VJ Smith, founder of the Minneapolis chapter of MAD DADS and Mpls Cares Mentoring, is a name that conjures up an image of social justice and compassion. His name appears in newspapers with accounts of the courage he and his organization show as they reach out to our city’s more hardened youth — gang members that many have given up on and consider lost.
Yet this same man has a past that will leave you shaking your head in amazement. How did one man, whose life began with so few advantages and so much pain, find the energy and resilience to carry on and become one of Minneapolis’ grassroots warriors for youth? As you read on, you will find that both deep faith and a few important role models turned this life around. And hopefully, you will celebrate the human spirit and ultimate goodness of man when you read about those special people among us who reach out to others and help them reach for their potential.
VJ was born 53 years ago. His dad left shortly after he was born, and at age nine VJ’s mom also left. He lived with his stepfather for a short time, but money and food grew scarce, so he was soon taken away from his little brother and the only home he knew to be dropped off at the Juvenile Detention Hall.
He remembers feeling proud that he was big enough to leave home, which allowed his little brother the opportunity to eat each day. He held on to the hope that his parents would come back one day and be proud of his courage. They never did. He remembers feeling scared — life in a group home was so different from what he had known.
VJ learned about racism firsthand in this new home — particularly on bath nights where he was made to bathe in the same water as 19 other little African American boys. He remembers feeling disgusted that he had to sit in such filthy water, and he noticed that things were different for the White boys living there. Life was hard, and the love that all kids need to thrive was not present in his life.
As VJ grew older, he moved through many foster homes and eventually settled into a life of drugs and crime. His role models were gang men who taught him to be a thug. He describes his first 30 years as “a long life of trials and tribulations.”
VJ’s help finally came in the form of a pastor who showed him some kindness and introduced him to the church. This was Bishop Howell of Shiloh Temple. VJ describes this important period in his life as a time of learning how to become a better person and how to be a man who is grounded in spirituality. As he grew, he was introduced to other men who believed in him and gave him the chance to thrive and prosper.
VJ was mentored by Gregory McMoore, who helped him at Minneapolis Community & Technical College; by Tommy Johnson, who helped him at work; and by Archie Givens, who believed in VJ, saw the good work he was starting to do with youth, and offered him guidance and a place to carry out his ministry.
VJ feels that his determination to become a positive contributing member of society stayed intact thanks to the ongoing mentoring he received from good men who knew the importance of reaching out to others. Art Erickson, founder of Urban Ventures, was another man who believed in VJ. He gave him training and offered him office space to continue his ministry.
By 1998, VJ was officially running MAD DADS (Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder). This organization has touched thousands of boys in Minneapolis, and VJ has had many opportunities to mentor young boys whose choices are leading nowhere. “Every time we hit the streets, we try to give a kid a spark of hope,” he says about MAD DADS’ street outreach.
VJ is now involved with the creation of Mpls Cares Mentoring, part of a national movement called National Cares Mentoring (www.CARESmentoring.com). He is at the planning table twice a month with Kinship, Big Brothers, Bolder Options and Mentoring Partnership of MN, as well as representatives from the city.
VJ is leading this important new initiative in order to better serve African American boys — to find them mentors and teach them to become the men, leaders, mentors, and encouragers that our families so desperately need. Mpls Cares will launch its first recruitment event this year.
“The critical time is now,” VJ urges the community. “Death, destruction, drugs and abandonment are affecting the future of our kids. Men are crucial to the future of our nation. The time to act is now!”
For more information about mentoring a child in your community, call Kinship at 612-588-4655 or go to www.kinship.org.
Nancy Torrison is recruitment and communications director for Kinship of Greater Minneapolis.