Thursday, 16 June 2016

From Taking a Life to Saving Lives

Xavier McElrath-Bey grew up surrounded by gangs. Even though he was still a young elementary school child he knew what places and streets to avoid and he knew to stay away from gang territory. 

His family life was tough. He and his siblings often went hungry and they were placed in foster care at 6 years old. His foster care life wasn't any better than his original family, as he was beaten and abused. 

After a few years they returned to their mother, unfortunately her boyfriend would beat her and the children. This was when Xavier joined his surrogate family, his gang, the Latin Kings.

“It’s not like you wake up and say, ‘I want to become a gang member because my mom or my dad is abusing me. There is a certain level of insecurity and feeling unsafe. You want to connect with a group.”

“You want to empower yourself, not to mention you want to have someone that you feel connected with when you come from a home environment where there’s a lot of neglect and abuse.”

Xavier began becoming involved in crimes - armed robberies, weapons violations, aggravated batteries and assaults. By the time he was only 13 years of age, he had been arrested a shocking 19 times and gone to juvenile facilities seven times!

The incident happened in October 1989 when Xavier was just 13 years old. He and the Latin Kings lured a rival gang member into a vacant building and fatally beat and stabbed him. The victim was only 14 years old.

Xavier was arrested two weeks later and received a sentence of 25 years.

“When you’re a kid, you really just live for the moment; you know you’re caught up in a daily struggle for survival in that prison system: What’s going to happen in the yard? Is there going to be a riot?” McElrath-Bey said.

After being moved to a maximum-security prison for adults at only 17, Xavier began to change his thinking for the better. 

He often watched TV shows liked "Saved By the Bell" and wondered what his life would be like if he never made the mistakes he had made. 

From there, his life changed. He decided to get enrolled in school and be as he would have been in free society had he never been arrested. 

Xavier thought about simple freedoms like being able to walk to your own refrigerator or stepping outside to smell the grass. “That becomes like a fantasy world because in prison your concept of a free society is like that of heaven,” he said.

He worked toward his goals while still in prison, earning a bachelor’s degree in social science (with a 4.0 GPA) in 1999 at a prison in Galesburg, Ill., where the Chicago-based Roosevelt University offered courses.

In his mind’s eye, the former gang member said, he continually returned to that October night in 1989 — and has often thought about the victim and the dead boy’s mother.

“I think about the fact that he was no different from me. He was a kid who grew up with a troubled life in a poor family,” McElrath-Bey said. “That could have very well easily been me. That could have been my mother mourning, so I just think about his loss and what that really meant and how tragic it really was because it was based upon this false illusion of us and them.”

For McElrath-Bey, freedom came at last in 2002 after he served 13 years in prison.

He wasted no time making up for the lost years of his youth.

As a newly released 26-year-old, he took a job at Starbucks and soon enrolled part-time at Roosevelt, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in human services in 2006.

McElrath-Bey stayed close to the justice system in a decade-long series of jobs — but on the right side of the law this time.

He served from 2003 to 2006 as a “ceasefire outreach worker” for the Chicago-based Alliance of Local Service Organizations, helping at-risk youth through case management, home visits and referrals; providing crisis intervention and assistance to gunshot victims at a hospital; and helping organize annual peace walks.

McElrath-Bey went on to work for Catholic Charities of the Chicago Archdiocese, specializing in gang intervention and providing services to at-risk youth and families living in bad neighbourhoods, like where he grew up.

He then worked for the Chicago-based non-profit Alternatives Inc. with youths referred by the juvenile justice system.

At the Northwestern Juvenile Project, part of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, where he spent more than five years, McElrath-Bey conducted interviews with more than 800 participants in a longitudinal study of the mental health needs of formerly incarcerated youth.

This month, McElrath-Bey, 38, began working in his new role as a youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

In the Chicago-based job, he will advocate for reforming the juvenile justice system, particularly by eliminating extreme sentencing of youngsters, and try to dispel stereotypes.

“What I intend to do,” McElrath-Bey said, “is share about my life and change the face of formerly incarcerated youth — have people understand that these are not a bunch of monsters.

“They’re not a bunch of incorrigible super-predators but in fact these kids have great potential for positive change, and not only am I an example of that, but I know so many other individuals who have made such tremendous change and are great models to look at and say, ‘You know what, there is hope.’ So much is giving them an opportunity and chance. There truly is hope for these guys to reform their lives.”

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