Starting a conversation with a stranger can be difficult. That can be especially true for a young person.
A Pittsburgh nonprofit based at the Children’s Museum, the Saturday Light Brigade, is helping initiate those talks between generations. For six years it has paired black boys with men in their communities. The boys interview the men about their lives for a series called Crossing Fences. The interviews are then turned into short oral histories. The most recent installment of interviews was released this month.
Seventeen-year-old Shawn McGinester was at his neighborhood library this summer when he learned about the week-long program of interviews that included a laptop he’d get to keep.
“I wasn’t really interested,” he said. “But, that’s what lured me in.”
Last week, McGinester stood in front of a crowd of people gathered to celebrate the stories he helped produce. In a vest and tennis shoes, he confidently scanned the room and told the audience that going into it, he thought the interviews would be along the lines of lectures on topics such as: Treat your elders with respect, love your mom.
“But what I heard, was the importance of human life,” he told them.
McGinester interviewed Mubarik Ismaeli, who also grew up in Homewood and now runs a nonprofit, Homewood Community Sports. McGinester asked Ismaeli what could be done to stop gun violence in their neighborhood.
Ismaeli spoke about the importance of activism and standing up to protect each other. He pointed to the community’s reaction to Antwon Rose’s death this summer. When the 17-year-old was killed by a white police officer, people took to the streets for weeks.
“Getting shot in your back should never happen. If one of y’all got shot in your back, best believe I’ll be ready to die for y’all. Period,” Ismaeli told McGinester and another student during the interview.
McGinester didn’t expect that response.
“I think it’s him realizing that life is more important than just accomplishments, money and success,” McGinester said. “It’s about what you give to other people. It’s about ending this cycle of selfishness.”
He said he now recognizes his own selfishness.
“I don’t have to have it be about me, me, me. Like the reason I even got into the program in the first place was over a laptop, which is going to benefit me,” he said. “Whenever I go through life I just want to make sure I’m giving to others.”
Ismaeli didn’t know that what he said impacted McGinester until he heard him say it months later. Most people call him Coach Mu, and he embodies that title. He uses inspirational metaphors and talks about perseverance. He quotes Tupac Shakur who once said he might not change the world but, “I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” Ismaeli takes that sentiment seriously.
“We talking about life and death here when we’re dealing with young black boys,” he said. “And I teach to them that everything we’re doing right now is to set them up in a better position. And as black people as a whole, we have to start thinking like that.”
That interview stood out to Chanessa Schuler who runs the Crossing Fences program for the Saturday Light Brigade. She said those moments make this type of project work.
“We’re not having many conversations with our community members and the people around us as we should. I feel like we’re missing that village as things are changing within our neighborhoods,” Schuler said.
This year the program paired 30 boys with 30 men in Hazelwood, Homewood and the Hill District.
“There are many ways you can rebuild a village, but this is one of the ways that we’re trying to do it using the skills that we have,” she said.
Schuler said she has watched the students connect with the men most when they ask about challenges that they’ve faced.
“I feel like our students are really connecting to these men when it comes to family structure, violence within communities, taking care of siblings, those types of things,” she said. “We absolutely need them to ask those questions.”
Some boys have told interviewees that they felt desensitized to the violence.
“(One boy) thought he wasn’t going to live past a certain age. And we have to kind of face reality right now. There are a lot of young black men being killed and some of our participants are experiencing these things,” she said. “So to sit across from someone who kind of made it past that experience and that suffering is really important. It’s really important for our boys to hear that because the reality is they may not see a way out.”
They also ask light-hearted questions.
“’If you were a superhero what would you be?’ And sometimes these men respond with some really inspiring things,” Schuler said.
Over six years the project has trained 200 boys and 200 men have been interviewed. Now, Schuler is working on a pilot program for girls to interview women in their communities.