Many of you wanted to know what happened to Red Shirt. Much has happened.
You will recall from my earlier blog post that I had been asked to speak with a “few young people” following my February keynotes in Winnipeg, Canada. The “few,” liberally interpreted, grew into a Friday afternoon assembly attended by about 350 kids who attended the city’s toughest high school in Winnipeg’s North End.
I winged it, hoping to pull some of them along in my impromptu speech.. Whether I got to “some,” I’m not certain, but I knew Red Shirt flew with me. Slouched in his assembly seat with an angled “show me” look, he answered all the tough questions I threw out- “resiliency…altruism,” and more.
I felt compelled to meet him, if only to shake his hand, commend him on his brilliance, and tell him what I thought. I met Red Shirt: “I don’t know who you are. But I know this: you’re smart, really smart. And you read a lot. And, I sense trouble. But man, you’re brilliant! Look at what you did today. You were the star: big words and big concepts. You nailed almost all of them.” A slight nod, an embarrassed smile before he slip-streamed back into the pool of his buddies.
But thanks to Bob Axworthy, Red Shirt didn’t disappear in this pool forever. Bob, who organized the conference, whose political star in the province is rising, and whose schedule is impossible, said: “Jack, I will find Red Shirt, and I’m going to start something.”
He did. He met with Red Shirt, who now has a name – Alex, and a mentor, Bob: . “He has this sparkle in his eye,” said Bob, “and a sense of goodness.” Bob, even with an overflowing plate, made an extraordinary commitment: “He wants to go into repairing and building motorcycles. I am going to help him regarding education, a summer job, and perhaps with opening a shop.” Bob, who travels in the highest (and busiest) political circles in the province of Manitoba, has made an extraordinary commitment – not only to Alex but to many others: “We have started an individual gang member mentorship program at the school.”
We are thankful for the Bob Axworthys of this world, who fortunately, are not alone in their commitment to young people.
Shift now to Long Beach, California on Saturday morning in March of this year at a local community center. The National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families had recently signed a contract with the City of Long Beach to help develop and implement a comprehensive plan to reduce violence and improve community well-being. In addition to gathering and interpreting large amounts of data and working in partnership with governmental and civic leaders, an essential part of the initiative includes holding “listening sessions” or “community forums” with residents who live closest to crime and violence, people who can’t afford to move away from trouble.
Women, some with children in arms or in strollers, heads of neighborhood organizations, community activists, city officials and street workers streamed in. A group of teens helped with set ups — flip charts and magic markers, breakfast, and chair arranging.
“Jack, we’ve got our own Red Shirt,” said Teresa Gomez, one of the conference organizers and Coordinator of the City’s Human Dignity Program. “He’s over there, the tall guy. He’s had a rough road. He’s been through a lot of stuff. He’s struggling to get on the right path. It says a lot that he’s here.” Teresa had worked with Pedro and his family. “I want to meet him,” I said.
I met Pedro, a tall, serious and somewhat wary young man who told me that he wanted to go into law enforcement, more specifically, the FBI. I commended him on his choice, but warned him that he’d have to read stacks and stacks of books and papers.” “What’s the last book you read, Pedro ?” I asked. Blank stare. “Pedro, you’ve got an exciting career in front of you, an impressive goal, but man, you’ve got to start reading NOW.” I pulled out my wallet and handed him some money. “I want you to buy a book, and I want you to let me know what you bought and what you think of it.” He asked “What books?” I suggested biographies, inspirational stories – Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. “But where do I get books?” he asked. “I know,” answered Teresa. There’s a place near here. I’ll take you right after this meeting. We end about noon.”
I was asked to say a few words at the end the three-hour session led by Georgina Mendoza (Salinas) and Mario Maciel (San Jose) who spearhead comprehensive efforts in their respective cities, a pair with stunning abilities to generate and focus energy and commitment – no mean feat with a tough crowd. I thanked everyone, shared my reflections, and then said this:”What I’m most excited about is a young man I met this morning. Pedro, would you stand up?” He did – tall, straight, shoulders back. “Pedro’s made some wrong choices in his life. But he’s made a decision to take a different path. That’s why he’s here today helping. Pedro wants to pursue a career in law enforcement. Pedro, you give us all hope.” Pedro received a huge round of applause.
Pedro thanked me afterwards: “That meant a lot to me. At first I was really nervous – everybody looking at me, but then I felt excited and proud. I want them to feel proud of me. And I want you to be proud of me. I’ll let you know what books I’m reading.”
Teresa suggested wisely that it might be better if Pedro had a male role model. Anthony DiMartino, a graduate student at UCLA serving as a violence prevention research intern for the city, took Pedro to the bookstore. He and Pedro bought The Kite Runner, No Matter How Loud I Shout, a few other books, and he let Pedro borrow his copy of True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year in Juvenile Hall.
It hasn’t stopped. In spite of a full course load and a demanding internship, which he loves, Anthony contacts Pedro every day, usually via tweets – “Inspirational messages, that sort of thing. He’s uncertain. He has anxieties. I share my worries, too, so he doesn’t feel alone or abnormal. I’m someone who wants to make a major difference in a lot of people’s lives. I’ve got big goals, but I’m just starting out. I let him know that I have my concerns too.”
Bob Axworthy in Winnipeg, Canada with Red Shirt, Alex, Teresa and now Anthony DiMartino with Pedro in Long Beach, California: people on their own crowded life paths, taking a little bit of their precious time to listen, to walk with another.
We probably run into more Red Shirts and Pedros of the world than we realize. I wonder what it would take for each of us to widen our paths a bit, making room for another to walk with us, if only for a little while.