By Kirsten Swann
First, an 18-year-old was fatally shot in a Walgreen’s parking lot Jan. 25 and a 14-year-old was arrested for the crime. A few days later, a 20-year-old was killed in a Jiffy Lube parking lot and five young people—two 18, two 19 and one 20-year-old—were arrested in connection with both crimes; robberies gone bad, according to the Anchorage Police Department.
Then Dave Barney, manager at the Mountain View Boys & Girls Club, organized a club forum one February afternoon because Anchorage is a small community and some of the teens now facing murder charges come from the east side of town. Barney wanted to talk to the kids at his clubhouse about choices.
The bleachers were pushed together in a semicircle facing the front of the gym, and a few dozen middle and high-schoolers crowded the seats and listened intently.
“You are loved,” Barney told them. “There is support for you in this community.”
The Boys & Girls Club manager is part of a dedicated group of Alaskans working to make Anchorage a safer place with a brighter future—one person at a time.
That afternoon, he told the teens in the gym about the decisions they’d have to make. There are people in the community who can help get you where you want to go, he said, but it’s up to you to seek that path. And there are plenty of other paths. Barney didn’t sugarcoat things.
“You could throw a rock in any direction from this center, and you’re going to hit a vice. Whether it’s domestic, whether it’s substance abuse, whatever it might be: There’s something going on in our neighborhood,” he said. “We all know this.”
Not a sound came from the bleachers.
“Y’all are young. You’ve got your whole lives to make mistakes,” the clubhouse manager continued. “Don’t make the mistakes other people are making. Learn from their mistakes.”
Barney had invited a few other men to meet with the teens that afternoon. Community advocate and former NFL player Mao Tosi spoke about the time he spent growing up in the neighborhood, and the experiences that led him to where he is today.
“The question to you guys: What do y’all want to be a part of?” he asked the teens in the bleachers.
The other speakers all shared similar messages: You will face choices in life. You can choose your own path. Reach high. There are people who will support you.
Anchorage author Donteh DeVoe didn’t speak long, and his message was simple. Use your talents for good. Find your passion, and make choices that will help you grow. Those lessons come from experience.
His own childhood was less than rosy. In his family, drugs and alcohol were a constant presence, he said. He remembers living briefly in a local women’s shelter with his mother and focusing his mind on basketball and academics to draw away from life at home.
He went to college in New York but didn’t stay long. He ran into trouble with the law—a marijuana charge at 19—and spent the next decade in and out of jail, running with the wrong crowd and finding ways to justify the cycle. He felt depressed. There had to be something more, he thought.
Things reached a turning point after he sold a little more than 13 grams of crack cocaine to a government informant in 2007, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, DeVoe came to a realization: He didn’t want to die like that. Something needed to change.
He wrote a book— “From Hustling to Healing” —and obtained clearance from the Bureau of Prisons to teach classes to other inmates. DeVoe taught prisoners how to repurpose old skills like marketing, distribution and networking. Over years spent in three federal facilities, he met hundreds of people and learned something new along the way.
You can’t lead others if your own life is in shambles, he said.
When he was released in late 2013, he came back to Anchorage looking for ways to do things right and create a better community than he last left behind. Some of the things happening here recently are frightening, he said. So many young people are caught up in dangerous paths.
There has to be a long-range plan for stemming the tide of crime in Anchorage, he said.
You have to reach kids on an individual level and you have to start early. They need to be shown right from wrong and they need to understand the family unit, DeVoe said. They need to understand that they’re cared for, “Because when someone knows that they’re cared for and loved, they behave different. It’s not just children.”
It takes a community, he said, and he breaks the word down into two: Common and unity. If people can join forces behind some shared passion, they can change a city for the better.
“Let’s take the respect that we have for our state and do something with it,” DeVoe said.
He’s working alongside other community leaders to find solutions. They’re also reaching out in their own ways.
Tosi, who now manages the Northway Mall and runs the Alaska PRIDE youth program, is part of the newly launched #WeAreAnchorage initiative, which aims to make Anchorage a safer place to live through community collaboration.
The day after the Boys & Girls Club forum, and the day after that and for days after that, Tosi came back to the clubhouse to spend time with the teens.
On the first day, he sat a dozen or so down in a basement conference room around a table of free pizza and asked them what they wanted to do. Their answers ranged from cooking and comedy to sports, music and dance. Solutions come through relationships, Tosi said.
DeVoe, who spent the morning of Feb. 21 sharing his message of transformation with a conference audience at the Anchorage City Lofts, said building those relationships is important for everyone. The choices people make can ripple throughout an entire community, and the community can help affect those choices from the outset.
It’s something that’s come into even sharper focus over the year-and-a-half since he’s been out of prison, he said.
“You’d be amazed at what you can accomplish when a community is behind itself,” DeVoe said.