A day after Carmen Garner drove across the Washington region to visit five boys at their homes, he is still thinking of the walk to one child’s front door.
“I was almost in tears walking by that thing,” he says. He knows what it’s like to spend summers stuck indoors as a child, staring at screens to avoid looking at the same walls. “I used to live in the ’hood and I never went outside. People get shot out there. People get killed out there. They get arrested out there.”
Nope, as he saw it, nothing good happened out there — with one exception.
“I wouldn’t go outside, unless it was to go fishing,” he says of the trips he would take with his cousin’s boyfriend, a man he credits with saving his life. “I remember every time I went fishing as a kid. Every single time.”
When the D.C. public school teacher received his economic stimulus check, he could have chosen to do anything with it: pay down his mortgage, spend it on his family, put it toward his 10-year-old son’s college fund. He used it to create a nonprofit that allows him to take children from the region’s struggling neighborhoods fishing.
“I said, ‘Why not spend the stimulus money on something that’s going to benefit kids, and benefit our community?’ ” he says. “I was that kid on the step waiting for someone to come pick me up. Now, that’s what I’m going to be doing. I’m going to be picking these kids up.”
In the past few months, millions of people across the country have participated in the protests that grew from George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody. Garner is one of them. He stood in those streets. He snapped photos from inside those crowds. He declared, “Black Lives Matter.”
And then, he took those words further.
He figured out a way to show Black children they matter.
In recent days, he launched Inner City Anglers and started signing up some of the organization’s first members and delivering T-shirts to them. On the front of the shirt appears a logo Garner designed. It features a child with an Afro sitting on the nonprofit’s initials and holding a fishing pole. The organization doesn’t exclude members by race or ethnicity, but it aims to help children in neglected neighborhoods — and in the region, that too often means Black children.
I first learned of Garner, who teaches art at Shepherd Elementary School, when he helped publicize a form that D.C. public schools started sending home with students to give teachers more information about their circumstances. He told me then how his mother died of AIDS and how he passed through 17 relatives’ homes before graduating high school.
When we speak again on a recent afternoon, he tells me that he is tired of seeing Black children stand in front of him and pull from the same small list of life goals. If you have talked to children across the city’s Zip codes, you know what he means. Ask a group of children in one neighborhood what they want to be when they grow up, and their answers will show that they see athletics and entertainment as their routes to success. Ask that same question in another neighborhood and those children’s answers will reveal that someone didn’t just tell them they could be a scientist but explained that there are many different kinds.
For his nonprofit’s motto, Garner picked the phrase: “Where kids can cast dreams into reality.”
“We don’t have the types of dreams that people with privilege have,” he explains. “You have people who always told you that, ‘You can be and you can do.’ And we have always been told, ‘You cannot be and this is all you can do.’ It takes people from outside your community to say, ‘You can be something different’ for you to know that. That’s my job. That’s my job as a teacher. That’s my job as a mentor.
“That’s my job,” he says, then pauses, “as a nonprofit founder.”
That title still feels new.
At the beginning of the year, before the pandemic, the protests and the plummeting employment numbers, I promised to use this column space to “explore ways we can help propel children who have the fewest resources toward success.” The need for solutions, practical and creative, has only grown. The pandemic promises to widen educational and economic gaps, and it could even toss families who are sitting securely on one side of that chasm to the other side of it.
Fishing trips, of course, aren’t going to fix all that. Garner doesn’t expect them to — at least not on their own.
“I’m trying to get people to copy what I’m doing,” he says. “I want people to go into their own communities, find something they love to do and then introduce that to the kids. You only know what’s introduced to you. If we have more people introducing good ideas into our communities, then our communities will be better off.”
When Garner initially came up with the idea for the nonprofit, he planned to launch it in 2021. Then his enthusiasm caused word about it to spread and he soon realized that families needed help now.
“I don’t think I’ve slept in the last couple of weeks,” he says on the day we talk. “Parents have been calling me, asking, ‘When does it start? How is going to start? How do I sign up?”
On the day he drove to the five homes to tell the children about the organization and take photos of them wearing their new shirts, their parents all asked him the same question: “Are you going to take them today?”
Garner says he is still working out the logistics on how to safely transport children during a pandemic, but he aims to take the group’s first members fishing soon. He hopes to replicate some of the best aspects of going with his son, Carmen Jr.
“That’s when we have our best moments,” he says. “When me and my son go out, he’s different and I’m different. We have talks. We enjoy each other.”
As a child, Garner didn’t have a father in his life who could take him fishing and he knows many of the children he and other adult volunteers will take on trips through the nonprofit won’t either. But they may one day have children, he says, and in that way, what they learn now may last long after the pandemic is a memory.
“We’re teaching them something that they can teach their kids,” he says. “These are things that they’re never going to forget.”
Garner says he modeled his nonprofit after a six-week mentoring program he led that focuses on teaching children about themselves. At the beginning of that program, he met a 12-year-old boy whose life had fallen along a similar trajectory as his.
“At the beginning of the program, I asked him, ‘What if someone says something bad about your mother, what would you do?’ ” Garner recalls. “He said, ‘I would kill them.’”
At the end of the program, Garner says he asked the boy that same question. His answer that time: “I got too much to lose to let another person determine my actions.”
He understood himself better, Garner says. He understood that he mattered.
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