A world where hate won’t win

After the Charleston A.M.E. massacre, the Simmons sisters chose to forgive, and to challenge everyone else to show love in the face of fear

When Alana Simmons stepped up to the courtroom microphone and looked into the face of the young man who a night before had murdered her grandfather and 8 other people in a Charleston, South Carolina church, she didn’t curse him. She didn’t cry for revenge. She didn’t show anger.

Alana forgave him instead. And then she uttered words which would give her family a newfound purpose.

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate,” Alana said, “this is proof — everyone’s plea for your soul is proof — that they lived in love. And their legacies will live in love so hate won’t win. I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”

Hate won’t win.

As the shooter stood motionless, one by one family members of the people he murdered forgave him. None knew that their words were being broadcast live on CNN to an audience of millions of people.

Two months after their grandfather Daniel Simmons, Jr. lost his life at the A.M.E. Church in June, Ava and Alana Simmons traveled to Milwaukee to deliver a keynote at Public Allies’ National Leadership Institute dinner, where hundreds of leaders from across the country listened to their message of forgiveness and love. The sisters were presented with Public Allies’ “Living Our Values” award for their courage in living out their values.

“I challenge you to lead by demonstration,” Alana says. “It’s so important for people to see people loving each other regardless of their differences. It’s really important that we do the groundwork to motivate people, and facilitate that community and diversity our country lacks.”

The Simmons sisters — Ava and Alana — have made a conscious choice to use the media attention the murder bestowed on them to launch a new social campaign: #HateWontWin.

They are asking people to show an act of love toward people who are different, and post about it on social media with the hashtag #hatewontwin. Hundreds all over the country have accepted the challenge, including a mother and a young boy who baked cookies and walked them over to a police station, even though the young boy was frightened of police from the stories he’d heard in his neighborhood.

“We believe that true freedom doesn’t rely on a change of a policy,” Alana says. “True freedom relies on the change of the hearts of the people. So we’re asking you to help us change the hearts of the people.”

You can follow their campaign on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/HateWontWin_

A young leader’s commitment to do right inspires an unexpected wave of support nationwide

In the face of skepticism, AmeriCorps Ally Ebony Butts organized a Girl Scout troop in an often-shunned neighborhood of Cincinnati. Then something amazing happened…

You can see Cincinnati’s glimmering downtown skyline from Lower Price Hill. But the tucked away neighborhood of about 2,000 people can feel like a world away from downtown’s fancy office towers.

Lower Price Hill has a reputation as a place with high unemployment, rampant drug abuse, and growing poverty. The average family income here is only $15,000 a year. So when Ebony Butts, an AmeriCorps Ally who grew up a couple miles away, began telling people she was going to found a new Girl Scout troop in Lower Price Hill, many simply couldn’t see the point of it.

“They’d tell me, ‘I don’t know if the girls there will be interested,’” Ebony says. “I couldn’t believe what they were saying! I’ve never met any girl who wouldn’t be interested in something like this.”

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In spite of the skepticism, Ebony moved forward and organized Troop 49632. But they soon faced a daunting dilemma. Most parents didn’t have money to pay for the girls to go to camp, so if they wanted to go, they needed to raise the money themselves. Ebony did the math: They needed to sell 1,500 boxes of cookies.

Again, Ebony was met with skepticism that they could succeed in selling so many cookies. And again, driven by her deep optimism, she vowed to make it happen no matter the odds. She wasn’t, after all, going to let the girls down.

“There is a lot of false hope in Lower Price Hill and East Price Hill,” Ebony says. “People say we’re going to do this and that. And then you’re waiting for it to happen and it never happens.”

Ebony began telling everyone about the girls in Lower Price Hill’s Girl Scout troop. And she started selling those cookies.

News of the project soon reached Sherry Coolidge, a reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer who happened to be in the neighborhood. Sherry reached out to Ebony to talk. “She was such an awesome person,” says Ebony. “I was elated to have someone who really cared about what we were trying to achieve for these girls and this neighborhood.”

A few days later, the Cincinnati Enquirer featured their story on the cover of their Sunday issue, followed by more coverage in their online sections. When Ebony came to work at Community Matters, where she was placed as an AmeriCorps Ally, on the Monday morning after the story broke, she encountered “the best melee I’ve ever seen in my life… it was just bananas, the most beautiful thing ever.”

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What she experienced were a flood of incoming emails and phone calls from all over Cincinnati — and from as far away as Louisiana, Nevada, New York, and North Carolina — all wanting to buy Girl Scout cookies.

Ebony’s boundless and inspiring energy, her determination, and the commitment of the girls and parents of Lower Price Hill to make the troop a success, led them to sell more than 5,000 boxes of cookies.

For the girls and parents of the Lower Price Hill Girl Scout Troop 49632, Ebony’s efforts sparked rare expressions of community pride among residents.

“Before this, any time Lower Price Hill was brought up in the news, it would be for something negative,” says Ebony. “And we gave them something to be proud of. The neighbors, parents, and folk who live there, I’ve started to hear them say, ‘It’s good to see the girls have something to do, it’s nice to see girls in the newspaper.’”

“Slowly,” Ebony continues, “with the aid of the Girl Scout Troop, people will stop seeing Lower Price Hill as just a violent place you don’t want to live in.”

For her amazing leadership, and for reflecting the mission and values of Public Allies, Ebony was presented in August with Public Allies’ inaugural Ally Servant Leadership Award. She is currently completing her second year as an Ally, and is working on a degree at the College of Mt. Saint Joseph.

Public Allies CEO Adren O. Wilson, Ph.D., with Cincinnati AmeriCorps Ally Ebony Butts

She says she feels fulfilled to be working with community children and families near where she grew up.

“I tell my girls, ‘You don’t have to settle,'” Ebony says. “You can have a career, you can live that dream. It may not happen when you’re 25, it might happen when you’re 32, like it happened to me. When I wake up now, I do something that I’m passionate about. I’m right where I want to be.”

A second chance breathes new life for a man fresh out of prison

Roland Whitley had spent 9 years in prison, and it wasn’t until he joined Public Allies that he could begin to express his full potential and leadership in Connecticut

Every year about 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons. Two-thirds of them are rearrested within three years of release, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

When Roland Whitley walked out of prison for the third time recently, having done a total of 9 years on drug charges, he was sure he didn’t want to go back for a fourth time. But it wasn’t easy.

“I came home (to Bridgeport, Connecticut) and started my own business doing odd jobs, but I was still in the streets trying to get my life together,” Roland explains. “One day I told a friend, Steve Nelson, who is a police officer, ‘I need help.’ So Steve and Kingsley Osei, who founded Connecticut Against Violence (CAV), invited me to speak to a group of students.”

FullSizeRender (4)Roland accepted the invitation and, through CAV, he met Charlie Grady, the Bridgeport Project Manager for Project Longevity, a violence reduction partnership of law enforcement, social service providers, and residents.  When Charlie heard Roland’s story, he urged him to apply to Public Allies. Though the application and interview process made him nervous, Roland says he felt it was an opportunity that could lead to a fresh start.

“I loved that they didn’t look at me as an ex-felon, as someone who sold drugs,” Roland says. “They looked at me as Roland Whitley. I love that about Public Allies, they are the only one who truly gave me a second chance.”

Roland was accepted as an AmeriCorps Ally, and started serving at Stamford Academy, a high school that provides a supportive educational environment for students who have struggled in traditional school environments or have dropped out of school.

“When I first started working, I wasn’t used to computers, or to even really working,” Roland says. “Meetings, debriefs, deadlines – all these demands – I wasn’t used to it. The streets were my comfort zone.”

But with the support of his fellow Allies, things got easier.

“I’m blessed – I’m telling you, Public Allies brought a lot out in me and showed me that it’s in me, that there is positive in me,” Roland says. “Two, three years ago I could never have told you I’d be here, working in a high school, teaching students, being so positive.”

Every Wednesday, Roland teaches a popular life-skills class, but he has a unique approach. “Instead of having them just listen to me, I have the students interact with each other and I bring guest speakers,” Roland says. “The speakers let them know, ‘You’re not the only one going through struggles.’”

“I try to teach students that they are leaders,” he continues. “We have a different student lead the class each week. They can lead. They can do more than just sit in the class and listen.”

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Roland sees people in his neighborhood approach him much differently than before. “Before they’d say, ‘Roland, let’s go have a drink,’” he says. “Now they’re saying, ‘I know a friend who is going through some things, can I get your number?’ They’re looking to me for advice.”

The second chance Roland found at Public Allies didn’t just lead to a job he loves — his AmeriCorps placement at Stamford Academy has since hired Roland full time — but to a better home life.

“I’m still working on it,” Roland says. “But overall Public Allies helped me become a better father; to have a better relationship with Requelinda (his long-time partner Requelinda Cabral); and to be a better uncle.”

Roland has three children, daughters Kei’jai, 20, and Tatiyana, 18, both college students; and son Noah, 1 year old. “Public Allies allowed me to put my family in a better position, not just for today but for tomorrow as well,” he says. “Since I joined Public Allies and changed my life, Requelinda and I have been blessed with another child. Now I have a one-year-old boy. She and I have been together 20 years – she stuck with me.  She’s my biggest cheerleader.”

Roland, who completed Public Allies Connecticut in the summer, muses on what might have been if he’d missed this opportunity. “If it weren’t for Public Allies, I’d be somewhere totally different,” he says. “And it wouldn’t be good.”

Grammy winner, Public Allies alum Malik Yusef is a champion of change

He’s won five Grammy Awards and his friends include people like Kanye West and Common. But back in the fall of 1996, Malik Yusef The Wordsmyth was just one of 26 young Chicagoans who were starting their journey together as new members of Public Allies.

Malik has since gone on to great critical and commercial success as a producer, writer and musical artist, as his many Grammy, Emmy, Peabody, ASCAP and Tony awards attest to. But unlike a lot of other successful musicians, all of his work — starting with his debut album “The Great Chicago Fire: A Cold Day in Hell” — has always had a strong social component.

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Common, Malik Yusef, and John Legend.

In a keynote address at Public Allies’ National Leadership Institute in August, Malik credits his Public Allies experience with giving him many of the vital skills he’s needed to be an effective advocate for societal change.

“At the core of me is a champion of change,” says Malik, who was raised in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood known as “Wild 100’s.” “I don’t think I enter any situation in my life without thinking how it affects the majority of the people. And a lot of those skills I learned at Public Allies, being with a group of people who were all working toward the same goals.”

For Malik, those “same goals” mean being community minded and — as he puts it — “climate changing.” “By climate I don’t mean the temperature, but changing the environment that people have to exist in.”

Malik, who regularly rubs elbows with the music industry elite, gave many examples illustrating that to be successful at anything — or even to have a chance at success — talent simply isn’t enough. You need to work hard.

“When Kanye (West) was 15, 16, and 17 years old, he sacrificed three whole summers making five beats a day,” Malik says of his longtime friend. “I’m going to assume the first five beats he made weren’t that good. But he failed forward. He failed going toward the prize.”

“And that’s not the story you want to hear,” Malik continues. “You want to hear this guy is different than us. You want to believe in the Superman. We all do. That in case something goes wrong someone will swoop from the sky to save you. But you’re the salvation, you’re the hero, you’re the champion.”

Malik closed with a special message for everyone in the Public Allies network who works with youth or young adults. It boils down to having integrity.

“These kids are in tune, they’re looking, they need, they want, they deserve, they believe in what you’re saying,” Malik says. “People’s victories are dependent on your actions. And they’re going to hold you to what you said you were going to do. In this place, we have no luxury. There are no days off. There are no plays off.”