Dressed in green hoodies and caps, a group of men ride the bus back-and-forth or stand outside of community centers in South Minneapolis, starting serious conversations with other men. These people are the MAD DADS, an acronym which stands for Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social-disorder. MAD DADS is a national group of volunteers that does frontline outreach, supports incarcerated men, and helps youth turn their lives around. The volunteers are African American men who, just like the people they serve, are likely to have the personal experiences of being targeted by systems of power and the police, as well as have had exposure to gang violence. The MAD DADS may just be the critical factor that stops a community member from pulling out his gun or otherwise using violence to deal with the pressures of his environment.
The MAD DADS’ power is their presence in the community, and nobody is closer to the action than VJ Smith, the president of MAD DADS. His twenty years of involvement across the country with the organization and personal history with overcoming the social stigma associated with felonies and gang involvement has won him numerous awards such as the National Crime Prevention Council Award of Excellence in 1999 and the Black Pages Humanitarian Award in 2000, but his real work takes place locally. I caught Smith in the middle of a workday that started at 5:30 a.m. and had the potential to last until 2:00 a.m. the following day. He gave me thirty minutes of his time where he told me about communal trauma, deep resilience and how his own past is his “secret weapon.”
You create changes in the youth you work with. How does that shift look like for you?
When you have a history of people being in poverty, and people being in abusive situations, and people being in homes where there’s drugs and alcohol, they begin to live out what they see, and they think that it’s normal because it happens in their homes. Then, they begin to go to jail because everyone around them is going to jail. They repeat what they see. But at some point, you see people saying, “I’m not going back to jail anymore” or “I’m not in juvenile detention anymore, so what do I have to do?” That’s when they need people like us to come and give them resources and direction to figure out what to do, how to stay free.
Can you tell me about an instance of violence and an instance of hope in your community?
One day, we were at a basketball game for the youth and I just had a feeling that something was gonna go down. I had all the young people go inside (you know, young people like to hang out outside.) As soon as everybody got inside, there were six shots that shot a vehicle. Nobody got hurt. But it was one of those opportunities where we were able to make a connection and make sure everybody got saved.
We also had an opportunity where there was a homicide and a man was shot, killed in the middle of the street and when that happened, all the families showed up and were able to give a little piece of hope and direction, make them feel calmer. [Watch VJ speaking at a vigil here.]
On a positive note, though, when you see people change and they stop to jail, they bring their family and say : “I want you to meet VJ, he came to jail. I want you to see VJ. He helped me. You gotta go see some of the MAD DADS!” That’s the big stuff. Man, that’s the big stuff that makes you feel happy.
When you see these moments of violence, how do you keep going?
When I see those moments of violence, I realize it’s time to go to work; time to do something about it, and that’s how I look at it. I look at this as work. Like a firefighter or a police officer or a rescue ambulance driver. We see stuff go down, we go to work and do our best to help.
But we also are excited about those moments where we don’t have to work like that, when we get to go to the parks and play with the kids and show them how much we love them and tell our stories.
Do you have some role models that impact you in your work?
Absolutely. I have lots of role models and lots of people that I look up to. Of course everybody looks up to Dr. King and Malcolm X and all those people, but I have local elders that have really helped me along the way and they have really gave me energy and motivation, have pulled me to the side. Like Peter Haden, Gary Cunningham, you know Bishop Howe, all of those people that came along the way and said “You know you can do it. You can make it happen.”
Do you channel those people in your work?
Absolutely. Not only do I channel those people, but I model some of the things they did and I listen to their mistakes so I can learn from their mistakes. I think if you listen to the elders, you don’t make as many mistakes. I think that’s part of the problem with our young people today: they’ve got their own concepts, their own ideas, they really don’t want to talk to you about it. They just want to make their mistakes, continue to make their mistakes, when they can avoid like 90% of them if they just listen. It’s been the one thing that really saved me: I’ve always been a really great listener of elders. I’ve always allowed them to outpour into me so that I don’t make as many mistakes. And it’s in part because of that that this organization is where it is today.
You focus a lot on the concept of trauma. For you, what is the relationship between trauma and violence?
When you have a family that has lost lots of their loved ones, when you have a family that has close ones in prison, when you have a family with those that are addicted to drugs, that’s traumatic. That’s traumatic, and you do what you have to do to take care of yourself. Whether that’s by getting high yourself, or being angry at the world, or being confused all the time about who’s gonna love you now that those people aren’t around. And it gives you a hair trigger of violence. If you ever go to the store in the neighborhood, just stand back, go to the Dollar Store and just stand by the register, there is a lot of cussing. Then, go to the dollar store in Shoreview, stand by the register–not much at all. It’s because I’m already mad, I’m already hurt, I’m already angry, you know? Therefore there is so much negative energy in the community that it’s only with the help of God and some spiritual intervention can we change them.
How do you feel like your personal background, and any personal trauma you’ve experienced, given you a lens to your work?
My personal background is actually my secret weapon. Because most of the people I know and even the people that work around me don’t know my true personal background. They heard I was involved in stuff but they don’t know to what level. They don’t know how skilled I am in the work that I used to do. Most people look at me as [a] man of God that’s changed his life around, as the leader of MAD DADS, but they don’t know the extent. I don’t talk about it a lot, but it has helped me to figure out people very quickly because that was my job then. In my work now, when I’ve got an issue I need to work with or a resource I need to connect somebody to, I’m pretty much a step ahead of that. Based off all the stuff I had to go through in my other life. You don’t know that I know, but I know.
What mental shift did you go through when you stopped doing your old work and transitioned to the work you do now?
What happened is that one of my sisters that I used to sell cocaine to got addicted to crack cocaine. I’ve seen that it was a need for people to intervene and change lives and one of my goals was to get her to stop using, and she did. She was part of the first outreach workers that we’ve had on our team, to reach out in the community and make a difference. I knew that I had to give back in a big way because I got a lot of people started on heroin and cocaine and all that. Some of them aren’t even around anymore based on the fact that they were getting high so long and so much. I was creating the problem and I wanted to be a solution to the problem by putting work out in the community.
It sounds like you’ve developed a strong intuition from this.
I’ve seen a lot of destruction, I’ve even encouraged some of it, motivated some of it, and I understand: there are a lot of people out here that do that for a living. We’ve called a guy that the outreach team that we did outreach to and his answering machine said “If you ain’t tryin’ to get jumped in, you ain’t tryin’ to mob up with us, if you ain’t tryin’ to be a part of this gang, then you ain’t got no business calling this number” that’s what his answering machine said. One love. (laughs) How is that love? There’s no love there.
In what ways has MAD DADS approached the issue of police violence?
We’ve always been about educating folks out in the community about the police and how to respond to them. You don’t have to be negative with officers. We just had a situation where two officers were supposed to walk with us but they didn’t, and it was okay, but I thought it would have been nice if they would have. I think, more than that, we need to promote and recruit officers of color and more of them because especially in a community where we have more people of color, it would be nice to have officers of color to help you.
What do you want people to know about your community that doesn’t get talked about?
They don’t talk about the accomplishments, man. Wow! I mean, if only you knew how gifted and talented these communities were. Even if some of these kids have to snatch a crack pipe or a needle out of mama’s arm or all that stuff, they still go to school and get good grades. Some of the situations these kids live in, you couldn’t make it in. But they strive and we don’t acknowledge them and we should. We acknowledge the drug dealer, the crackhead, but there are so many resilient youth, kids, parents and single parents that are making this place a better place and we don’t recognize them.
What changes do you want to see?
I want to see housing change. People could afford housing if we give them good jobs, so they don’t have to work 2-3 jobs. But it seems like society is setting us up so certain people can’t live in certain areas. We want construction jobs. I want to see my people on the highways. I want our kids to get off of drugs, and more importantly, not be given those drugs. I don’t want them to be given those drugs for ADHD in school; I want to see them be educated in proper ways. I want to see families be together, not separate. We want fathers in the homes. We don’t want to have food stamp programs where you’re in violation if the man is not at the house. We want the man at the house. We want to get our men back home, get them out of incarceration. We don’t want to build more prisons. Minnesota is already full. Every prison in Minnesota is full right now. We don’t want that. That’s a lot of fathers that need to be home with their children. We want to stop now.
Anything else you want to express?
It’s important that we all unify. Movements like Black Lives Matter and other movements are beginning to happen and shape America. The poor are tired of being abused and misused. The rich have gained so much wealth off of us and all we’re asking for is a fair deal, a fair shake. So I’m excited for us to begin to come together and I believe it will happen. It will take time but we have got to understand that the enemy does not want us to succeed, and they want all the wealth. We were able to be successful in the past, but now they’ve taken so much. The big giant stores have taken everything away from the small businessman to make a living so we’ve got to get back to that. It’s not about wealth for us; it’s about being able to live in affordable housing, have affordable jobs and have families that thrive.