As bullets pop and police sirens wail, piercing the peace and quiet of a struggling inner-city neighborhood, young men often wonder if there is a way out, a way to break the cycle of joining gangs, going to jail, or ending up dead as a result of living the street life. It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. But when the village is one of the top segregated cities in the country, where do they turn? Is there a place of refuge?
A sliver of hope sits on 13th and Fond du Lac Avenue in Milwaukee. It’s not the average fairy tale castle. Upon first sight, the building almost looks abandoned. It’s big and black, almost warehouse-like. Litter decorates the street; homes with little or no grass sit across from the building. A fenced-in basketball court sits behind it. But inside of this building, change and progress is being made in the lives of over 2,500 young men and women a year.
A small sign is posted on the entrance door: “Running Rebels, 2nd Floor”.
This is hope. This is the village.
Running Rebels is a youth program for people ages 10 to 21, but the program has resources for people outside of that age group as well. It was founded by Victor Barnett 31 years ago in Milwaukee to keep young people off of the streets and away from bad choices.
Originally from Mississippi, Barnett knows the importance of a connection and how that keeps young people bonded. The oldest of 4 children, Victor was always the caretaker of the family.
“I had a really strong feeling of ‘look out for your sister, take care of your sister’. So that protectiveness and making sure that I helped her be okay was in me as a young person, so as I got older, that feeling stayed there to I look out for everybody I came in contact with.”
Barnett, an African-American man with a strong voice and caring aura, quickly noticed the difference between the north and the south when he moved to Milwaukee.
“I heard young people telling adults and teachers ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ and I was in shock. That was when I realized what I wanted to do. I wanted to help young people stay out of trouble.”
Barnett, only 19-years-old at the time, used what he learned as a child about bonding in his own family as a foundation for the program.
“When we first started, I got together with 50 young men, gang members,” says Barnett. “I said what can I do to keep these brothers from being in gangs? We got together and did different things. We had a joke saying if they loved skating, we would be the Rolling Rebels. But basketball was that thing that connected to that first group of fifty that I had.” And Running Rebels was born.
Running Rebels offers a variety of programs and recreational activities that keep young people away from gangs and substance abuse. Some of the athletic programs include basketball, track, boxing, football, and cheerleading. Running Rebels also helps young people find jobs, start businesses, and learn about audio/visual studio production. The organization also works with MPS to assist students in achieving academic success. Running Rebels is also a part of a court-ordered program in Milwaukee for young men and women who are ordered to show up or face incarceration.
On a morning in April, in the main area of the organization, there are young men already inside, speaking to staff members and mentors. The young men are black, dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. One of them has a backpack on his back and a basketball in his hand. A young lady stands near a window waiting on her ride. Encouraging posters line the walls with quotes like, “No matter how far you go down the wrong road, you can always turn back.”
Running Rebels’ setting resembles both a home environment and work environment. In the main area, a woman sits at a desk next to the entrance taking calls and greeting guests. She is warm, a large smile appearing when people come up the stairs. Sofas and chairs fill the rest of the room, giving it a home style feeling. To the right of the sitting area, there is a room that serves as an office area with working desks and computers for the staff members. Binders and papers are stacked on the desks. Mentors are walking in and out with paperwork and discussing what they will be doing that day. To the left of the sitting area is a long hallway, lined with more rooms with doors closed. In a room where people meet a reporter for interviews, there are 2 large windows in the room, each one facing different directions, giving a crossroads-type effect. One window faces downtown Milwaukee. The morning sunshine bounces off of the tall business buildings, a glow of hope oozing into the room. The view from the window on the other side of the room faces Walnut Street, showing the struggling neighborhood blocks and wilted grass.
“I think what’s going on in our young people’s lives is like a tug of war,” says Barnett. “They are being pulled to the streets where their peers are or their friends or the people that they look up to are, and we are pulling them the other way.”
Sometimes in this game of tug of war, the streets win.
“Sometimes they drift away a little bit and bump their heads and come back. Sometimes they drift away and never come back,” says Barnett.
And he knows that firsthand. He has been mentoring Mohammed, who is currently serving a 20 year sentence for an unknown crime, since Mohammed was 13-years-old. Now in his twenties, Mohammed’s monthly letters to Barnett carry a feeling of remorse and understanding.
“He was dear to my heart because I was his mentor eight or nine years ago, I worked with him for four years and he was up and down. There were times he was improving and turning the corner, but when he would leave us, he would go back to the environment where he lived and they actually were winning.”
After seeing Mohammed constantly being pulled back and forth in the game of tug or war, Barnett made a very tough decision that would permanently change Mohammed’s life.
“We sat down at a table with the psychiatrist and case managers and I told them as his mentor, I think it’s getting to the point where we need to have him incarcerated. We’ve given him a chance; he’s testing the waters and seeing how far he can go.”
After Mohammed was sentenced, Barnett questioned himself, wondering if he had failed Mohammed somehow along the way.
“It bothered me, and I even asked him, I said ‘is there anything we could have done differently?’ and he said ‘you know what, you did everything you could do for me. There is nothing else you could have done.”
Making that recommendation was tough for Barnett, but he feels he did the right thing.
“It hurt, but I also knew that was the best thing for him because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people go to jail for one year and that is the wake-up call. I’ve seen it work and for him, I really felt that’s what was needed.”
There are plenty of wins that outweigh the losses in the Running Rebels program.
“We have young men that have come through the program and become electrical engineers, one man is a college basketball coach and his team won the NCAA Division 2 Championship. The 15 guys that work here (as mentors), I remember when they were 10 and11-year-old kids. Looking at the numbers, there are thousands and thousands that have benefited from this program.”
Job Harper is a walking testimony to that. Known as Oki to everyone around him, Harper has a passion for music and was signed to the TRIO record label at Running Rebels when he was 12-years-old. Raised by a single mother, Harper attended school and had a 4.0 grade point average in middle school and part of high school. But he admittedly made wrong choices that resulted in him serving a year in jail in 2007 for armed robbery.
“It really opened my eyes. It definitely had a big impact for the most part,” Harper says of his time behind bars.
Now 24-years-old, Harper is still a part of Running Rebels and is the head audio engineer for TRIO records.
“Running Rebels taught me different leadership qualities, how to stay organized, taught me about life and things you wouldn’t learn at school,” says Harper.
One of the challenges Barnett faced when Running Rebels started, and still faces today, is funding and community support. Running Rebels is a non-profit and sticks to a grassroots campaign and is traditional in its mission.
“I was baffled at how I didn’t get a lot of help from other people. I went to different places to see how the program was run and pay attention to attendance and see how the supervisors worked and some of those entities since then are no longer around. I based this program on principles and morals, so when people say I should join or be with somebody, if their ethics weren’t right, I chose to stay by myself, says Barnett.”
Barnett says those morals and principles are what set Running Rebels apart from other organizations.
“I remember when I received my first $500 donation for basketball uniforms. I only spent about $490-some dollars. I brought his change back, and he said ‘what is this for?’ I said ‘I didn’t spend all of your money.’ I wanted to show that I was doing this the right way. I always tell my administration and staff do things the right way. I don’t care if it means we get less funding or don’t get the positions that we should, but let’s do it right.”
Today, Running Rebels receives donations from big names such as the United Way of Milwaukee, Mayor Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee Brewers, Admirals, Bucks, and PepsiCo, as well as donations from people in the community who support its mission.
The past 31 years have not been an easy, and there were times Barnett considered throwing in the towel.
“In past years, a lot of what I had to do had to come out of my own pocket. It just seemed like people didn’t understand. The community knew us, but it seemed like the politicians or people that made funding decisions knew nothing about us. I felt frustrated. To able to say ‘I want to quit’ or leave and go to other cities crossed my mind often. But I decided to make it happen here.”
Barnett knows how crucial it is for young people to have support and resources outside of the household. Barnett knows that even though a lot of the mentees have parents in the household, they are not always directly involved in properly shaping their child’s future.
“A lot of the young people we work with, their parents have issues. So when I hear the statement ‘well the parents should just step up’ or ‘the parents should just do better’ it’s not that simple. If a parent is on drugs, how are they going to do for their kids when they can’t even do for themselves?”
Barnett is not alone in his work. Running Rebels has a strong team of mentors, volunteers and other staff members, including his wife Dawn, who help him fill the gaps in young people lives.
Looking forward, Barnett hopes to expand his program and take it to other cities to inspire and change lives across the country.
“I’ve learned that in every young person there is a skill or blessing that God gave them and they don’t find out what that is and I think it’s important that we do. We later found out that Mohammed is a great artist and had we known that earlier, that may have been the one thing to keep him going.”