Crosses for people who died by gun violence in D.C. in 2019, painted in the basement of Faith United Church of Christ in October. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Six days into 2020, D.C. is facing four homicides. In 2019 the city saw its highest homicide count in a decade. 

City Paper sat down with three men who are familiar with violence and funerals and asked them to give the data some context. They have ideas about why violence is increasing and what the District needs to do to have it decrease. 

“The first friend I lost to violence was shot in the head standing right next to me in Southwest,” says Julius Terry. “I stopped going to the funerals after my best friend died. It started to get very depressing,” says Markee Young. “I just left a funeral this morning for a guy who I grew up with,” says Rob Butler

All three men have spent time in prison. All three became D.C. government employees. 

They got jobs with the Pathways Program, a D.C. government initiative that offers cohorts of 25 men nine weeks of job training, career guidance, mental health services, and a variety of additional resources. They then move on to six months of subsidized permanent employment in the government or private sector.   

Pathways is a product of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act. Participants commute to the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement in Northeast D.C., where they put in nine hours a day, five days a week, for the duration of the training program. 

The first three cohorts served 73 men and had an 84 percent overall promotion rate. As of November, those men had a 51 percent employment rate, and a recidivism rate of less than 7 percent. Twenty-two more people graduated in December, and the program is growing. 

“The core of the mission of the Pathways Program is the belief that we can reduce gun violence by giving individuals a space to heal, and providing wrap-around services that provide opportunities for a better life,” says executive director Del McFadden, who previously worked on getting D.C.’s homicide numbers down in Columbia Heights.

Read the thoughts of Terry, Young, and Butler below. The interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.  

How did you come to know the Pathways Program?

Julius Terry: I was referred by my parole officer. I was incarcerated for felony possession of a firearm. I was given five years—two years incarcerated and then three years parole. That was my first gun charge. Before that it was marijuana distribution from the early ’90s.

Markee Young: I was charged with felony possession of a firearm. They gave me three years. When I was released I was in Project Empowerment first. It was a very good experience. Tony Lewis Jr. was our instructor. From there it came up that the Pathways Program was being created. I already knew what I wanted to do. I was just looking for an opportunity. I always knew I wanted to be a violence intervention specialist to give back to the youth. I knew my voice and knowledge that I had would resonate with this generation. I’ve done some of the same things they’ve done.

Rob Butler: I was released from prison March 9, 2017 and my probation officer referred me to the Pathways Program in about April of 2018 after a couple of dead end jobs and just trying to find my way. It started June 18, 2018. 

Have you lost any of your loved ones to violence? 

JT: Over the years I’ve lost many friends and colleagues to violence. The first friend I lost to violence was shot in the head standing right next to me in Southwest. It was in broad daylight. 

MY: I’ve lost a lot of friends but they put themselves in that situation. I stopped going to the funerals after my best friend died. It started to get very depressing. I could go as a sign of respect.

RB:I just left a funeral this morning for a guy who I grew up with. He got locked up at 15. He did nine years in prison at 15, an adult prison. He’d been home for about two years and he worked with Free Minds Book Club, and he’s been all around the country, just speaking positively, just talking about his experience being a juvenile at 15 and going to prison and how that shaped his mind, the way he thought, and what he did to stay strong and come home and be so positive. And then he was killed. So it’s just like—when that was happening to me when I was younger, I didn’t know how to process it. I just thought this was our fate. You know, young black men growing up in D.C., we’re gonna get killed.

Why do you think the homicide count is up in D.C.?

JT: There’s a lack of jobs, lack of resources, and lack of housing. If there were more jobs and more housing, then that would alleviate a lot of it. Individuals can go days or weeks [without resources]. An individual with kids is not going to get past that first day. He will figure out a way to make something happen. 

MY: Violence is a source of communication. It’s a conversation being held where someone is killed. There’s a disagreement we couldn’t solve. That’s where trauma-informed care comes from. Teaching the public proper, effective communication skills. A lot of times it’s not that issue that caused that young man to pull the trigger. It’s the fact that he has compound issues that he never dealt with that made him feel like this [violent act] is his end all be all. 

RB: I know with gentrification a lot of people are being pushed into places that they’re not comfortable with, or it’s not familiar to them. So what I’ve been learning about trauma is the way we respond to certain situations is not even in our control all the time. So if I get into a situation where I’m in constant flight or fight mode because I’m in this environment [where] I don’t know anybody, I’m not familiar with it, I wasn’t properly brought into this community—you know, just like, “Hey, you can’t stay here. Go here.” And you don’t know what this community is like, how it’s going to affect me and my family. And you get there and you walking around in constant flight or fight mode. … 

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People are not being properly treated, properly diagnosed, for a lot of the mental health issues that we deal with. Like I said, being traumatized, just walking home and seeing people on the street asking for money—people you knew were in great position at first. Having friends killed. Sometimes you sit outside in the neighborhood and gunshots go off and nobody moves. And we think it’s normal, but every time it’s just desensitizing us, it’s traumatizing us more and more and we never get treated for that. … 

Just seeing the amount of people who stand outside and beg, it’s traumatizing because I’ve seen that in my neighborhood—the transformation of when it was maybe one older guy or you would see a homeless person here. You even knew the homeless people. But now it’s like, I could see somebody who’s 16 years old. He looks older than me. He’s out there begging for change, and it’s just—if you got a heart and any type of compassion, it’s going to bother you. 

What’s the solution?

JT:Jobs. It’s hard to house people, I know. But if you can give them a job that will definitely help. People who have income have options. 

MY: Accountability. Teamwork. I think that we cast blame on too many of our leaders. It’s always their fault. I think that takes away from the community taking accountability for where we went wrong. I’m a preventer. We work towards prevention and educate the community about what’s going on. We need to teach the youth how not to put themselves in situations where they can be hurt, and [to] be accountable for their actions. 

RB:I like the new buildings that’s coming up. I like it, you know, bringing the city up and modernizing the city. I just think we have to be inclusive. That’s the big thing. Everybody wants better. Nobody wants to look at an old, run down building. I want you to fix it up and make it new. But also, I want to be included in that. So the training programs and stuff that we have around the city—kind of making it more modernized to the job market in D.C. 

And just the opportunities and exposure. I didn’t go to the Wilson Building until I was 29 years old, and I could have been down there. I never knew there was a platform that I could go down there and do that, so giving the kids more exposure and letting them know that they can fight. If there’s anything you don’t like in your city, you can campaign to change it. 

The mayor and police chief have proposed placing more officers on the streets as a way to curb the violence. Do you think that’s a good solution? What is the role of the police?

JT: It’s a good solution because everyone pretty much understands why there’s a need for more police. But if they put them out there then there has to be more cultural and more sensitivity training. You can’t keep getting cops from out of town and putting them in our neighborhoods. They have no connection, which is why they have no problem disrespecting the people that they’re dealing with. 

MY: If I were to look at from the mayor’s perspective, which I think people should do more often, I would say it’s understood that if police are visible that will curb the situation. That’s the way I think she’s looking at it. 

RB: The police have a job to do at the end of the day. So that’s their job, to enforce the law. I just think they should be more sensitive when they’re dealing with certain populations because of the trauma piece. So what naturally may seem like an aggressive young man, that’s somebody who’s hurt and has been told that the police are against them. So if that’s what I’ve been told all my life, you may be a great policeman who is here to help me. But I don’t know that initially. And I need you to understand that I’m not coming at you like that because of you—it’s your uniform. The same way when you see me and you see a young black man and you want to stereotype me. No, we both have to have that interaction where it’s like, you know, we in the same community. 

What would be your advice to young people trying to avoid trouble? What suggestions do you have for parents trying to keep their children away from violence? 

JT: Don’t worry about what nobody say. Don’t worry about what nobody do. Only good can come from doing good. 

MY: For the parents, I would say be stern but fair. Be understanding and create a structure. Accountability for your children’s whereabouts. Educate yourself on how to teach your children how to protect themselves while they’re out there. 

RB: Don’t be afraid to have that real talk because a lot of times we think our kids don’t know certain stuff, but they probably know more about it than us, or a lot more than we think they know. So we underestimate them. Like, sit down and have them real conversations and when you walk in the neighborhood and you see certain things, point them out. “That’s not what you do. This is why you move this way. This is why you conduct yourself this way.” Because kids don’t want to be fabricated. You don’t have to give them the sweet version. They want to be able to know the truth, so when they get any situation, they know exactly what to do.

What are your goals now? What are you working toward?

JT: My goal now is working towards a house. Where I’m at now, I plan to be there for seven years. Just so my kids will know that their bedrooms is their bedrooms. That’s something I never had. Everything about my goals and aspirations are about my kids. Career-wise I plan on staying in the government. I would like to go back to school. I’m trying to be a licensed social worker. There’s a lack of black social workers in the government and in private practice, especially dealing with our communities. The people that they are dealing with need informed trauma care. 

MY: Continue my quest as a man and understanding what that is. I want people to remember me as being honest and relatable. My overall goal, besides becoming a better man, is becoming a better father. Career-wise I can definitely see myself heading my own [violence interruption] team tackling issues around why the trigger is pulled. A lot of people make the issues happening in these areas more political and who’s not responding. But it’s a whole story that happens before you get there. 

RB:In January of 2018 I found out I would be having my first child. So when she was born, September 27, 2018—her name is  b—that really propelled and motivated me. … 

Just seeing her transformation from her coming home from the hospital and she can’t even roll over, ’til she’s walking now and bossing everybody around. So it’s that elevation of life. It’s fun to watch and be there with her. 

Right now my goals are to just continue to elevate and try to bring as many people with me as possible—as many people that’s ready to make the transformation. We want to help everybody, but everybody don’t want to be helped and everybody not ready, or in a position to be helped. So all those people that are ready, I just want to help them get to a place where I am. And I ain’t got that far, but I’m in a much different space mentally and emotionally and spiritually because of just the transformation that I made. 

Anything else you want to say about the Pathways Program?

JT: Before I was in the Pathways Program I was released from prison. Being an orphan with nowhere to go I was in a shelter. And then I got into the Pathways Program. Not only did they help me link to housing, they gave me a blueprint to get custody of my kids. That led to full-time employment. And later a better life. The Pathways Program, for me, was life-changing. 

MY: It’s one of the first programs, to my knowledge, that offers multiple solutions to many problems. They have therapists, relatable instructors, and people who care about you. You get, “Hi! How are you doing?” about a hundred times a day. But it’s love. I’m coming into a loving environment with people that want to see me win. When you sign up you’re expected to be accountable. You’re expected to be here. You’re expected to win. Pathways saved my life. 

RB: During the Pathways Program I started a clothing line called Evolution of Kings. On Instagram that’s @evolution_kings. … And through my clothing line, I want to—the first message is that all men, we’re all kings, no matter your ethnicity or background, and we’re all steadily evolving every day. So that’s how I came up with Evolution of Kings, and I just want us to all love and respect each other as kings.