By Adam Glanzman, Niyah Gonzalez, Rachel Grozanick and Brilee Weaver
In seventh grade, Conan Harris was arrested for the first time. He and his friends had taken the bus home, along with a boy from another neighborhood — a neighborhood they had conflict with.
“We beat him up pretty bad, jumped off the bus and ran away,” Harris remembers, nearly three decades later. The next day, he was arrested at school.
Harris would eventually serve hard time, like the one in three black men that go to a federal or state prison in their lifetime. And like the 59 percent of the black male population that’s incarcerated, he served his time for a drug-related crime.
For the young men growing up in Boston’s inner city neighborhoods, Harris says, it’s hard to picture a life beyond the streets. They, like him, often come from single-parent households and find companionship in their peers; they seek out ways to support their families, even if it means putting themselves, and their futures, at risk; they often witness violence.
This way of growing up — of surviving, conditioning — may have once gotten Harris arrested and landed him in prison. But it also brought him back to the streets, to leave them better than he once had them, he hopes. Years after his incarceration, Harris is the deputy head of public safety in Boston and the director of My Brother’s Keeper Boston (MBK). He works directly with young men of color who often wrestle with unfortunate circumstances, uncertainty and faith in themselves — like he once did.
Malachi Hernandez also grew up in a single-parent household in Dorchester. He often witnessed domestic violence, he says, and lived in poverty.
“I didn’t have the best resources, but I was able to persevere through those life obstacles,” says Hernandez, now a sophomore political science student at Northeastern University. “A big part of that was the great mentors I had [at MBK].”
The initiative aims to bridge the gap in equitable opportunities for young men of color. Its leaders work alongside existing community organizations to teach the skills and self-confidence necessary to tilt the scale and achieve more. Many of the young men involved in the program learn a trade and apprentice; some even intern at the courthouse, where Harris’s office is located.
“MBK to me is an outlet, a tool, a resource to get plugged into opportunities and learn skills from mentors,” Hernandez says. Since participating in MBK, he’s become a role model for other young men in his community and is now an advisory committee board member to MBK. In 2016, he visited the White House and introduced President Barack Obama at the final My Brother’s Keeper National Summit.
“MBK Boston helped me overcome struggles, graduate from high school, and become the first in my family to attend college,” he said in his introduction.
Though Hernandez has had help navigating with the support of his mentors at MBK, Harris cautions that many young men get lost in the shuffle. They crave power when they feel powerless, he says, and often feel false security with a knife or a gun in their hand.
He remembers his friend Marvin, who was only 14 years old when he was shot and killed outside the pizza shop just down the street from Harris’s house. An argument had broken out, and things escalated quickly.
“We went from having an argument and Marvin getting killed, right there on that corner, to everything changing for us,” says Harris. “[Our behavior] went from being mischievous to something more serious, because we knew we could be harmed.
For Tyrese Myers, such violence became routine — more a part of life — when his god-brother Aice was shot and killed just down the street him — just like Harris and Marvin.
When a friend goes to jail or is killed, Myers says, he thinks he’s lucky that chance was on his side. Because, if his god-brother had called him, or if his friends had asked him to come along the day they robbed a convenience store, he might not be a recent graduate of Community Academy in Jamaica Plain.
On his graduation day, which he shared with his god-brother, Myers didn’t feel proud. Though he’d gotten awards for perfect attendance and leadership, he couldn't help but think of his past at Excel High School in South Boston. While a student there, his grades dropped and he could no longer play sports. Even though he liked learning, he stopped showing up to school.
“There just wasn't the love,” Myers says of Excel. “I need some love sometimes.”
Myers ended up at Community Academy, an alternative school. He often thinks about Excel and whether he could have made it there. And now that he’s graduated, he’s at another crossroads: pursuing a college degree to become a teacher, or letting his anger get the best of him, he says, and ending up in prison.
Harris had some help taking his next step while at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, or MCI-Norfolk. He’d arrived thinking that physical aggression would help him establish dominance with his peers, many he knew from his days in Dorchester. Then he met Richard Brooks, a lifer serving time for murder.
“He was big, muscle-bound on every level, received respect from the institution. But a very mild-mannered, humble guy,” says Harris of Brooks. “He was the first man that I ever met that showed that you do not have to be aggressive to receive respect.”
Harris decided to pursue — and later earned — his GED while at MCI-Norfolk. His graduation ceremony celebrated the accomplishments of other inmates, many of whom had pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees. One of them was graduation speaker Gordy Brown.
“He got up and spoke, and I remember being inspired. I remember clapping a great deal. It touched me, to the point where after the graduation, I wrote home and said, ‘Listen, I want to go to college.’” Soon, Harris’s his cell was “filled to the ceiling” with books.
Harris would go on to counsel young men involved with the Department of Youth Services, or DYS, and trained inmates to be mentors like him. Whether he received it or gave it, Harris felt the real impact of support in his life.
“[Prison] could be very violent. But on the other side, it was what developed me and helped me become the man I am today,” says Harris. “I had role models and men that were geniuses — smart and intelligent — that were serious about getting out and staying out.”
That’s Reginald Talbert’s goal as the site director of Innercity Weightlifting, a program that aims to help released inmates transition back into society. He once served nearly 14 years for possession of a firearm. While incarcerated, he also earned his GED and worked to better the lives young people that shared his circumstances. When he got out, he found Innercity Weightlifting.
“InnerCity gave me an opportunity,” says Talbert. “I know where [these kids] are going. I’ve been there, and I wanna show them it doesn’t take 30 years [in prison] to figure out what you want to do.”
Talbert and other members of the Innercity team help the formerly incarcerated find jobs, finish school, find a place to live, and work through challenges. It doesn’t matter what these people have done to get there, he says, “as long as they are coming in.”
“Everything I did in my life, made me fit the bill for this job,” says Talbert. “This [reentering society] was my life.”
His mission to help former inmates shape for themselves a life of possibility mirrors Harris’s goal to better the lives of his community members. Their personal experiences have uniquely prepared them, they believe, to take on the challenge of writing a different narrative — one that doesn’t involve a detour in the correctional system.
“I wouldn’t change anything that I ever went through,” says Harris, “because my story helps so many others believe that they can lead a life of possibility, and at their worst moments, they can come out of it.”
That belief has catapulted Hernandez toward his goals and into a bright future. It’s Myers’s struggle to believe that makes his own future feel so uncertain.