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It seems so long ago now, the life of drug dealing, violence and retaliation that Edwin Desamour lived so recklessly.
That life was played out in the shadows of the West Kensington streets, where Desamour followed his father into the drug game. At just 16, it led Desamour to kill a man in a fight. He was convicted of third-degree murder, and did more than eight years in prison.
Desamour keeps a picture pinned to his office wall to remind himself of that past. In the photo, he is handcuffed. His head, covered with slick, straight hair, is slightly lowered; his face is clean-shaven, and his eyes are partially obscured. A police officer stands behind Desamour. Nothing, it seems, stands in front of him.
“I’ve been home for 16-and-a-half years, and every day I remind myself I’m not going back,” Desamour said after showing me the photograph. “But at the same time I don’t want to see anybody else in my community going back.”
Now 41, with shaved head and full beard, Desamour is executive director of Men In Motion In the Community (MIMIC), a nonprofit organization he founded in 2007. He still frequents the streets of West Kensington, but he does so to lead a group that serves up to 400 people per year, including 250 boys. The work is hard, sometimes thankless, and the boys MIMIC serves, mostly young men of color, are faced with daunting odds.
An at-risk population
One of two black boys and one of four Latino boys grows up fatherless. Boys of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended or expelled from school. In Philadelphia, about half of all African American and Latino boys in public school drop out. And if current trends continue, one in three black males and one in six Latino males born today can expect to be imprisoned in their lifetimes, according to a report by the Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Desamour’s group knows these statistics all too well — not because they’ve memorized them, but because they’ve lived them. That much was clear on a recent afternoon, when I visited MIMIC’s new headquarters on Front Street near Cumberland in West Kensington.
The men of MIMIC have hard edges and easy smiles, gruff manners and wary eyes. But as they worked together to hoist a sign above the door, I saw that these men weren’t simply committed to each other. They were also committed to presenting a positive image for young men to emulate, hence the name, MIMIC.
“Many of us have been there, done that,” Desamour told me. “We’re just trying to give back now. We’re trying to say [to young men] mimic what we do now, not what we used to do. We understand everything’s a cycle. I followed in certain footsteps, that person followed in certain footsteps, and we’re trying to say, ‘Look at what we’re doing now.’ We’re trying to break that cycle. This is what we’re about now. Mimic this. And that’s who MIMIC is. Just trying to create a family, a safe haven, a place where you can feel comfortable.
“We understand there’s a lot of broken homes. We understand there’s a lot of issues going around, and they’re trying to find a place to be, and hopefully we can be that place.”
With its new office, MIMIC has the potential to do so. And Desamour, who honed his craft with more than a decade of non-profit experience before founding MIMIC, knows what it takes to be successful.
“I used to work for Philadelphia Anti-Drug Anti-Violence Network under Mr. James Mills,” Desamour said. “He gave me an opportunity to work doing crisis intervention. We were doing a lot of neighborhood disputes, mediations, gang disputes, responding to crisis situations and I caught on. I knew the streets. I was able to work with it … I had some guys working with me who were book smart, but they didn’t know the streets, so we kind of complemented each other. I did that for about six years.”
Desamour went on to work for Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR), where he added sexual assault to his curriculum. In his four years with WOAR, he said, he learned presentation skills, computer skills, and teambuilding. From there he went to work with Congreso de Latinos Unidos, coordinating the Latino Juvenile Justice Network.
“I would hear from cops and other folks, ‘I wish I had a hundred of you.’ I would say, ‘There are hundreds of me but nobody give them a chance.’”
Desamour decided he would give them that chance.
In 2007, Desamour gathered some ex-offenders and others who were interested in providing mentoring to young men and founded MIMIC. Back then, convening a meeting meant buying a bottle of Pepsi and sitting around a table to share ideas. Over time, and with help, the organization has grown.
MIMIC’s summer kickoff event, which drew 600 people last year, will be sponsored by PECO this year. The organization’s mentoring services are now augmented by workshops, including classes for ex-offenders just out of prison.
At its core, though, MIMIC is still an organization that leans on the knowledge of men who have made the same mistakes they’re trying to keep young people from making.
“Most of these guys here, some of them have done 17 years,” Desamour said. “Some of them have done 12, 13 years. To really see them teaching, performing a curriculum. Some of them teach better than teachers in the classroom. These are guys that were taken from different areas and look what they’re doing now. They were counted out in life, and they’re involved, and that’s something that’s hard for people to capture [with statistics], but it’s real.”
Bumps along the way
Still, there are other realities that the organization must deal with, and not all of them are uplifting.
Sometimes, a mentor from MIMIC will spend a significant amount of time providing guidance to a young man only to find him back on the corner selling drugs. It’s frustrating, Desamour said, but they try to respond with encouragement.
“It’s been times where a lot of them are like, ‘Man, I’m sorry,’” Desamour said. “I tell them there’s no need to apologize. Let’s just make it happen again.”
MIMIC also faces other challenges, especially from the families of the boys they mentor. They work with a youth they find on the streets, get him to graduate and ready for a job when the family intervenes. They are afraid his job — and the income it brings — will make them lose government benefits.
They tell Desamour: “‘Whoa, wait a minute. He can’t work. SSI. You’re messing up a check.’ And then there’s a thin line. Now you’re playing tug of war with family. This young person has so much potential, but now family’s like, ‘No. He can’t do that.’”
For the most part, Desamour said, his organization has been able to prevail when faced with those types of situations, and most families don’t have a mindset that’s dependent on government assistance. Still, Desamour believes changing the mindset doesn’t begin with the adults. It begins with young people.
“I think if we could start with this young generation that’s coming up,” he said, “that old mentality starts to fade.”
Even so, Desamour knows the organization must work with both the young and the old. He knows new ideas must be bolstered by tradition. He knows they can’t do it alone. Perhaps that’s why he asked his younger brother, Eric Desamour, to open up the organization’s last meeting with a prayer.
“God, I want to thank you so much for the group of people you set apart for such a time as this,” Eric Desamour said. “The work is bigger than what they can do in and of themselves. They desire to see change in the lives of young folks who sometimes can’t see hope; who feel as though this life, it is what it is, and there’s no opportunity for growth or change. But I thank you that you put this organization together to provide a small glimpse of what change can look like — and put hope in the life of some of these families within this community…”
When he was done, board members and volunteers set about the task of planning the Youth Law Enforcement Forum, which takes place April 12. The event is an opportunity for young men to interact with police officers. Someone brought up the possibility of people who might attend for other reasons.
Desamour, seated at the head of the conference table, listened carefully before he spoke.
“The only folks that matter right now are the youth that are coming in,” he said. “The main goal is for them to have better relationship with these police officers as summer time comes around. We don’t need none of our youth being shot. We don’t need none of our youth being arrested for no reason at all. And we don’t need none of these police officers being assaulted or shot, either. So, on both sides, we’re trying to prevent any tragedies from happening. We’re trying to build a relationship with both sides to make that happen.”
MIMIC, he later told me, doesn’t promise a program. It promises relationships. And everything they do springs from that promise.
Against the legions of at-risk youth, it offers a cadre of caring adults on a mission to save them one-by-one-by-one.