Educates thousands on self-pride and personal responsibility
The 75-year-old Hall of Famer from Manhasset, L.I., organized athletes to support Muhammad Ali after the heavyweight champ’s boxing title was stripped for refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam War. He founded the Black Economic Union to promote economic development in the African-American community.
When gang violence began turning Southern California neighborhoods into war zones in the late 1980s, Brown says it became clear that preventing Crips and Bloods from shooting each other was more important than securing loans for minority businesses. He founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation as a way to not only stop the violence, but to teach troubled people self-pride and personal responsibility.
“Amer-I-Can came out of the need to get down to the street level,” Brown says as he relaxes with his chief-of-staff, Rudolph (Rockhead) Johnson and his pit-bull mix, Cooper, on the patio of his home in the Hollywood hills, high above the hustle of Los Angeles.
“I was doing economic development for minorities. I was getting black folks to use their dollars to help each other. I looked up and saw black men killing each other over red and blue. Until we did something about that, there was no use for economic development.”
Brown got deeply involved in gang culture and politics. He invited hundreds of gang members to his home to break bread and discuss the conflicts that were sparking violence on the street. His friends worried that he, too, might become a victim of gang violence. “The so-called incorrigibles,” he says, “were not the way people said they were. I found a lot of character in some of these people.”
Amer-I-Can has touched the lives of gang members, prison inmates, ex-cons, at-risk kids and thousands of other people since Brown founded it nearly 25 years ago. It operates programs in more than a dozen states, including New York and New Jersey.
The heart of the program is what Brown and Johnson simply refer to as “the curriculum,” a 15-lesson course Brown developed with sociologists and educators that encourages its students to examine their motivations and prejudices, gain control of their emotions, solve everyday problems and build family ties. The course also helps students find and keep jobs, as well as maintain financial stability. Brown says the curriculum is intended to counter the materialism and winner-take-all mentality that he sees in American culture. Money, he says, can’t buy inner peace.
“You have to put money in its proper perspective,” Brown says. “The way it is positioned in the culture is like it is the most important thing. But something is missing. Capitalistic society teaches kids to be No. 1, but true self-esteem doesn’t come from money. It doesn’t come from winning the Super Bowl.”
Although originally intended as a gang-intervention tool, Johnson says he has taught the curriculum to ministers, union members, teachers, cops and FBI agents as well. It transcends socio-economic boundaries, says Johnson, a former Compton Crips leader.
“If you want to reach a lot of people you have to have a curriculum that deals with everyone,” Brown adds. “It can’t be based on gender, or race, or religion. We all have needs as human beings. You need a program that addresses the common denominator.”
Earlier that day, Johnson and another Amer-I-Can facilitator, Julian Mendoza, led a class based on the Amer-I-Can curriculum at Warren High School in Downey, Calif., a primarily Hispanic, middle-class community in southeast Los Angeles County.
Downey doesn’t have much of a gang problem, but school officials offer the curriculum as an elective class, says vice principal Jeff Giles, because it pays dividends for struggling students. Kids who participate in the class, he says, make strong improvements in their classwork — and have far fewer attendance and disciplinary problems.
“It fills a void in the educational system,” says history teacher Adrian Quintero. “It is hard for these kids to focus on academics when they don’t feel good about themselves. It forces them to look at themselves and ask, ‘What are my goals? What are my fears?’”
Brown says the curriculum should be taught in every school. “The problems can be solved,” he says. “It’s the politics that are the problem.”
So when Johnson tells him he’s interested in kicking off a voter registration drive, Brown nearly jumps out of his seat.
“Now we’re talking!” the old football player says. “We got to get the right people elected. If you have a voting bloc, you have power!”
I think Jim Brown and the real Freeway Ricky Ross should get together.
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