Earl Minley, 18, (left) credits Violence Free Zone and Charles Robinson Jr. (right) for helping him turn his life around. He was one of 18 Milwaukee Public Schools students awarded scholarships for their hard work. Credit: Karen W. Higgins
In My Opinion. Author: James E. Causey
June 21, 2016
When Earl Minley was in eighth grade, he got into fistfights and hung around boys who packed heat. Graduating from high school was not on his mind. Today, Minley, 18, is the first person from his family to not only graduate from high school, but he did so with honors. The Vincent High School grad said he is nothing like his former self thanks in part to Violence Free Zone, Running Rebels and a man who he described as his “high school dad.”
At an event June 15, Minley and 17 other Milwaukee Public Schools students were recognized as peer mentors for showing exemplary leadership as ambassadors of peace in their community. Each student was awarded a scholarship for $2,500 to assist with tuition costs at the college or university of his or her choice next fall, with the option of applying $500 to the costs of supplies and equipment, for a total of $45,000 in awards.
When Minley was introduced at the podium by his mentor Charles Robinson Jr., Minley talked about how Robinson was always there for him. He talked about how his father was incarcerated and Robinson helped to get Earl Minley on the right path.
“If he saw me with having a bad day or something like that he was there to pick me up. He would say ‘come to my office and let’s talk,’” Minley said. “He talked to me like a father would and I needed that.” He then turned to Robinson and gave him a hug, which brought a tear to a few eyes in the crowd.
Minley’s story is not the one you typically hear, but thousands of students just like him overcome the odds every year to graduate from MPS and go to college. He will be majoring in criminal justice at Concordia University in the fall. He wants to be a federal probation officer. He gave a special thanks to his mother, who raised him and his two brothers and worked two and three jobs just so they could have food on the table and clothes on their backs.
“It was hard for her getting to work with no car and trying to make ends meet. She didn’t have a lot but she had time and that’s what matters the most,” he said.
At least half of the students honored at the ceremony admitted that they had some rough patches in school. All of them thanked their VFZ mentors and parents for helping them along the way. One girl got pregnant; another admitted that she didn’t want to listen to anyone; and one boy talked about his quick temper.
Violence Free Zone started in Milwaukee 10 years ago. It’s now in 11 high schools. The program has a proven track record of reducing fights and suspensions in schools by having young adults and peer mediators work with students to defuse a situation before it escalates. Students who participate in the program learn not only how to settle disputes but how to teach their peers on how to settle disagreements. Many of the students had multiple colleges and universities to pick from; some of the schools the students will be attending include historically black colleges and universities, as well as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College, Cardinal Stritch University and Marquette University.
Bob Woodson, founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C., which funds programs such as Violence Free Zone and Running Rebels, said the problem is that society believes more in policing our way to safety instead of youth mentoring programs that work. When I talked to Robinson about Minley’s speech, he told me that it brought him to tears. Many of the kids who are going through tough patches just want to know that they matter. The event to honor them proved that they not only matter but it also showed that they are leaders.