Now a 32-year-old tax attorney, David Martin has had a long road to get where he is today. At 16, when he attended Humboldt High School in St. Paul, Martin was, in his words, “getting into trouble.” He was selling drugs and was part of a gang. His grades were slipping, and it was only a matter of time before the consequences of his actions would catch up to him.
That’s when Martin was introduced to Melvin Carter Jr. and Save our Sons (SOS), an organization that works with at-risk African American young men. Well, “introduced” doesn’t accurately describe Martin and Carter’s first meeting. Back in those days, before Carter retired from the St. Paul police force, SOS would perform an operation that they called “Night Raids.” Basically this meant that when a parent was worried that their child was in trouble, they would call SOS, and Carter, an armed police officer, would pressure the young man into making the right decisions. “I was not a willing participant,” said Martin, laughing about the incident now. (Carter said SOS doesn’t do night raids anymore because the demand got too high, and because, since he’s now retired, he can’t be as invasive as he could when he was a police officer.)
For more information about Save Our Sons, call Melvin Carter Jr. at 651-335-0734.
Unfortunately, despite working with SOS, Martin ended up making the wrong decisions anyway and ended up in prison at the age of 21. When he got out, five years later, he called Carter, who helped him get back on his feet and find a job.
“It wasn’t like it went in one ear and out the other,” Martin said. “It was more like it went in one ear and got filed in the back my brain for a while.”
Once Martin was out of prison, he made promises to his family, and to Carter. He accepted his mistakes, and knew that he had people holding him accountable for his actions. Martin said it helped him to know that an organization had vested interest in his well-being. He eventually was able to earn a law degree from William Mitchell Law School and an LLM degree from Georgetown University. Martin now serves on the board for SOS and hopes to help the organization work with young men to prevent the mistakes that he made.
Carter started SOS in 1994. At the time he was a police detective working with juveniles. He said he knew that the detention system wasn’t working for young man, and that, in fact, it was hurting them. He wanted to find an alternative way to reach out and help at-risk African American boys to reach their potential.
“I want to give them care beyond this moment, beyond the crime they’ve committed, to become better citizens,” said Carter. He focuses on their uniqueness, and helps them explore who they are. Carter said SOS challenges the script that has been handed to these young men.
Besides working with black youth, SOS has also been influential in challenging the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) system. Carter believed that the detention system was drawing youth into worse trouble than they had been in before. He wanted to find a way for these young men to “escape from the gravitational pull of that vortex.”
Carter finds support for his belief from the Hayward Burns Institute, which found that not only was the JDC system not working, it was disproportionately hurting minority adolescents.
“The data proclaims boldly that detention centers don’t work” Carter said. “It should only be used for kids who are a threat to public safety or who are a flight risk. We don’t want to be putting high need kids in a situation that cranks out criminals.”
Carter found an ally in Maurice Nins, who was the executive director for SOS for nearly a decade. Nins led the charge in bringing a program called Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) to Minnesota, which is a program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. JDAI programs across the country have drastically decreased the average number of kids in detention each day, increased the use of community programs to support kids, reduced the rate of kids who fail to appear for their court hearings, and seen fewer kids arrested again before their trials, according to the Annie E. Casey foundation. Carter was influential in gathering support for the program in Ramsey County, where the Council of Commissioners, passed a resolution to use JDAI.
Currently, SOS is not one of the official resources for JDAI, because of a potential conflict of interest. (Carter’s wife, Toni Carter, a Ramsey County Commissioner, has been “valiant in leading the charge for JDAI,” said Carter.) However, Carter and Laura LeBlanc, an SOS volunteer and board member, who was also a social worker for 24 years, now co-chair the committee to facilitate the use of alternatives to detention.
The effect of JDAI is reflected in data collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. According to their figures, JDAI has brought a 50 percent decline in juveniles in detention in Ramsey County since its inception.
Chris Crutchfield, Ramsey County police spokesperson, said the work of JDAI and SOS is “not a light switch, but a long journey.” Crutchfield said it has taken an enormous commitment from police, schools, and social services to make changes to the system. According to Crutchfield, JDAI and SOS are different versions of the same song. “Melvin is one of those guys,” he says. “… this problem is his passion. He will do it as a volunteer. He’s always there, showing up to help these kids.”
Reverend Danny Givens, a paid staff SOS staff member working with Carter, said that the SOS program currently lasts for about three and a half months, during which time the young men meet twice a month.
In the beginning, they are introduced to the genius of Africa. “All of our clients are of African descent,” said Givens. “We teach them the foundational truths about Africa. Get them to appreciate culture and history.”
From there, the curriculum turns toward teaching manhood. “We help them to see who they are as individuals.” After manhood, SOS delves into emotional intelligence. “Young boys in general lack emotional intelligence. Boys are taught not to cry,” Givens said. After the young men learn about emotional intelligence, they focus on interpersonal communication, even if they are in an environment in which they feel powerless.
At the end of the program, the young men write a reconciliation letter, because SOS does not believe in a “victimless crime.” The boys don’t send the letter, but Givens said writing it helps them understand how their actions affect themselves, their families, and their victims. Finally, the program concludes with a Rite of Passage, marking graduation from the program. In addition to the lessons, the program also includes group therapy, and field trips to plays and other activities, accompanied by JDC guards.
Laura LeBlanc, an SOS board member who volunteers with the program, said she was introduced to SOS when she was working as a social worker in the social justice arena. LeBlanc said that in her field there was a tremendous amount of compassion, but she was looking for solutions. With Carter and SOS, she found more answers. She said she saw the souls of the youth working with SOS brighten, and that, “Their vision became more clear.”
“He invests in their genius,” said LeBlanc of Carter’s work. “He sees it, he feels it. He won’t accept their behavior as an answer. He’ll only accept their investment in their genius.”
CORRECTION: Our thanks to David Martin for correcting an inaccurate characterization in the article.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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