Congressman Keith Ellison was a bit wary of the reporters gathered today at the Emerge office in north Minneapolis. He was at the social service organization’s offices to meet with a group of participants in a program called the North4 Project. The program helps gang-affiliated teens and young men get jobs and leave the criminal lifestyle.
Ellison told the nearly dozen group participants that he didn’t want them to feel like the media was putting them on display. But he acknowledged that the presence of an MPR news reporter (me) and a Star Tribune reporter would help bring attention to a positive program. Any concerns that the young men would be too shy to speak in front of reporters were put to rest when the first group participant, Tyron Jenkins, 20, opened his mouth.
Jenkins presented his autobiography, which was punctuated by ‘youknowwhatimsayin’ and ‘you feel me’ inserted in to nearly each sentence. We ‘felt’ him. Jenkins talked about how he was thrust into adulthood at an early age.
He’d been ‘hustling’ ever since he was eight years old. Trying to make a million dollars, he said. And at age nine, he was introduced to gun violence.
“My childhood got tooken [sic] very young, very, very young. I got shot at nine. I was in the hospital, on the bed at nine years old from a gunshot wound. You feel me?”
Jenkins says North4 helped him get a job at MnDOT, where he wears a button-down shirt and tie every day. And he’s also in school working on a business degree.
But some of the young men in the program are still struggling. Brandon Turner, 22, (pictured above) told Ellison that he recently lost his truck because it broke down and he couldn’t afford to fix it. And Turner says he’s facing eviction at the end of the month. Ellison didn’t make him any promises, but told Turner he’d see what he could do to help him.
Ellison also encouraged the young men to apply for internships in his office. However, Ellison told them, by rule he can’t hire an intern who isn’t in school. So Ellison told them now is a good time to go back to school if they aren’t already.
Ellison helped secure $240,000 in federal funds to start the program two years ago. To date, the program has involved 31 young men. However, five participants have wound up in jail. But as one staff member pointed out, ‘all 31 participants are still alive.’ And that’s an important statistic. According to data from North4, on average, each participant has lost 5 friends or family members to homicide.