While young black men are targets of racial profiling and police brutality, one organization is raising them to serve as beacons of integrity and leadership
Two Black boys unwarrantly stopped, rushed out of their cars, issued to raise their hands -- all at gunpoint.
This narrative has been retold countless times in the last decade as citizens have taken it upon themselves to be primary sources in the defense against police brutality. Relying less on traditional forms of news and empowering ourselves, and each other, through social media. The truth of these events sparked nationwide outrage that manifested a renewed fight for civil rights and against anti-blackness.
David L. Jackson and Rashard Johnson became best friends in the 6th grade. In their adolescence, they too were protagonists in the story so often told. One afternoon, when leaving Aventura Mall, an officer in plain clothes cut in front of them, gun drawn, demanding they get out of their car.
A gun was pointed at them before words were even spoken.
David recalls the fear and confusion they felt, “What did we do?” he asked. The officer told them to shut up, that he was going to lock them up for disorderly conduct.
David tells how “experiencing racial profiling for the first time together helped us see the world in a different way.” Their story did not have a fatal ending, reversely, while fostering a successful academic career, David and Rashard joined forces in the same fashion as when they were kids and founded Project T.H.U.G. (Transforming Hope, Unifying Generations).
Since 2019, Project T.H.U.G. has curated a space for young Black boys to unlearn the institutionalized racism that tells them they don’t belong. Reclaiming the title of ‘thug’ is meant to “take that negative stereotype and transform it into something that typically doesn't exist for us,” David says.
They asked themselves, “How do we take the word and add substance to it, and how do we give our students something meaningful down the line? It really came down to unifying generations.”
In creating space for different generations of the Black community to share collective knowledge & experiences in conversation, Project T.H.U.G. is giving young Black men the opportunity to redefine themselves and transform their hopes for a greater future.
“Very often the way in which our young boys are perceived is: before they are judged by their intellectual aptitude, they're going to be looked at as criminals,” says David.
Both David and Rashard come from immigrant parents. David expresses how “watching them kick and scratch to make means,” inspired their work ethic and dedication to achieving a better life. They knew they were going to have to work harder but never stopped moving with gratitude, keeping the mentality that they were going to give back. They carried this mentality with them developing their mission statement “The Future I Create,” which is about being more than what you have been told you are. Transforming. Hoping.
Project T.H.U.G. does much of their work through mentorship, Unifying Generations. By working with 8th and 11th graders they are offering tools to kids in pivotal times in their lives when transitions and growing pains are all-consuming. By fostering relationships grounded in respect and accountability among these age groups, the boys receive a full-circle mentorship experience. Coupled with their individual training in leadership, Project T.H.U.G. hopes to break barriers and heal traumas.
Rashard tells of one of his favorite workshops called “The Story With Me” where the boys fill out a ‘man box’ describing what a man is supposed to be like.
“We unpack that, and we kind of allowed them to know, you can be and you can do whatever you want to do.” There is a subconscious resistance from the students as they unlearn a toxic culture that was part of their upbringing.
He reflects on the largest obstacle when working with these kids, noting “We’re meeting these guys when they already have been through so much. And sometimes it's like, ‘okay, well, you're teaching me how to express myself in the correct manner, but I was never taught that, you know? I can't ask for help, because that's a sign of weakness.”
Project T.H.U.G. is leading by example. David and Rashard use their own experiences with mental health to open conversations with their fellows. Their “Real Talk” sessions give the kids an opportunity to openly ask questions about all topics “whether that be talking about the prison system, talking about the racial injustice that's going on, especially with the protests that were just happening a few months ago.”
David describes these sessions as an act of “teaching the languages of loving yourself.”
With any openness there is bound to be resistance.
David and Rashard have faced their fair share of criticism from members in their communities, whether it was their choice to reclaim the title of thug or through their alternative teaching styles. When met with opposition, David says you can do one of two things:
“You can continue to pull the other direction, making the link that much weaker. Or you can meet that resistance right in the middle and come a little closer. So, when it comes to resistance, it's all an opportunity to build, an opportunity to grow, to create. It's a chance to talk and then utilize the name of our organization to say that we're transforming hope and unifying generations.”
Rashard followed, stating very matter-of-factly and unperturbed, “Once we have faced that resistance that David spoke about, we're gonna still do the work.”
Never wavering, David and Rashard are dedicated to their community, to knocking down the aggressive stereotypes placed on them and the boys they have shown so much grace and love to. Project T.H.U.G. operates with compassion at the forefront of all their initiatives and will continue to do so as they both have confidently expressed.
As Rashard simply put it, “We’re doing what we got to do and making this change to begin a catalyst within our community.”