“Today was the first day I attended every class,” Mahdi recalled his words.
Another adult might not have considered this achievement worth mentioning. But Mahdi drove the teenager to his favorite meal, Wings Inferno, at Busboys and Poets that day.
“I was so happy,” Mahdi recalled. “He doesn’t know how much pleasure he gave me. To me it felt like the ultimate achievement.”
For the past five years, young people who have ended up in DC’s criminal justice system have come across Mahdi as a “credible ambassador,” a title that tells them he understands the life they lead because he’s lived it. The DC native grew up walking the same streets they walked. He was locked up in the same type of cells they occupied. He understands the pressure they are under because he competed against them too.
Children keep seeing adults being killed in the country’s capital. They too are victims.
Mahdi served time in DC prison and six federal prisons before being released in 2017. When he turned 18, he was imprisoned. That day, the guards pulled him out of the juvenile ward and threw him into the adult ward.
“That was your birthday present,” he said. “They take you upstairs and throw you to the wolves. This statement – “It can make you or break you” – is true. It broke a lot of people.”
In some parts of the city, the term “credible ambassadors” does not need to be explained. But in the last year, DC’s mentoring movement has expanded to include cities across the country where the concept is new, and people in those places may be wondering what it’s all about.
Mahdi, who works for DC’s youth rehabilitation services division, said they should know this: “We celebrate every success.”
By “everyone,” he means the big and the small, life-changing and habit-changing, decisions made in heated moments, and those taking repeated, purposeful actions.
A young man he looks after is now in college and Mahdi still worries about him. “The work is never done,” he said. “It’s never finished.”
As US cities grapple with tackling juvenile delinquency, there has been much debate about youth curfews like the one Prince George’s County began enforcing this month. But lockdowns don’t change lives. They authorize the police to keep a youth off the street for a few hours. They don’t empower young people in a way that makes them stay off the streets the next night or the night after.
Forget curfews. We should focus more of our collective energy on examining long-term solutions to tackling juvenile delinquency and devoting more resources to those that show the most promise.
Any organization working with vulnerable youth requires close and consistent scrutiny. There is too much at stake to simply trust that good intentions will lead to good results. But the concept of credible ambassadors is rooted in redemption, and it’s easy to see how it could prevent some juvenile delinquents from becoming adult delinquents if recruiting, training, and supervision are done right.
Clinton Lacey, the former director of DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, describes credible Messenger initiatives as a way for communities to engage returning citizens and reduce recidivism among young people. Systems and services often lack a cultural understanding of the communities they serve, he said. Credible messengers bring this understanding.
“You have to know communities,” he said. “You have to know families. You must take care of them. I always say you have to love them. They have to have that core belief that they are not the sum of their problems.”
Lacey developed the district’s credible messenger initiative after establishing a program in New York, where he served as an assistant commissioner for the city’s parole department. The goal in the district was to offer young people released from the New Beginnings Youth Development Center detention center someone who could help them transition back into the community.
Lacey said DYRS was hosting a summit in 2018 attended by people from across the country when he started thinking about expanding the initiative to other cities. In March 2021, he resigned from DYRS and founded the non-profit organization Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement (CM3). Over the past year, the organization has helped launch initiatives in more than half a dozen locations, including cities in Texas, Mississippi and New Jersey.
That more cities are trying to train and use credible messengers shows the growing desire of government officials to do more for young people than jail them.
DC has seen one troubling case after another in recent years involving teenagers. It is also a place with credible messengers. I asked Lacey if this showed a lack of effectiveness in the program. He said it shows the need to expand the credible Messenger program to juveniles not yet in DYRS custody.
The murder of an 11-year-old boy isn’t proof that black lives don’t matter to blacks. It is proof of our collective failure.
Credible messengers provide “crisis intervention,” but they do more than that, he said: “They escort them to graduation, take them to a cookout, teach them how to tie a tie, take them to school if necessary.” It checks their parents or guardians.”
It gives them someone who will stay in their lives for a long time. This commitment is built into the organization’s goals for credible ambassadors, but it’s also inherent in connecting with someone who understands and is rooted in you.
“Once you develop a relationship with them, you can’t let go of them,” Raequan McIver said.
McIver wasn’t a teenager when he first landed in DC’s criminal justice system. At 19, he was assigned two credible messengers. Now, at 25, he serves as one.
McIver said he moved into a group home after being released from custody and that his credible ambassadors came into his life when he had little support. He credited them with helping him find a job and find anger management therapy “when I was embarrassed to go to a counselor.”
“They never gave up on me,” he said.
The night we spoke he received a call. It was from one of his credible messengers.
“He still looks after me,” McIver said.