
“They never gave up on me,” he said.
On the night we spoke, he received a phone call. It was from one of his credible messengers.
“He is still mentoring me,” McIver said.