MAD DADS push mentoring in Minneapolis: Civic leaders plan broad citywide effort

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MAD DADS crews have ridden the Route 5 Metro Transit bus for approximately three years, helping keep the peace as it crisscrosses some of Minneapolis most crime-prone neighborhoods. In the last few months, crews have added a new wrinkle to their routine: They are recruiting Big Brothers/Big Sisters volunteers.

First in a series of three articles on mentoring and the Minneapolis Blueprint for Ending Youth Violence
MAD DADS push mentoring in Minneapolis: Civic leaders plan broad citywide effort
Minneapolis mentoring smorgasbord: A taste of success
From “Babas” to “Play Moms,” mentoring goes multicultural

The Route 5 has had its troubles, including a 2007 shooting. A recent ride-along with MAD DADS (Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social disorder) had only one confrontation. The crew demanded a rider leave for belligerent behavior (something it is permitted to do under its Metro Transit partnership). A charged silence fell over the bus as it pulled away. Michael Jack, wearing his MAD DADS hoodie, spoke to passengers from the front of the bus, giving a speech he has made several times that day but this time with renewed energy.

“This is a peace bus,” he said, “a safe place for children and families,” with no swearing gang banging or drug dealing. “We are looking for 800 mentors to do two to four activities a month,” he added. “Is anyone interesting in saving a child’s life today?” He and three colleagues circulated with sign-up sheets.

Mentoring is once again on the front burner in Minneapolis as a key tool to prevent youth violence; MAD DADS’ effort is one small example.

Want to get involved?

Here is a list of Hennepin County mentoring programs.

Here is the Minneapolis Blueprint for Youth Violence Prevention.

Mentoring push coming

The latest big spark for mentoring comes from the recently released Blueprint For Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis. The effort was co-chaired by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Karen Kelley-Ariwoola, vice president for community philanthropy of the Minneapolis Foundation and Ellen Lugar, executive director of the General Mills Foundation.

“Increasing the number of quality mentoring opportunities for young people” is one of 34 strategies listed in the Blueprint. A Steering Committee has until May 5 to craft concrete steps to begin to make the recommendations happen. Jan Fondell, a youth development specialist working on the plan, said: “mentoring has been identified as one of the highest priorities by everyone.”

The Blueprint joins a past reports that highlight the need for more mentors and other caring adults. In 1988, the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board’s original 20-year plan included the following priority: “Assure that each child has ready access to at least one parent or other adult who cares about that child and who provides nurturing, support and guidance on a regular basis.” That is similar to the 2008 Blueprint’s goal: “Every young person in Minneapolis is supported by at least one trusted adult in their family or their community.”

The difference between 1988 and 2008 will be the Steering Committee’s ability to get beyond recommendations and execute a plan.

The Blueprint said mentoring and other recommendations initially would focus on youth ages 8-17 living in one of five high-murder neighborhoods: Jordan, McKinley, Hawthorne, Folwell and Phillips. Priority would go to those youths at higher risk of being a crime victim or perpetrator, including gang members, those suspended or expelled from school and those violating curfew or truancy.

In comments to the City Council, Rybak outlined a more aggressive approach to tracking kids and making sure they are connected to caring adults. “There are a tremendous number of mentoring programs out there, but at this point we are not yet matching those with a full accounting of all the young people in our community,” he said. “We would like to get to a point where every young person in this community—at least every young person we believe is at risk—is tied to a trusted adult.”

The details for that kind of tracking are still getting developed, but ideas are taking shape. For instance, Fondell said when a youth is brought to the new Juvenile Supervision Center, staff has computer access to school, county and juvenile justice data systems to review such things as the youth’s school attendance, child welfare or juvenile justice problems. That offers one way to track at-risk youth in key neighborhoods and connect them with needed supports—including mentoring where appropriate.

That approach will have its challenges. In 2007, a trial program at the Curfew Truancy Center to link at-risk youth with support services met with some family resistance, she said. “Whether it is distrust, or suspicion, or just going, ‘I don’t need more people in my business,’ that is a barrier.”

In order for the Blueprint to be successful, ”we can’t just focus on the families and youth who are voluntarily willing to sign up,” she said. “I am not saying this is going to be a mandatory service. I think we will have to work to engage and elicit more trusting relationships.”

Money questions

A number of the Blueprint strategies carry a price tag. Recommendations include increasing library, park and school building hours to provide more safe places, finding meaningful employment for hard-to-employ youth and providing more supports for parents of teenagers. Even mentoring, which taps volunteer energy, carries a cost, approximately $1,000 per year per child.

Looming questions include funding for the Blueprint and how long will it last. One of the Steering Committee’s charges is identifying funds to support the plan.

Joellen Gonder-Spacek, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota, has been a part of efforts to increase mentoring since the early 1990s. She is supportive of the Blueprint’s goals, but has seen similar recommendations before. “I worry about the sustainability,” she said. “It is a resource issue, which it always is.”

The General Mills and Minneapolis foundations played key roles in shaping the Blueprint and could play key roles in funding it. Lugar said General Mills has had a commitment in north Minneapolis and is “clearly committed to providing additional financial support” to the Blueprint. The dollar figure remains uncertain. “Conversations are going on with many other foundations and businesses,” she said. “We are going to have to raise money to accomplish these things.”

The Route 5 bus

Much appears to hang on the Blueprints success. VJ. Smith, MAD DADS president, sits on the Blueprint for Action s Steering Committee. From his perspective, youth mental health and physical health problems are getting worse. They are using drugs—ecstasy, formaldehyde and PCP—and doing it at a younger age. He sees the Blueprint as an effort to expand on what already works, not start new programs.

Gloria Lewis, executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Twin Cities, said the MAD DADS recruiting efforts on the Route 5 bus have brought in 50-100 inquiries a month. “It is a very good partnership,” she said. “We have a need for more Bigs in North Minneapolis,”

MAD DADS bus crew workers Ed Northington, Damian Rouse, Michael Jack, and Eric Williams know what happens to some kids in high-crime neighborhoods who don’t have caring adults. Rouse alludes to his own troubled past and life on the streets and said the street would mentor youths if others don’t.

The drug dealers have the nice clothes and jewelry, he said. They ask a young kid to go to the store to buy them a pop. They give him $50 and tell him to keep the change. “Who are you going to look up to?” he asks. “They are being led away.”

Scott Russell scottrussell@usfamily.net is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.

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