Anti-Violence Leader Readies For Next Project
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, what is it like to win a Nobel Prize? There's no guide book. So the wife of one Nobel winner wrote one and she'll tell us about it in just a few minutes. But first it's time for Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the conversation where we hope to learn from people who've made an impact with their work. On this day that our president accepts his Nobel Peace Prize, we hear from a very different kind of peacemaker. Ronald Moten is not a household name except in some of Washington D.C.'s most troubled neighborhoods, where he and his group mainly comprised of ex-offenders like himself, have worked since 2004 to head off violent conflicts between and among young people. They're called the Peaceoholics and Moten is a co-founder.
But now that he's decided to step down at the end of the year, we thought it was a good time to check in with him to talk about his work with Peaceoholics and his future. And Ronald Moten joins us now in our studios. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. RONALD MOTEN (Co-founder, Peaceoholics): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: What is Peaceoholics? What do they do?
Mr. MOTEN: The Peaceoholics is a grassroots organization that believes that the only way that we can stop the violence and problems in our community is to take a grassroots approach where we go into our communities, work in the prisons, the schools and in the communities to bring about peace through employment, through dealing with conflict resolution and advocacy - advocate - and then empowerment of those people to fight for themselves.
MARTIN: When you decided to start Peaceoholics could you just give us a sense of what you had in mind? What was the idea?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, the journey started a long time ago. Of course, you know, when I was incarcerated in prison, I was in Allenwood and Danbury, Connecticut. My brother, he got killed the month that I was locked up and my best friend six months later. And I received my GED three months after being in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. And I decided that I wanted to do something different.
MARTIN: Can you just tell us, why were you incarcerated to begin with?
Mr. MOTEN: I was selling drugs.
MARTIN: And you were selling drugs, you don't dispute that you were?
Mr. MOTEN: Oh, no. I was selling drugs. I was selling poison to my people and I regret that. But I believe everything happens for a reason. There's a Native American proverb that says that you can't criticize a man unless you walk in his shoes a mile, a mile in his shoes. So I was prepared to work with this population that I serve.
MARTIN: Where did you get the idea, though, to focus on trying to intervene in disputes and work that out? I think a lot of people have the idea that violence among young people results from drug dealing and disputes over territory. It's like a business transaction gone wrong or something like that. Could you talk a little bit more about why violence happens among young people?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, it's part of our culture. I mean, it's worse now than it's ever been before. You got 15-year-old young men with guns who are not even in school. That's one of the major problems. Single family homes, we have generations of babies that had babies who don't know how to be parents. And then we have the music, like a lot of people don't understand - our children walking around with tattoos on their face trying to be like Lil' Wayne not understanding that they can't even get a job looking like Lil' Wayne.
MARTIN: So it's kind of a feedback loop, you think that kind of supports�
Mr. MOTEN: Most�
MARTIN: �a certain way of thinking? How do you intervene in that feedback loop? One of the things I'm curious about is that when you came out of prison, you never went back.
Mr. MOTEN: Right.
MARTIN: In fact, there was an attempt by an informant to entice you by offering you some drugs to sell and you just walked away from it.
Mr. MOTEN: Thank God.
MARTIN: But when you were interviewed later you said it wasn't because you were suspicious, you just weren't interested.
Mr. MOTEN: Right.
MARTIN: But why do you think that is? What do you it is that makes some people stop and some people not?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, first of all I give a lot of credit to my parents and grandmother. I still have mores and principles installed in me. I just decided to do what was wrong. Now, a lot of people that we deal with never seen anything right around them. So that doesn't make it easy for them to go back and change, even after they come from prison if there's nothing institutionalized in their life or in society when they come back home to the same situations, go back to those same communities and we expect a different result. We put people in the same situation and expect a different result. It's insanity.
MARTIN: What exactly does your group do to try to stem the violence between young people? In fact, I think that one of the reasons that a lot of people would be interested in this is that the story of Derrion Albert in Chicago�
Mr. MOTEN: Right.
MARTIN: �has gotten a tremendous amount of media attention, as you know. It's a young man coming home from school and got apparently caught in the middle of a street fight and was beaten to death, even though he wasn't a part of either one. And now, of course, there's a lot of concern about retaliation. So what exactly do you do to squash these, to try to keep people from retaliating?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, it's a process. Sometimes - and we've got to be clear. There's a difference between a mediation and a meeting. Like a lot of people say, I did a mediation, but the situation is still going on. We bring people together but after that mediation, we keep engaging those people and communities, so it doesn't happen again. Well, we work with core social services.
We organize these civil right fact-finding tours and we take children down South. And they get to see what people did for them to be in the position that they are in. We work with their parents. When you go and help the mother who is on crack and lift her up, that register a lot with these young guys who are violent, because a lot of the guys who are violent have parents who have let them down. I mean, you'd be surprised, it's the little things with these people�
MARTIN: Like what?
Mr. MOTEN: Like when they can't get a pair of tennis shoes. You say, well, I'll get you a pair of shoes if your grades go up. When there's a fight, when they trust you so much, most of the times we prevent a lot of stuff that happens because they call us when it happens.
MARTIN: And then what do you do?
Mr. MOTEN: First of all, we let them know we're not scared of them. That's the first thing. Look, come and sit your butt down, brother, because we are not going to tolerate you all killing each other. And if you keep killing each other, two things are going to happen, you're going to jail or you're going to be six feet under. We're coming here to try to stop either one of them things from happening.
MARTIN: Do they want to talk to you? Do the kids want to talk to you?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, sometimes you got to be persistent. Sometimes we get cursed out. Sometimes they tell us to go you know to where. But most of the time when you're really there to help people, the children know that.
MARTIN: Well, you would you agree that there's a lot to do, right?
Mr. MOTEN: Oh man, that's one of the reasons why�
MARTIN: So why, that's my question. So given that there's a lot to do, why are you leaving?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, I'm going to tell you why I'm leaving. One of the things I found out when I first started this mission was a lot of the older people were not passing the torch on to the younger people. Even though I'm 40 years old�
MARTIN: You're 40�
Mr. MOTEN: Right, the work�
MARTIN: No disrespect, but you're 40.
Mr. MOTEN: That's what I want to tell you. To be effective in this work you have to be available around the clock, not just to help to children, but to manage your programs and the people who are under you. You don't have a life. So I'm not going to get to the point where I'm like a lot of the older guys who's 60 years old saying their squashing beets.
I'm not going to do that. So when it gets to the point - like I have this young sister who took my place. Her name is Maia Shanklin Roberts(ph), right? A graduate from Stanford and when she came to my organization she came from a big law firm called Arnold and Porter. And I thought she was the Feds or something. I'm like, what is she here for?
MARTIN: You thought she was the Feds?
Mr. MOTEN: Yes. Because why would you want to come and work for $35,000 when you was making this over here? But she was serious about helping her people.
MARTIN: So would it be fair to say�
Mr. MOTEN: But she's only 23 years old.
MARTIN: That you're a little burned out?
Mr. MOTEN: No, it's not that I'm burned out. It's just that it's time - I understand when it's time to move on to the next phase.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Ronald Moten. He is the co-founder of Peaceoholics. It's a grassroots organization that works to stop violence among young people, mainly in Washington, D.C. He's moving on at the end of the year and we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation.
Your organization - a lot of people in the city really appreciate your organization, but it's not without criticism.
Mr. MOTEN: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: And one of the criticisms is that Peaceoholics has received since 2005 more than $10 million in grants and loans.
Mr. MOTEN: Right. Right.
MARTIN: Most of which goes for salary and overhead. And some people say, what are we really getting for that?
Mr. MOTEN: I think everybody - when you're getting public dollars people have the right to know, ask questions. But I also know when you shine in the sun you're going to get some blisters. So it was kind of unfair to say that we received $10 million over five years when five million was for a development project that we are doing for youth, for homeless youth, court-adjudicated youth and youth who are going through a lot of problems.
The other five million was over five years, which is a million dollars a year, which is nothing for what we do - 74 employees with one program that was a reentry program that had 85 percent success. Then we had one for children on probation, over 80 percent success and the children not violating probation while in our program.
MARTIN: Well, in fairness, one of the criticisms is not so much of you but of the city for not demanding more accountability from you. But what I'm asking you is, why do you think that is that groups like yours seem to attract criticism? And the criticism is often the same. What are you really doing with the money and are you really effective? Do you think it's the nature of the work or is it that perhaps the kind of people who are drawn to this work aren't necessarily as good with the books as they should be? I'm just curious what's your take on this.
Mr. MOTEN: That hasn't been our problem. We do everything we're supposed to do. The problem is several things. One is the self-hatred that a lot of our people have, the crabs in their barrels and the lobsters in the barrels downtown. Then you have people who don't understand us because they're not from where we're from. People like us are not looked at the same as other people because all these people who criticize, none of them would do what we're doing. And there's a saying that the people who do most of the knocking are the people who can't ring the bell. And I'm willing to take the heat. I'm moving on January the first�
MARTIN: And I was going to ask that. You're a senior man, a senior divo, or male diva, as we say, of 40�
Mr. MOTEN: Right.
MARTIN: What's next for you?
Mr. MOTEN: Staring January 1st, I've got what some of the young guys we had in this - what we called the street commission, that were leaders that we trained. They were doing a lot of mediations in their community with the ones who were firing the guns. But after we get them out of the streets, they can't get a job because of their records.
So with five of them, I'm about to start a company called The Other Side Media. So I'm going to show them how to be entrepreneurs. That's one program. And the other thing I'm going to be doing is going to be called The Returned Citizens Group. You know, we don't use the word ex-offenders here, because nobody called Martha Stewart an ex-offender before.
MARTIN: Interesting, interesting, returned citizen.
Mr. MOTEN: Right. And when you get people out of the gangs and crews, or people come home from prison, we have to have some opportunities for them if we really want to see change. And that's what I'm going to do, and I just thank God for the opportunity. And I'm fired up and ready to go.
MARTIN: I was going to say, you sound fired up and ready to go. That's - you stole my line. So we - as I mentioned when we began our conversation, we call this segment The Wisdom Watch, where we try to glean some wisdom from people like you who are a sort of a transition point in life. Do you have some wisdom to share?
Mr. MOTEN: Well, I just want to tell people that, you know, never give up. I remember in 2004, you know, I was almost homeless. I was heating my water up in the microwave for me and my daughter, who was with me, to take a bath, and my son, who lived with me. I'm a single parent, as well, raised one of my sons by myself. And when I walked out of that house every day, even though my gas was off and I had to heat my water up in the microwaves, I walked out with my head up because God takes his people who he's going to use in anything through adversity.
So I just say keep criticizing because people need to be held accountable. I believe in that. That's what makes this country, or made this country great. But the minute you take that away, this will be just like all the countries that we talking about who are not great.
So, I mean, I encourage people to stand up and practice citizenship and will never tell anybody to shut up, even if they disagree with me, because, you know, I don't practice that at all. So�
MARTIN: Clearly not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Ronald Moten is the cofounder of Peaceoholics. He was kind enough to stop in, in our studios in Washington. He's moving on at the beginning of the year. Ron Moten, keep us posted.
Mr. MOTEN: Thank you so much, and thank all my family, fans and, most importantly, God for making this mission possible.
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