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'Street Soldiers' Use Talk Radio to Reach Out to Gang Members : San Francisco: Callers gain access to Omega Boys Club workshops that provide academic help, job training, peer counseling for imprisoned youth and violence prevention for gang-war refugees.

January 09, 1994|RICHARD LORANT | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO — It's 10:33 on a Monday night when KMEL disc jockey Kevin Nash trades his love ballads and Top-40 hits for a grittier mix.

"It's time to kick off 'Street Soldiers' tonight," Nash says as he lowers the volume on the mellow jazz blowing in the background.

"It's time to save some lives."

Over the next four hours, Nash and hosts Joe Marshall and Margaret Norris take calls from:

* A young man who raps about rebuilding a life blown apart by his mother's murder, his father's shooting and his own involvement with gangs and drugs.

* A woman who talks for 15 minutes about other people's pain before letting on that she and her children are living in a homeless shelter.

* A group of rappers organizing a "peace party, dance and talk show" to end a small-town turf war.

* A jail guard torn by her concern for the women she sees behind bars.

Through it all, Marshall and Norris, both of them teachers, mete out advice, encouragement and stern warnings--the kind of talk that might come from responsible parents, sadly lacking in many of their listeners' lives.

It is all part of a community-based effort to end the street violence that plagues, above all, minority youth.

KMEL is the city's most popular music station; in fact, the first host of "Street Soldiers" in 1991 was the rapper Hammer, and the name was taken from one of his songs. But "Street Soldiers" offers no music--just the harsh realities of the inner city. And the effect is often gut-wrenching.

A 16-year-old boy is deaf to his older brother's warnings about gangs; he says he needs his crew for protection.

"You don't need a gang," Marshall says. "Gangs only exist to hurt other people. . . . You're playing with fire, I'm telling you. Get out."

"At the beginning of your call, you said it's getting crazy out here," Norris says. "Well, who's responsible for the madness? You are."

Another call: A former gang-banger fights his urge to strike back at a tormentor who is "disrespecting" him.

"So the talk takes away your manhood?" Norris says. "Back up a second. Did you really understand that question that I asked you? I said, does the talk take away your manhood. And you said, 'Yes'?"

"Maybe you don't have the right definition of manhood," Marshall says.

But "Street Soldiers" offers more than words.

Callers also gain access to an extended family network centered around the Omega Boys Club of San Francisco, co-founded in 1987 by Marshall.

Omega workshops provide academic help for college-bound students, job training for high-schoolers, peer counseling for imprisoned youth and violence-prevention training for gang war refugees.

Marshall, 46, is Omega's executive director. Norris, 41, is the club's academic director.

"They're like the father and mother of Omega. They're both nice, but they have that stern outlook. . . . They'll never let you go down," says Otis Mims.

Mims, a star high school athlete whose addiction to crack cocaine cost him a college scholarship and nearly ruined his life, was coming out of a four-year tailspin when he tuned into "Street Soldiers" last year.

"It was like a light going off in me," he says. "Things just weren't right in my life and I knew it."

Mims received counseling, academic help and tuition money from Omega. Now 23, he attends Contra Costa Community College, one of 110 young men and women in college on Omega scholarships.

Corey Monroe, 22, discovered Omega five years ago. His mother died when he was 14, his father had a drinking problem. Now he's a ready-for-work counselor at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, a youth center.

"There's temptation out there. You get teased a lot, being young, if you're not in a crowd," Monroe says. "Being a teen-ager, you always want to fit in. You want to be like everyone else."

In the Hunters Point neighborhood where Monroe grew up, being like everyone else can mean skipping school, joining a gang, packing guns or doing drugs.

"I know a few that have been killed; I know a few that are in jail now. I know a few that started smoking drugs," Monroe says.

"None of the kids I hung out with and none of the kids in the projects are bad. It's just that parents aren't there for them. They don't have role models."

Marshall and Norris say optimism is a key to their success.

"We've just got a tremendous faith in people. And the kids, we've got an enormous faith in them," he says.

But they also acknowledge the obvious: There are a lot of people who have sunk beyond their reach. In October, a stray bullet fired by one such person killed San Francisco community activist Maxine Hall, a woman dedicated to helping youths like the one who shot her.

On the radio show, Norris urges witnesses to come forward and identify Hall's killer for police.

"Who killed Mrs. Maxine Hall? All of us who know and remain silent are guilty," she says.

The hosts never lose sight of the fact that their listeners are constantly confronted with difficult choices. "It's hard," says the youth who was struggling to refrain from striking back at trash-talkers.

"Sure it's hard, man," Marshall replies. "Life is hard."

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