Maclovio Marquez is now a personal trainer and coach in downtown San Diego, but just a couple of years ago he was dealing drugs.
“To be a gang member or to be ‘tough’ or to have this persona of ‘I’m a badass’ is so widely accepted,” Marquez said. “Not only is it widely accepted, it's strongly enforced and encouraged, when it doesn't need to be.”
Donavyn Dove said growing up, he experienced similar scenarios.
“We don't have counselors, we counsel ourselves. We drink, we smoke, they put liquor stores everywhere. We out here faded, we out here lost,” Dove said. “No guidance, police circling around our neighborhood all day — it's cops and robbers. So it put us in a criminal mindset already.”
Marquez and Dove both said an organization called Paving Great Futures helped turn their lives around. Now they’re mentors for other youth.
Armand King co-founded the group, which educates kids and young adults on harsh realities many of them face: from drug abuse and child sex trafficking — to homelessness and youth violence.
King, a former pimp, said the program gives them hope.
“It gives them ideas and thoughts and belief that they can do more than what their circumstances that they grew up in might dictate to them,” he said.
Now, King is building on the lessons he learned through Paving Great Futures and as the Chair of San Diego Gang Prevention & Intervention board.
His next chapter is a separate, for-profit youth mentoring curriculum called Walk With Me Impact.
“The only solution we end up hearing is prison. The only things that we see as a result to the lifestyle is death and incarceration,” King said. “So this curriculum, we are fully focusing on prevention tactics, prevention methods. How do we stop a kid from ever having to go through these traumatic experiences?”
King said Walk With Me Impact is a for-profit business model so youth consultants, like Kemet Ackee, make a good wage.
Ackee said money is often at the heart of many of the other issues affecting at-risk youth and kids can be attracted to the lucrative profits from illegal and dangerous work.
“You know pimps always have money, fly clothes, got girls, giving out dollars to the young — to us — and looking out for us and taking care of us. A lot of us don't have fathers, older brothers or anyone that’s looking out for us like that,” Ackee said.
"The material in this curriculum will help kids not only recognize what they’re surrounded by, recognize these toxic lifestyles, but it’ll help them cope with things that they're already dealing with and prepare them for things that may be approaching them."
The program will provide youth with positive role models who look like them and are from similar backgrounds, like Ackee, Dove and Marquez.
“I know when I was younger and when I was in that lifestyle I didn’t want to talk to no adults about what I was doing,” Marquez said. “But if I knew you could relate to me and you know what I’m going through I’d be more willing to not only vent to you but to engage with you and keep a relationship with you.”
The new curriculum includes rap music, a video documentary series and a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, where readers can make choices based on real-life experiences.
“The material in this curriculum will help kids not only recognize what they’re surrounded by, recognize these toxic lifestyles, but it’ll help them cope with things that they're already dealing with and prepare them for things that may be approaching them,” King said.
There’s a dire need for this new curriculum, according to King, who said he’s lost too many loved ones over the past couple years to drug overdoses and street violence.
“And after death, after death, after death it's like being at war in Afghanistan,” King said. “It seems like nobody cares. And [people are] wondering why you can't behave well at school, wondering why you're not participating in society.”
King said the Walk With Me Impact curriculum is being reviewed by two professors at Point Loma Nazarene and San Diego State University. A kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the initiative starts on August 2nd.
Eventually, he hopes to expand the program into schools, juvenile halls and other settings across the U.S. and Canada.