Shango Johnson, of Englewood, and De’Andre Short, of Woodlawn, are Directors of Mentoring for Riah, a small organization initially founded by Mario Bates to support South Siders struggling with recovery issues. Since Johnson and Short’s recruitment, Riah has expanded a mentoring branch that operates primarily within schools on the South Side.
Tell me a little bit about what you’re trying to do.
SJ: Riah is a mentoring program. Riah is dealing with drug abuse, dealing with the hang-ups and the hookups of drug abuse, and Riah was founded by Mario Bates, and Riah is the acronym of his daughter’s name. His daughter is Mariah, and Riah means teacher. With the mentoring program, we mentor kids from sixth grade through eight, but we don’t leave [any] kid out that needs our services or needs our help. We usually utilize the school system, but our mentoring program can extend outside of the school system. This is something that is very dear to [our] heart. So with the Riah Foundation, we use three “P”s: patience, prudence, and planning. We think that that is what the kids need to go through life, because they can utilize it in any aspect of life.
We use it with sports with kids in sixth through eighth, it’s something that we can use to come down to their level, and bring them up to our level. Something that will make them not feel nervous or uneasy, but make them feel comfortable in an environment where they can be themselves. So then we know exactly what to work on and what to work through to get them to be successful young kids. That’s really what we work on. We basically have used it with chess and we have used it with basketball. Me and De’Andre firmly believe through our research and through our study that it can be applied to chess, basketball, baseball, football, English, spelling bee, anything that’s dealing with life. And then we get them three “P”s implanted in them, everything they get in, [that’s] the stuff that they will utilize. What we’re trying to build up in the child is self effort, where they are taking accountability of their own behavior, where they feel it’s more important than anything to make sure that they’re doing right, not just in society but inside [themselves], too.
We are trying to expand to several schools, and Woodlawn and Englewood is where we’re really trying to base our services at because we’ve found out through research that that’s where it’s really needed. We started out with a great principal, Ms. King, at Dumas school, who gave us the opportunity, helped us with certain things that we needed, educated us on certain things that we did not know, and to me has just been a huge benefit to what [we] are trying to do. Because we’re just trying to make a safe haven, not just for the kids at school but for the community, because we’re saying that if the kid’s not doing right at school, that’s probably affected at home. So instead of us trying to send him home and tell him things to say in the home, where he is supposed to take orders at, we’re just giving him a lot of different ways of thinking, different ways of acting, different ways to approach the normal things that you have to approach in life.
Our first thing, with some kids, is to get angry about something, but if we have a kid that can come in and come up with a solution, we believe that that’ll be contagious just like a cold is, and then it’ll go from one child to another. So that’s really basically what we’re basing out program on.
You’re giving them strategies.
SJ: Yes, we had gone off a curriculum, but we learned that we can’t reach every child from that curriculum, but we have learned that every child, every person has a hang-up or a habit, whether it’s dealing with drugs, whether it’s dealing with working, whether it’s dealing with relationships. We believe that with them three “P”s, that would just really help them, not only get through they life, but be a benefit to somebody else.
Are you still pursuing a vendors’ license with CPS to receive district funding?
DS: This January we actually got our vendors license with CPS, so we are officially a service provider for Chicago Public Schools. We’re currently still in Dumas Technology, by the end of April we should be in another school, Robert Fulton on 53rd and Hermitage. So things are moving rapidly since we’ve gotten our CPS vendors’ license. We’re official now!
Does that change what you’re doing in Dumas?
DS: One thing about Riah is that we think different from a lot of other programs in that we have the ability to evolve. Some programs come in and say, “This is our blueprint, let us apply our blueprint. It works.” Riah doesn’t do that. Riah goes in, we first learn the demographics of the students: who are they, what are their hang-ups, what are their habits, what are the things that they’re dealing with. And then we evolve to what they need, or what the school has already utilized. We don’t want to come in and compete with another program that’s already established within a school, so what we do is collaborate and we become whatever is needed at that school. So since we’ve been at Dumas, since September, we’ve changed our program three times. We went from an after school program that focused on basketball and mentoring, but when the basketball season started that had to change, so now I’m in the schools six hours a day observing classrooms, helping with disciplinary issues, mentoring the boys–and girls sometimes, when things don’t go right. I’ve had parents come in sometimes and ask me to do one on one mentoring with some of their kids, so that’s the way we’ve evolved.
Today we’re actually starting another part of our evolution, where we’re doing mass mentoring groups. We’re going to meet with sixty boys from sixth through eighth grade, and each week we’re going to have a different topic, so for instance today our topic is hygiene, because we’re dealing with a big hygiene problem with our sixth through eighth grade boys, so we’re going to present to them the importance of hygiene, the social effects of it, the health effects of not having good hygiene.
So when we go into a school, we don’t tell them what we’re going to give them, we ask them what they need from us. That’s the difference between us and maybe some other programs out there that come in and say, “This is what we do,” we come in and we say, “Well, yeah, we have a curriculum, but we want to know how can you utilize us, how can we best fit within the dynamics of the school, and then we become whatever they need us to be.”
When you use a different medium, does that change the dynamic?
SJ: Same dynamic, different activity. Some programs come in, and they’re for mentoring, like for basketball, so all they focus on is what’s going on with basketball. For us, we come in like a waiter. You have the menu, you make whatever order you want, it’s just our job to bring that order. Our job is to take on anything that’s not going right, or everything that is going right. The dynamic doesn’t change because we’re mentors, and mentor can’t change. De’Andre and I have been through study, we’ve been through training, we’ve been through doing it one on one, we have been in several situations, and we understand that if you stick to the mentoring method, then it could apply to anything. You’re not a friend, you’re not a boss, you’re not a leader. You’re some one providing a service to make sure that the students get what they’re supposed to get out of it and the teachers get what they’re suppose to get out of it. We really don’t care about other programs, because whatever you’re servicing, we know you need a helping hand, and all we want to be is a helping hand. As long as we see these kids succeed, which we have seen kids succeed, long as we see these kids go on and make a difference, as long as they turn around and they want to be mentors, me and him, we get blessed and rewarded in other ways. So the dynamic does not change. The atmosphere changes, but it’s up to us to shift it in the right direction.
DS: Basketball’s a little louder. [They both laugh] The “P”s don’t change, we still emphasize that in basketball you need to be patient, you can’t just rush in, you have to be patient. So we’ll let them play, and then we’ll stop them in the middle of what they’re doing and say, “How could you have been more patient on that particular play?” Same thing with chess. [We’ll] be in the middle of a chess game, someone makes a move, and he thinks it’s a great move, but I’ll say, well how could you have been more prudent, because now look at the board. He’s going to attack you now, because you made a move without knowing what the consequences of your move were. So the dynamic is pretty much the same. We’re just hands on. We’re not really there to teach basketball, we’re not really there to teach chess, we’re just using it as a tool to relay the message that we’re trying to relay, especially with the three Ps.
I look at my own life–how could my life have been a little bit more successful if I had been more patient, if I hadn’t had rushed in some areas. How could I have utilized more prudence in some of the decisions that I’ve made? How could things have turned out better if I’d have had a plan, instead of just impulsively acting? And if we looked across our own lives that way and saw how much a difference those three things could have made, we decided that that was the model we wanted to give to them. Now it comes along with a lot of other things that need to be taught, for instance with hygiene. But why hygiene? How does the P fit in? Prudence. You can’t go to a job interview smelling. You need to be wiser [about] what you do. And it’s not necessarily just smelling bad, we learn in job readiness classes, you don’t spray a lot of perfume or cologne on. Why? Those things are not wise because it’s distracting, it takes away from who you are, allergies, there are various reasons why you would be wiser than to be in a situation like that. So any dynamic in life, we believe that these three Ps can be easily implemented, and if you utilize these three, no matter what it is, you will become better at what it is you do.
What makes you look at chess or basketball and see it as a good tool?
DS: I think we can take whatever their interest is. So when we use chess, their interest is chess. We had a group of boys who were already playing chess, and we took what they were interested in and we used it. But it’s because those two games, particularly, have so many different dynamics to them. So for instance, in chess, each piece has its own availability of movement, what it can do and what it can’t do. So what we do with some of the boys is we ask them, which piece on the board represents you the best. Who are you? And you can’t be the queen, because she’s the most powerful, and none of us right now are at that level. Most of them say, “I’m the pawn, because I’m very limited in my movement. I’m just as qualified as any of the other pieces to take another piece, but I’m limited.” But the cool thing about the pawn in the game of chess is that if it reaches the other side of the board, it becomes a queen. So we use that, because it has that dynamic in it, that if you are a pawn now, if you’re patient, if you’re prudent, if you have a plan, you can get your way to the other side of the board, and then you become the most valuable piece on the board. Because chess has that dynamic in it, it makes the teaching a little bit easier.
The same thing with basketball. There are different rules to the game, or different terminologies within the game, that fit with what we’re trying to do. So for instance, there’s a thing called boxing out in basketball, when I want to prevent my opponent from getting to the ball or the rim, I box him out, I keep him away from the rim. My goal is the ball, so I need to box him away from it. So we’ll teach that first, the basketball principle, and then we’ll take them to the classroom and we’ll ask them, now just like the basketball is your goal in basketball, what is your goal in life? Okay, now what things do you need to box out? They’re able to remember the basketball court, and say, what is that activity? Boxing him away, and me getting to my goal. In life, my goal may be xyz. In life, what things are trying to prevent me from getting there, and what do I need to do to box them out? Because chess and basketball have those dynamics to them it makes it a little easier, but I believe, personally, that any game, any hobby can be used.
How did you become a mentor?
SJ: We both had started out with this other agency, and as we were mentoring we had a certain curriculum we had to stick to. And me and him both tried to be obedient to the curriculum, but we wasn’t servicing who we was supposed to be servicing the right way, and that was the youth. Both being young, we started talking, saying we had the same interests. So we had to build our friendship up, we had to build our trust up, we had to build the way our conversation was up, and once we done that, we said that this was something we both could see us doing. We could see that at the end, we were having the power enough to have own mentoring program. Not where we was making all the money, but we making sure that the services that mentoring’s supposed to provide would be there for them. So that’s how we both meant. We had two schools mentoring, Harlan and Williams Multiplex. When the program was over, another agency wanted me to mentor, and as I mentored, they said I needed a partner. Â Well of course I went and found him, he wasn’t hard to find because we still kept in touch, and we mentored. He does spoken word, which he’s fabulous in, so then he and [Riah founder] Mario talked, and Mario wanted to put together a program, because the three of us met in the same program, so De’Andre invited him to our program, he came, he watched, he saw what he liked. We all three sat down, we started talking, and we’re still working. That’s how we do it.
DS: Honestly for me, I never wanted to be a mentor. I had no intent on being one. I graduated high school, I went to community college here, and I was working at the time, and on my way home from work and school I heard a radio broadcast of mentors being looked for. And I was just looking for something to add, to add to me, to add to my resume, to say, I’ll do this also. We went into the school, I met him, and I began to see a lot of the issues that the younger generation was up against. They’re normally judged on numbers: “Are you producing?” But no one’s looking at all of the socio-economic, emotional things that are preventing them from producing. I began to feel an urge to do something about that, to don’t allow them to just be judged on the numbers alone when the playing field is not level. Because I have to meet the same standards that so and so meets, but so-and-so doesn’t have the same household issues that I have, they don’t have the same economic issues that I have, so me coming home, I don’t have a safe haven. So when I come to school and I sleep and the teacher says, “Why are you sleeping?” it’s because I’ve been up all night because of whatever’s going on in my household. So the playing field can’t be level, and I can’t meet the standards that you put before me.
So that’s thrust me into this life of mentoring, because my job isn’t to change laws, or to deal with politics, because that will never change, but I need to instill into the young boys’ minds that no matter what the obstacle is, you need to find a way around it, because no one’s going give you that break. No one’s going say, let’s look at what your social, economic, or emotional issues are. You’re still going to be judged by these numbers. You’re going to be judged by your performance, and you need to be able to perform regardless of the environment. So instead of attacking the standards, I just attack the mentalities of the boys who are failing to meet the standards. Because we grew up in these environments, we grew up in drug-riddled homes, drug-riddled neighborhoods, we grew up where violence was the call of the day. We understand when things are stacked against you, how hard it is to make it. But at the same time, that’s no excuse, because no one’s going to say, “Well, you had it hard, we’ll give you a free pass.” You still have requirements to meet, and that’s what we’re trying to instill into the guys that we mentor, that there’s no pass. No one cares that you have these issues. Not to sound unsympathetic, but no job is going to say, “Well, what’s going [on] at home?” If you don’t produce the numbers, you no longer have the job. And that’s the reality of it. So we need to teach them how to maneuver, and manipulate their home situations, and their personal situations, so that it doesn’t spill over.
I remember De’Andre telling a story in which when you first started mentoring, the older mentors were saying, “You’re not mentor, you’re a mentee.”
SJ: Aww. Nice guys.
How does the fact that you are both younger than some change the dynamic?
DS: It helps, because the young men can relate to us a little bit better. We’re not so removed from the age that they are now, especially when we’re working with the high school boys. I’m only ten years removed from high school, so they can’t pull one over on me, because I know a lot of the terminologies of the streets, because we’re still really close to those situations. Some things that they can say in classrooms or groups that older men might not understand, I can understand their language, I know their dialect. Also we have a little bit more energy. I have a philosophy that the older men are very valuable. They’re valuable to us in the sense that they give us wisdom. But we should be the ones rolling our sleeves up doing the footwork, and that’s just the way it should be.
So we’re trying to create other mentors, younger people, and we’re trying to turn them into mentors. We don’t just want to mentor you and then you become successful and you leave, no. We want you to become as passionate about this as we’re passionate about this. The older generation, their contribution should be in theory, rather than practice. There are certain things that they can no longer do, because they’re older. That’s just the way that it is. We should be the ones in the schools, on the streets, walking the communities. For one, I’m single, I don’t have a family. Shango can’t say the same thing; he has a family, he has children, but myself…So why I’m at the school every day and don’t expect Shango to be there every day is because he has a family, he has something else that he needs to deal with. So I take the sacrifice, because as the youngest of our three, I’m the one that has the least amount of responsibilities. I glean from these men, I glean from Mario, what I need to do when I get in there, but I’m willing to do the footwork because I have the least amount of responsibilities because I’m younger. And it’s the same thing we want to do with other older mentors that we bring in. We don’t want to restrict them and prohibit them, but just get a lane to get in and drive that lane, don’t try to do all things, because no one person can do everything. We understand that well, so why not utilize me where I’m good at, and utilize you where you’re better at, so we can come together and do this one work? So that’s the way we think that it works.
SJ: He hit it right on the button. I come from where they come from. I was once in a gang, I was in the streets, I thought that was the way. I was educated in it. Education’s always going to be out there, whether it’s positive or negative. If you listen to something for an hour positive and you stay listening to stuff for two hours negative, you’re going to have negative response more than the positive. For me, I had more of a negative response because I was taught how I had to defend this. Like De’Andre said, when you’re going on personal hygiene, he spoke on prudence, but it’s patience too. In some broken down homes, the heat doesn’t work right, the hot water doesn’t stay on long. Everybody has to get in the bathroom, but it’s sixteen, fourteen people there. Everyone is rocking their own thing. So you don’t have time to be a kid sometimes, sometimes you have to get up and get your little brother together, your little sister together. So you don’t have time to get you dressed, so all you do is take a smell of yourself, and if you’re satisfied with how you are, then that’s who you’re going go out and represent to the world. But we know the world has standards. So the world lets you know–they shouldn’t be that hard–but they let you know how you smell, and you’re all this. So if another kid hears this kid getting talked about, what makes you think that kid is going open up? Â And I was that kid, coming from a drug abuse family, coming from a gang. So as I came up, I started meeting people. And then when I started mentoring it became a lifestyle to me, like he said, because I already had a family. So I had to find another way to take care of my family, because I’d learned this was wrong. But society was not accepting me and they’re not training me up what’s right. Just like he said for an older person, how can the older people make it right now when we’re using the younger people to teach us about technology, teach us about the way to speak, the way to dress.
Back in the day an elderly person could wear anything and go in certain neighborhoods. Nowadays we can’t do that. In this neighborhood you gotta have a certain color on, you have to have a certain hood on, you have to have a certain this on. You can’t go everywhere you go. They went through the racial problem, we’re not going through the racial problem, we’re going through the block problem, the drug problem, the gang problem. Like he said, the wisdom of the older person can’t even be spoke on, but at the same time, wisdom can go both ways, because we have gone through what we went through, we get what these kids went through. But if you never went through it, if you’re looking at it from a book, not saying that you wrong or right, but I just think we both need to rub off on each other. With me, it became a lifestyle, where I didn’t want to make money on the streets anymore. So even making that eighty dollars a month mentoring both schools, sacrificing, picking mentors up, dropping them off, doing everything I can do….
SJ: You have to come down and raise these kids up. You need some younger people that are going to say, “Man, you know what, I know what you’re going through, I feel you, I’m with you, but have you considered doing this? Or have you considered doing that? But if you stop me, and you change my social norm, and you change my behavior, and you’ve brought me into your world, now it’s up to me and De’Andre to not lead them out there and put it all on them; now we have to start them on something, and we have to get them to behavior that they would be accustomed to. To me, mentoring is one of the most interesting jobs you can have.
How does religion drive each of you?
DS: We’re both Christians, and we both believe that our transformation has come because of Jesus Christ. Although we understand the separation of church and state within the school system, it doesn’t silence who we are. We don’t have to use the vernacular to allow people to understand why we do what we do, because we realized that there was a greater power transforming us, and because we believe that wholeheartedly, and we’re willing to die for that, we’re trying to pass on that same passion to someone else. It’s not a matter of giving them a religion to follow, it’s a matter of letting them know that we have a light now that lives within us, and this is a light that we choose to shine onto the world. So it’s the only thing that drives us. It’s the reason that we’re out here. We’ve made huge sacrifices because we’re out here on the streets, and it’s only because of Jesus Christ, because we have a greater hope, we’re trying to receive a “Well Done!” from our lord.
Given that separation of church and state, how do you keep it open to people who might not share those beliefs?
DS: What we teach is universal. The principles that the religion holds are universal. Most people don’t realize that a log of the morals that our world has have come from the bible. We don’t have to pour out scripture or become these billboards with t-shirts and hats that say “Jesus Christ,” it’s just a matter of what motivates us. There are universal principals that can go across any religious, cultural, ethnic line. The school on 53rd and Hermitage that we’re about to go into, they’re Latino or Mexican American for the most part, they have a very small black population. But we don’t come in saying, we want to talk to African-American boys, no, we realize this is a universal issue, a universal problem. The death tolls and the death rates that we see are not just among the boys that look like us.
Who we are as Christians never has to necessarily be verbalized in that setting. What we will say is when we do personal one on one outside of the school system, they see who we are, that’s going to pour through. But when we’re in those settings, we become all things to all men, whatever we need to become we become. The problem is of greater importance. If I don’t do something, than it’s eventually going to effect me. I can be my Christian in my own little corner, and stay to myself, but if I don’t do something to effect change, eventually that’s going to disrupt my corner. My passion is driven by God, but I can still show them how destructive their behavior may be without mentioning God.
SJ: I second that. The whole thing with us is that we don’t look at it as religion. We look at it as a behavior style. We look at it as the BIBLE: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. It doesn’t matter what you are, my job is to treat you with love and kindness. If I treat you kind, when you start asking me about my personal business, that’s when you find out what religion I am, and then like he said, outside the school, our lifestyle shows. My main little buddy that hangs with me is my son, he’s six years old. Anything that I’m going to that’s spiritual or positive, he’s with me. That’s how every man was treated by his father; your father had you come work in the back with him. All I’m doing is putting back in it what made this whole world work. That’s what we believe in, so when you ride around with us, we don’t conform to the world.
Our job is to come teach this world to be transformed. It’s all about saving these kids, it’s all about stopping the stuff that’s going on, the way that me and De’Andre look at it. We’ve worked with people that said they were Christian, but didn’t show no Christianity in ’em. We have worked with people that said they were Muslim, but talked more about Jesus than anything else. So it doesn’t really get to us.
What does Riah look like in five years?
DS: In five years, Riah will be a big part of the Woodlawn and Englewood communities. Our goal is to have at least ten schools in each community that we’re in, and that’ll be the school aspect of it. On the drug recovery part, we’re looking to have a Methamphetamine clinic in five years. We’re looking now for grants, we’re looking for different avenues. So that will be Mario’s part of it. But in five years we’re looking for Riah to be a household name, whether within the school system or outside of it. We’re out to heal people with hurts, hang-ups, and habits. We’re trying to be a voice within the community. We don’t want to tell people what way to live, but we do want them to realize which ways are destructive, which ways are not conducive to what we’re trying to build as a community, which things have brought our communities down. And this is not just the Woodlawn and Englewood communities. We’re eventually hoping to affect the world, by affecting the people of this community. Because these people are not confined to the community, and we’re trying to make sure that when they go out into the world, they represent what Riah represents, because the things that we represent are universal principals: respect for one another, love for one another. So that’s Riah in the next five years, a total of twenty schools, and a clinic that services those people who are drug dependent.
SJ: I have been meeting with certain people to get the Riah Foundation inside Englewood. It’s not just going to the schools, you find out everything’s centered around politics. So it’s dealing with this alderman and that alderman, dealing with this principal and that principal, it’s learning all over again. We had an incident that came up when I was at a Ceasefire meeting, do you know how that made me feel? That I couldn’t get to my youth? But knowing that I have a partner like this, we both take up slack for each other. The plan he said in five years, I see it a little bit more than that, but I don’t have the vision, but I see it the way he says it. Riah Foundation, we’re here to stay, we’re here to make it a household name, we’re here to provide everything, because they need it. I’m very passionate about it, he’s very passionate about it. I lost a cousin on December 23rd. Forgive me, that get’s to me, thinking about my little cousin. [We] want to make sure that no other kid has to go through what certain kids have had to go through.
Anything else people should know about Riah?
SJ: We want whatever help we can get as far as funding, principals, avenues, whatever we can get to help us get into these schools so we can help change the minds of these youth.