Ex-cons working with youth in Rexdale to reduce gun violence

By Faiza Amin

DaRue Ramsay has spent a little over two years in prison for extortion and a gun charge, but now he’s a community leader who works with under-served youth.

On Monday, the City will be hearing a proposal about why it needs to work alongside people like Ramsay to help reduce gun violence in Toronto. TDSB Trustee Chris Glover will be asking the Toronto board of Health to treat shootings as a public health issue and adopt The Interrupters program, a radical proposal that will see the city hire and train ex-convicts to tackle what many advocates say is a gun epidemic in Toronto.

Zya Brown not only supports this proposal, but has already implemented it for nearly a decade through her program called Think 2wice, in the city’s Rexdale community.

“Every neighbourhood has issues of gun violence and every neighbourhood and every youth in the neighbourhood will only listen to the role models who they can identify with and relate to,” said Brown. “Many of those people are in prison or they have been in prison.”

The organization’s Kings to Kingz Prevention and Intervention Project works with under-served youth who are from low income or gang involved neighbourhoods. Mentorship is a significant component of the program, where men who’ve experienced life behind bars play a role in programming and developing relationships with youth.

“This is one of the very few programs that are effective when it comes to youth violence, crime and gang violence,” said Brown. “That’s only because change has to come within.”

When Ramsay was released from prison, he turned to the one organization that changed his life when he was behind bars. He’s now a Program Leader with the Kings to Kingz.

“I’ve been in the streets, I’ve been in prison so I know what it’s like to live this lifestyle,” Ramsay said. “I feel like they can learn something from me, and if they see that I can change, anybody can change.”

Every two weeks since 2009, the organization also takes participants into prisons to speak with inmates and hear their stories. One of these men, which CityNews is simply calling ‘John’, has been in jail since 2006.

Life behind bars

At the age of 22, John was sentenced 25 years to life for first degree murder.

“I’m not guilty of the actual crime I’m here for, but I’m guilty of a lifestyle,” he tells CityNews during a phone conversation. “I figured if I’d have gone to school, worked, maybe I would’ve gotten the benefit of the doubt.”

The program’s participants take a trip to a prison where they can interact freely with the inmates. For John, who does a variety of artistic projects with the participants, it’s also an opportunity to put a real face to the issue.

“It’s like a reality shock for them,” John tells CityNews. “We’re people in the community they can identify with, and for them to see in a matter of a split second, you can be in the same predicament so think twice.”

John, who has served 12 years in a federal prison, also has a two month old daughter. He says prior to his incarceration, he was hanging out with bad crowds and wishes he had a positive mentor who was there to guide him.

“Often times we know the good stuff about the streets, but nobody tells you about the bad, like the penitentiary, and you don’t gain support but lose support,” he said. “They can be more and they should be more, and there’s potential out there, don’t come in here to learn that.”

Though Brown says the program has been successful and effective in the community, she faces daily challenges, including the lack of funding and support Think 2wice receives.

“We get pockets of donations here and there, but it’s out of pocket mostly,” Brown said. “What we need to use is the people who have been there and done that, and give them the tools/skills they need to give back to the young people through their story. Because it’s through the story of people that change will happen, and only through the stories of people.”

Letter penned by “John” behind bars aimed at encouraging youth to make the right decisions.

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