Straight-talking youth workers save lives, keep peace in streets and classrooms

Amjed Yussuf dashes down Hennepin Avenue, his chest emblazoned with a big yellow circle around a red star.

A man is about to walk straight into the crush of rush hour traffic. Yussuf seizes his arm. 

The pedestrian responds with breathless babble. He tears away and marches aimlessly between oncoming cars, chin held high, wide eyes engrossed in the sun.

Sarah Klouda, a fellow yellow shirt, calls 911. But as the minutes drag on, it’s all she and Yussuf can do to corral the man on the sidewalk. Passersby stop to ask what’s wrong with him. Most only stare.

At last an ambulance rumbles down the street, sirens cutting through the river of life that stubbornly continues around them. Klouda and Yussuf back off as scowling paramedics whisk the man away. 

That’s a hard thing to see, Yussuf says. You spend enough time in downtown Minneapolis, taking a sharp look at the faces passing by, and you begin to see how many are fighting demons in their heads.

Kable Reid

Kable Reid

He and Klouda turn off Hennepin. They’re marching toward Nicollet, the route the yellow shirts patrol every afternoon. They’re looking for the homeless, children on their own, drifting bands of teens with hungry eyes.

Neutral territories

Yussuf and Klouda are part of a 25-member team of seasoned youth workers whose influence reaches from downtown to the schools, and the buses that run in between.

They bring stacks of Pizza Luce to corners where the hungry gather. They pass out condoms. They break up lunchroom riots and protect students from strange cars that stalk them after school.

When White House officials arranged a meeting with city officials in the wake of the Philando Castile shooting, Mayor Betsy Hodges stacked the room with this team to talk about young people’s everyday exposure to homelessness, violence, and the loss of friends to overdose.

But they’re not cops, teachers, or therapists. They’re rough-housing, straight-talking, street-smart confidants and sometimes-bodyguards to kids growing up in a cynical age.

At the turn of the new millennium, Minneapolis suffered several years of high-casualty gang warfare that frustrated police and alarmed the public. In 2002, a stray bullet killed 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards as she sat at her dining room table in south Minneapolis, doing homework.

The city’s Youth Coordinating Board (YCB), a sleepy department christened by Mayor Don Fraser in 1985, stirred into action. It conceived the Youth Congress, a body of teens with real power to deliberate city policies affecting youth.

Then there was the Youth Bus. It ran for three summers, a free connector between open gyms, tutoring, libraries, and parks. Along the way, youth workers encouraged teens to embrace the rage they felt for the circumstances of their birth, then channel it into going to college, making an honest dollar, and staying alive.

That philosophy is the brainchild of 39-year-old James Everett, an original Youth Bus conductor and former Minneapolis NAACP president. Everett, who wears his hair in a long sheaf of dreads and moves through crowds of rowdy teens with the assured saunter of larger men, uses clowning to mask a fierce wit and intuitive social sense. 

The unintended outcome of the Youth Bus, he says, was that it broke down barriers between the “highs” and the “lows” of north Minneapolis.

In order to attend the ice cream social up on 40th, the kids who lived on Fifth had to be comfortable stepping foot in rival territory. So the gangs and the cliques agreed to make the Youth Bus neutral.

It brought down crime in north Minneapolis, but there wasn’t enough money to keep it free and fully staffed for long.

Then in 2013, Minneapolis schools took away buses for high school students, putting everyone on Metro Transit. It saved the district money and gave low-income kids flexibility to take part in afterschool activities.

But there were also fights on the train tracks, tense confrontations between students from rival schools on the bus. Downtown businesspeople panicked at the sheer number of high schoolers crowding thoroughfares of commerce. According to a livability survey of people who worked downtown, Hennepin Avenue had become a land of goons and goblins, full of loitering, drug-dealing, and public drunkenness.

Cornelius Pitts, the coach, walks the Patrick Henry lunchroom with pockets full of candy.

Cornelius Pitts, the coach, walks the Patrick Henry lunchroom with pockets full of candy.

It was time to reassemble the conductors. They began to walk the streets in bright yellow T-shirts, pockets full of candy and bus tokens, firing indiscriminate compliments that made strutting businesswomen smile and young couples proud to hold hands.

Much of their work was showing people how to relax and share downtown. After all, it’d always been the backyard of those who lived in public housing nearby, YCB worker LaToya Balogun says.

On the corner of Fifth and Hennepin, she watches impassively behind oversized sunglasses as pedestrians edge around a throng of laughing black kids. The business community’s fear of teenage crime never actually manifested, Balogun recalls. Yet perception was enough to create a wedge.

The workers sorted petty beefs, volatile Facebook arguments prone to spilling into real-life violence. They served as envoys between young people and police, like the time an entourage of girls marched to the Juvenile Detention Center to bust out their ringleader who’d just been arrested. They threw tables. They banged on doors. YCB pulled them back to the street so they wouldn’t get arrested too.

Over the years, it’s been a give-and-take relationship with the police, Balogun says.

“For a lot of us who have had less than positive perceptions of police officers prior to this, it’s even opened our eyes some because they’re dealing with rape cases, children being abused, violent crime. It’s helped us to see they have a tough job.”

In 2014, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau commended the yellow shirts for reducing downtown juvenile crime by 42 percent.

April Graves, Brooklyn Center councilwoman and yoga instructor

April Graves, Brooklyn Center councilwoman and yoga instructor

YCB became a permanent fixture. Others soon came calling for help.

Big brothers and bodyguards

In the winter of 2013, a brawl erupted at South High after black and white kids ganged up on Somalis. What began as a food fight grew to a full-blown race riot involving some 300 agitators and onlookers. Police cracked down with pepper spray. Students threw food at the cops. Two kids were taken out on stretchers.

Jason Matlock, head of security for Minneapolis Public Schools, saw something deeply wrong with the energy at South. Out of desperation, he invited YCB into the school.

Over a two-week period, youth workers listened to students to pinpoint the agitators, then worked to correct the misperceptions agitators had about east African culture. When it became clear that Somali students quietly resented the exclusion of the Somali flag from South’s dusty international flags display, they told administrators to make the no-brainer fix.

The message that seemed to stick, Everett says, was the idea that “all” black lives mattered. Unified around “Tiger” pride, the race tensions slowly abated. 

But there were other issues at South.

Caprice Whimper, a nurturing personality favored by teen girls, with Star McComb, a locally famous hip-hop artist

Caprice Whimper, a nurturing personality favored by teen girls, with Star McComb, a locally famous hip-hop artist

The long walk to the train after school came with much opportunity to tussle, so YCB burned off the kids’ excess energy with pickup basketball. When a man recently released from a mental institution clashed with a group of students on the platform who started throwing rocks, the team broke it up.

At one point, a 15-year-old girl confided to Everett that she’d begun to model for a local photographer. She had a child and saw modeling as a way to provide. She’d also been brought up in foster care, spurring a thirst for love and attention.

She showed Everett her studio shots. There was another set, she said, that featured her nude, her long hair draped over her chest. He did not want to see them.

“There’s a thin line and a thick line between being artistic and being a pervert,” Everett told her. “I don’t want you to feel like I’m trying to keep you from your modeling career, but there’s no reason he needs to take pictures of you without your clothes on at any point in time.”

Female YCB workers stepped in. It took six months of mentoring to help the girl see this trusted adult for the predator he was.

The girl confronted the photographer. He tried to grab her. Her brothers paid him a visit. The photographer bothered her no more.

YCB would soon enter Roosevelt and Patrick Henry High Schools, where racial tensions between Asian and African American students were boiling.

James Mullins, the comic, organizes middle school basketball games.

James Mullins, the comic, organizes middle school basketball games.

An interracial relationship was the cause. Asian boys took issue with one of their own talking to a black guy. Facebook barbs grew into lunchroom posturing, during which a black girl climbed atop a table and proffered racial slurs like Moses on Mount Sinai.

After school, a slow-riding car packed with young Asian men -— some recent graduates of Henry — circled the block. Byron Hawkins and another youth worker escorted a group of black students off campus.

About a block away, the Asians jumped out armed with bats, knives, and a machete.

“[We] jumped in between them and separated it,” Hawkins recalls. “We got the black guys not to get into a fight because they knew who we were, and the Asian dudes didn’t know who we were but they could see that we were adults, so they just kind of backed off.”

There were words, but no one died that day.

The following week, youth workers helped police make an arrest of one of the adults and taught students to understand the gravity of what could have been.

“I let them know what the consequences would be if you get involved with things like that, that if you start a war, it won’t stop,” Hawkins says.

James Everett

James Everett

Minneapolis has no intention of replacing its sometimes-controversial school resource officers with YCB, Matlock says. The yellow shirts serve more as bridge over the crevasse between kids and cops, to help each see the humanity in the other.

“And their role isn’t to break up fights,” Matlock says. “It’s to get there before it starts, knowing which kids, what tensions are there so we can intervene.”

YCB became so successful that, during a White House hearing, school leaders boasted of their aid in fighting terrorism. There were devastating consequences.

Courtney Kiernat, a Minneapolis school fundraiser, portrayed the team as part of an “intervention model... to find the root causes of radicalism.”

Yet YCB’s role never involved terrorism. A relatively innocent spin to win national security bragging rights backfired. Roosevelt’s Somalis felt betrayed for being unfairly profiled as would-be jihadis. Relationships were strained.

There were also power struggles between youth workers and teachers. Some teachers felt YCB charged the school with too much energy when workers hurled footballs down the hall and pulled kids into spontaneous pushup contests. Others envied the youth workers’ ability to tousle and talk personally with students, while staff was forced to abide by strict boundaries.

Teachers argued among themselves over the ways YCB discussed race. Some were offended by the youth workers’ oft-irreverent candor. Others defended them, saying that majority-black YCB rang true to students, even if they spoke in ways that came off wrong to some white teachers.

LaToya Balogun hangs out at the corner of Fifth and Hennepin.

LaToya Balogun hangs out at the corner of Fifth and Hennepin.

Picking up the conflict

During the second week of school, freshmen leap over the checkered booths of Patrick Henry’s muggy basement cafeteria to form a line for lunch. Kids hustle YCB’s Cornelius Pitts for hugs and for the Hi-Chews that weigh down his pockets. Pitts, a 7-foot former basketball player from Chicago, looms over them like a bulwark.

Byron Hawkins stations himself at the kitchen door, doing crowd control. Dancin’ Dave Marcotte circles the floor, recruiting students with reputations for rhythm to join his afterschool dance team.

The kids talk loudly, sink their trash across the room like bean bags, and run with shrieking gales of laughter.

As one girl busts across the room, Everett tells her to slow down. “You walking too fast! You just smacked someone in the head. You running away.” She offers a sly grin.

The transition from middle school to high school can be a treacherous time, Everett says, scanning the room. During the first few days of school, a big kid from Anwatin Middle School kept trying to pick fights.

Everett had to pull the boy aside. “You don’t gotta do it. It’s not junior high. Nobody knows you crazy. They just think you’re handsome. Just be cool.”

Amjed Yussuf

Amjed Yussuf

The kid was just fighting for his identity, trying to carve out a space.

There was the pretty girl whom everyone assumed was fast. When she confided in the team that she actually had zero interest in sex, they encouraged her to organize an afterschool club for fashion freaks.

And then there was the freshmen boy who as an eighth-grader threatened to kill Pitts in the Central Library bathroom. The kid glorified gangbanging, the music and the life. Any teacher would have called police.

Instead Pitts shook him down. If the middle schooler wanted to be seen as a threat, he had to anticipate that grown men would treat him as such, he said.

Pitts introduced him to YCB worker LaMarc Harrell, a reformed man of the streets with fearsome credentials. Harrell laid down the laws of success using basic math.

“To make a profit you gotta buy from someone and sell to someone,” Harrell told the boy. “How many transactions you gotta do before you get to buy that car?”

The student saw the light, landing a Park Board job and ending up with straight A’s.

Hyper-aware that they’re always being watched, the team members load their own trays with vegetables so students who rejected the salad bar will pick cucumbers off their plates. They make a point to touch each other — a hand on the back, an arm slung around a shoulder — because kids don’t see a lot of loving relationships with healthy boundaries. So they show them.

To the same point, Everett abruptly hooks a young man around the chest and spins him around to talk to a couple of girls. “Come on, tell them your name,” he suggests to bashful cries of “No! No!”

“Say hi to these ladies. OK, he’s scared to talk to you guys? OK, watch this. Hi, my name is James. What’s your name?”

An ear-shattering bell sounds the end of lunch. Pitts’ booming coach voice chases the freshmen up the stairs. “Hey, let’s go, let’s go, get to class. You wasting time.”

Pitts rambles down the hall, arm in arm with a twig-thin boy. The sheer difference in size between the two makes it look like the student’s just been stuffed under his arm, getting dragged along. But his face is exuberant.

YCB has something to say to everyone.

“Watchu doing in the hallway, girl? I knew that hair was gonna get you into trouble today. I knew it.”

“What’s up? What’s up, man? You got bags. You gotta get to bed at night. What was wrong? Why didn’t you go to bed?”

“What’s up, girl, lip gloss popping!”

At the same time, they’re keeping an eye out for the inevitable clashes between kids and teachers. There are tricks for that too.

Normally, a teacher might banish a disruptive student from her classroom without a second thought. Everett has honed an extraction method in which he chimes in with some unruly ribbing of his own and gets them both kicked out. Once he gets the agitator in the hallway, they talk.

Or, in cases where a teacher can’t control a standout troublemaker, he’ll bet $10 that the kid is not capable of sitting still. The teacher gets to take him up on that, gets to say he believes in that student.

“What happens is later on the kids are thankful for it because they realize, ‘You kinda worked me, didn’t you?’” Everett says. “It was for the teacher, but it’s also to get you out of your own way. At the end of the day the teacher has a right to teach, and the rest of the class has the right to learn.”

When resentment between teacher and student becomes entrenched over mutual misunderstanding, it’s the youth worker’s job to manipulate amnesty.

A teacher confronted Everett once for talking to a boy none of the staff particularly liked. He’d hurled a chair at her, the teacher complained. Everett said he understood, and that he wouldn’t like the student either — which seemed to take the teacher by surprise.

The next time the kid came around for candy, Everett called him out. “Not if you throw a chair at me! It’s all over the internet. Hey, they call you ‘Chair Thrower,’ man. We’re gonna call you CT. That’s turned into not cool. Hell, when I was younger, I threw a chair. But that was when I was like five, you know what I’m saying?”

Cracking jokes told the student that while he did need to treat his teachers better, he was still acting within the boundaries of a normal kid. His mistakes could be remedied with an apology. In fact, he wasn’t getting any more candy until he apologized. The teacher’s still hurt, Everett insisted.

So the student said he was sorry. The teacher asked him to become her classroom assistant.

“We make sure we don’t put anything on the teacher that she said something,” Everett says. “So the teacher doesn’t have to pick up the conflict. We’ll pick up the conflict.”

A small voice seeks Everett’s attention once everyone else has gone to class. It’s a low-key boy who’s never spoken to him before. He wants to know where the therapist’s office is.

Everett waits as the counselors search for his file. He tells the student, “It’s all right if you’ve got voices in your head. All that matters is which ones you answer.”

Later, the guidance counselor catches up to YCB in the hall. He’s dizzy with gratitude, chattering at breakneck speed. “Thank you, thank you. Y’all are a blessing.”

The student was about to walk home and kill himself. And no one would have noticed.

Trapped together

When Jamar Clark was killed by Minneapolis police during an arrest last year, protesters occupied the Fourth Precinct for 18 days, building fire pits and a shanty town in the quickening cold.

There were turbulent nights as police launched marking rounds and mace, while protesters returned fire with Molotov cocktails.

Betsy Hodges deployed YCB, along with a team of children’s mental health workers. They talked to young activists about what they were feeling, thinking. Amid the sensory mania, a single soundbite over the megaphone could completely shape a young person’s outlook.

There were messages of futility as well as hope, and an undercurrent of deep unhappiness that yet another unarmed black man had been killed. The sense of systemic doom weighed heavily.

There were factions that believed in abolishing the police entirely, and they were eager to riot. There were lithe young vandals with spray paint who didn’t like it when YCB jumped on the microphone and told them to get down from the precinct walls.

Everett got an angry mouthful from a young college student. This was the civil rights movement of the youth of today. Who was he to decide how they demonstrated resistance?

“First of all, homie,” Everett said. “You’re from Burnsville. You got the black skin and the white privilege. I get it. But we live here and the cops are watching.

“You cannot spray paint a police station without putting us in direct danger for them to not respond to us in our neighborhoods when we need them after you’re gone.”

It helped that even though YCB may not have been well known to the Black Lives Matter leadership, nor to the vast majority of protesters, those native to north Minneapolis vouched for them.

Alexander Clark, Jamar’s cousin, hangs out with YCB at the corner of Fifth and Hennepin. These days, he’s still trying to make sense of what the marches and rallies were for, and whether the star agitators who headlined the occupation ever cared for his family.

There were times, Clark recalls, when he felt like he and Everett were the only ones around who knew Jamar.

“It’s all corrupted. It’s all bullshit,” he says. “These organizations is bullshit. Black Lives Minneapolis is bullshit. Then you got the Anti-War Committee. When you get into politics and the logistics and the agendas of what they really stand for, you gonna see the fuckery. They activists, you know what I’m saying? They get pre-coached how to interact, antagonize, whatever their goal is, whatever they’re trying to do. I don’t know what the fuck their goal is.”

But Clark has known the YCB team a long time. They’re out on the streets every day, making everyday people laugh. They encourage the kids and make sure everybody gets home safe.

“They see all the shit that goes on this block. There’s a lot of kids that come down here, they like to fight, they like to start up disturbances, confrontations and shit. I mean they out here to stop all that shit from happening. I can meet them where they’re doing. I support them. They’re real.”

Smaller world

The start of the school year marked the end of YCB’s term in downtown Minneapolis. By then, there was a change in the atmosphere. The silver-haired ladies on Nicollet Mall had begun to shoot the shit with the street drummers. The young cops had started to chop it with the kids.

Some days YCB workers take over Target Field and contrive a place for folks to put their feet up.

“Look, I’m tired of all the fussing, all the hollering,” a young man freestyles with YCB’s Andre Gilbert. “I just wanna get a job, get some dollars yeah, ’cuz you don’t know what I’m been through, sitting in the cell looking out the window.”

Amid lawn games, Brooklyn Center Councilwoman April Graves leads salutations to the sun. Terrall Lewis, the team leader, offers heaps of barbecue.

“They’re cool as fuck,” says 18-year-old Nyijaah Monn. “Sarah [Klouda], I like her a lot and I know I have a strong connection with her. She’s not one of those shady-ass white people. And I love James [Everett] because he’s really outspoken, he’s smart. They don’t come just to hang out. They come to spit some truth and be cool at the same time.”

There are still days when some people aren’t in the mood to talk.

Take the mother who’s excited to have a child, but that child is taken by protective services, Balogun says. You’ve seen this woman day in and day out. You’ve interacted with her other kids. You know who the father of her baby is. Then the next time you run into her, she’s solo, and you know the reason for that too.

“It’s a daily reminder of where they are at,” Balogun explains. “You constantly see people who are offering you things and it becomes a question of accountability. You say you want a job, you say you want to get into housing, you want to get off the block. Are you taking the resources we’re offering you to do that? It’s a very delicate balancing act. You don’t want to push anybody beyond the point where they’re ready to.”

Everett knows YCB is a depleting service. Principals are desperate to have them, but once they solve the emergency, cash-strapped schools won’t renew their contracts.

“But everybody’s eating off of it, and we want people to know where it came from,” he says. “It’s been proven to work in different environments, and there’s a team out there that’s actually successful.”

He’d like to expand YCB to St. Paul Public Schools. Last year, when a Central High student was charged with felony assault for choking a teacher, Everett reached out to ex-superintendent Valeria Silva. She wasn’t interested. A few months later, she left the district with an $800,000 golden parachute.

On his off day, Everett grabs lunch at Breaking Bread Café on the North Side, where he runs into an old friend. He tells her about the kid at Patrick Henry who seemed so shy, who was about to commit suicide in the middle of the day.

“Oh my God, that’s my son,” the friend says.

The woman and her four kids lived hard. They’d been homeless for years, moving in and out of state in search of a better life. Her job pays enough for rent, but bad credit undermines apartment applications.

They stay in her godmother’s motel room.

The son at Henry is her second eldest, sensitive and bookish. “That’s my lawyer. He’s gonna be my doctor. He’s my smart kid. He’s my good kid.”

Over time, the boy had assumed his mom’s worries and stress. He set such high expectations for himself that his powerlessness to save the family began to crush him.

“I had to take him aside and tell him, ‘I don’t care if you graduate. Live in my basement for the rest of your life. I don’t want you to have the thoughts of wanting to kill yourself,’” his mom says.

Now that she knows what’s going on, they can talk heart to heart. She tells him things will get better, one day at a time.

The woman thanks Everett for being at Henry that day, wearing his yellow shirt. She doesn’t know if her son reached out to him because he remembered how Everett used to hang out in their yard. Her son would have been just three or four at the time.

“Either that, or God brought him to James. He did what needed to be done. I appreciated that from him.”