Soul models

Dayton’s other law enforcement squad

By Melissa Markham

Photo: Street Souljahz leaders Merphie Frazier Marlon Shackelford

street souljah [street sohl·jah] – noun

1. A member of a Dayton volunteer task force providing a combination of citizen patrol and youth mentorship to combat the transition of Dayton youth from situations of poverty into lifestyles of crime, drugs, gang violence and incarceration.

In the bitter war against the hopelessness and destruction of poverty, there are soldiers among us. When parents are separated, absent or overworked and teachers are unmotivated and underpaid, the streets lure children in like lambs to the slaughter, offering a false sense of family, of money, of escape while, in reality, taking everything from them – their hopes, their freedom and, ultimately, their lives. Tired of watching youth slip into this fatal cycle of crime and violence, Marlon Shackelford, an ex-felon and motivational specialist, took a stand and created a group of volunteers determined to not allow the same socioeconomic genocide they survived seep into the next generation of Dayton youth.

“We don’t consider ourselves role models, but soul models,” Shackelford said. “Role models are great but will eventually let you down. But if I model my soul to you, you’ll never be disappointed.”

“We’re the army of the Lord,” Street Souljah supervisor Merphie Frazier, affectionately called “Unc” or “Uncle Merphie,” said, referring to the reason for the spelling of Souljah – “soul” for soul model and “Jah” for the Hebrew abbreviation of God. An offshoot of Black Brothers/Black Sisters Involvement and directly affiliated with Omega Baptist Church, the Street Souljahz were created in 2005 as an answer to the public outcry for city intervention at popular crime points within Dayton, specifically the Third Street and Main Street bus hub area, where, after school, kids were getting off the bus and fighting, as well as buying and selling drugs. Dayton City Commissioners Dean Lovelace and Joey Williams were quick to support Shackelford’s initiative, and, after Dayton City Commission approval, the Street Souljahz were born.

X-men and women

The vast majority of the Street Souljahz task force is comprised of ex-felons: men and women who come from the streets and, ultimately, survived.

“I call us X-men and X-women because that life is behind us,” Shackelford said. “We’re done. We are ex-felons because we took something from this community, which means that we owe this community. The more we owe, the more we grow, and the more we grow, the more we owe.”

There are exceptions, Shackelford points out, such as lawyers, commissioners and prominent members of the community, but most of the Street Souljahz are ex-criminals themselves, providing a level of experience and understanding those unfamiliar with life on the street cannot.

“It’s our edge,” Frazier said. “It’s what separates us from the Dayton Police Department and the Dayton Sherriff’s Department – we make a difference because we have a relationship with people in the community. We know their mammas, their sisters, their families. A lot of them we used to deal with and fight alongside. We want to make a difference by any means necessary. We go into the mud. We work with the gangs. We work with the drug dealers. We know them and they know us, and they know we won’t stand for it. It’s about the relationship.”

Urban Nights

Over 30,000 people participated in Urban Nights, a highly anticipated biannual weekend held in downtown Dayton, this past September. This year, however, a large fight broke out at the end of the evening on Friday, September 12, 2014, and dozens of Dayton youth were arrested for disorderly conduct. Helping to police the area and provide added security were the Street Souljahz, again using their relationship with the community as a peaceful tool to convince those disrupting the event that no one benefits from violence.

Street Souljah Dan Travis, who helped to keep the peace during that weekend, explained their presence was definitely needed.

“It was bad this year,” Travis said. “[The Dayton Sherriff’s Department] had to shut it down just to get them out of there. It was a mess. They [the Dayton Sherriff’s Department] were glad we were there.”

Travis heard about Street Souljahz from Frazier, his neighbor, and has been involved with them for almost three years. “I like being able to keep people safe. It’s a part of what we do,” Travis said.

Providing a balance

Terry Bavoice, a Street Souljah who is not an “X-man,” could not be more passionate about the movement. With two parents who were involved in drugs, Bavoice was raised by his aunt and introduced to Shackelford by his cousins, who participated in Black Brothers/Black Sisters Involvement. “I continued to show interest and they allowed me to be a part,” Bavoice said. “If I hadn’t, there’s no telling where I could have gone.

“I might not be an ex-con, but I want to help provide a balance,” he continued. “There are people involved with this movement who are educated and believe in the cause, and we can use all the help we can get.”

Because he doesn’t have a criminal record, Bavoice helps more with the administrative side of Street Souljahz and is able to go into Dayton area schools and speak in the classrooms – an aspect of outreach that isn’t always available to Street Souljahz who have served time.

The power of the bond between the Souljahz and members of the community is the primary source of the movement’s success.

“We started doing security at Third and Main and teens knew who we were,” Bavoice said. “They’d see us and put their cigarettes out, put their Black & Milds out. Our presence was there, and we knew we were really making a difference. When they respect you, you don’t have to break up the fight because it doesn’t start in the first place.”

With the Street Souljahz as a stepping-stone, Bavoice has started his own youth mentor program called Chosen Generations – a program directly involved with the public school systems. Though resources and funding are tight, Bavoice is comforted by knowing that he has found his calling.

“I know how I grew up,” Bavoice said,“[with] parents on drugs, parents not there. It’s my duty to help the youth here who are like me, and I will never stop doing that. I will never stop mentoring.”

Behind enemy lines

Shackelford is certainly no stranger to the streets and the lifestyle that accompanies them. Having amassed five felonies by the age of 18 and as the son of a woman raising several other foster children without compensation, Shackelford remembers stealing simply to survive.

“My mother wasn’t even getting paid for helping out,” Shackelford said. “She didn’t know that was a part of the deal.” Now it has become his life’s mission to show people of all ages how to leave the life of the streets behind and better themselves through mentorship and job programs, counseling and workshops.

“We want to show men how to be men and how it’s important for men to support their families,” Shackelford said, “to have jobs and to pay their child support – to handle their responsibilities. No one who comes to us is perfect – they’re imperfect, but they’re striving.”

The Street Souljahz exist on the 80/20 principal, which, for them, means that the time community members volunteer makes 80 percent of all activities possible while government stipends fund the remaining 20 percent. The group works in partnership with the Dayton Police Department and the Dayton Sherriff’s Department, Shackelford said. The most important focus, he said, is working together because they all share a common goal of peace.

“It’s important for all of us to respect each other and develop a relationship,” he said.

Frazier, a graduate of the University of Dayton and, more or less, lifelong resident of this city, remembers how ecstatic he felt when NFL player Ernie Green came to recruit him from U.D.’s football team into the pros. But after a knee injury and the death of his brother, Frazier’s dreams of stardom were shattered and he turned to crack cocaine for comfort.

“Once my brother died, it all went downhill,” Frazier said. “Everyone looked up to me in college. After college, I didn’t have anyone to look up to.”

Because of his drug use, Frazier lost two marriages and damaged several relationships with his children. The turning point for the end of his drug use was when his sister, Mary, threw him out of the house and forced him into treatment. After 28 days of his treatment, however, Mary died. The direct impact of Mary’s support and, ultimately, her desire for his sobriety propelled Frazier forward. With her legacy and the pleading of his nephew, Frazier kicked his habit and became one of the leaders of the Street Souljahz movement. He has been clean for 15 years.

The chilling reminder of the streets’ impact came again to Frazier in 2009, when his son, Demetrius, was shot and killed. (Shackelford also said at least 13 of his immediate family members have lost their lives to street violence.)

“You’re never too young to die,” Frazier said. “We want kids to understand that. The streets won’t die for you; why are you willing to die for them?”

“Getting kids off the streets has become my whole mission,” Frazier said. “I’m able to do this because someone believed in me. We need these kids to know there are people out there who care and who believe in them.”

After the death of his son, Frazier was offered an opportunity to seek revenge against the people responsible for his murder. Though the offer was tempting, Frazier chose to forgive them instead. “Forgiveness is the sweetest revenge,” he said, “and that’s a lesson we’re trying to teach. We tell them that when we say ‘F.U., F.U.,’ it stands for ‘forgive you, forgive you.’”

A call for backup

While the Street Souljahz now boast over 100 members on paper, the survival of their programs depends on their resources and the little funding they receive.

“Our resources determine how far we can reach out,” Shackelford said. “I’ve stopped so many people from robbing just by giving them $30 or $40. Imagine the difference we could make if even more people got behind us.”

Coming full circle

When this writer mentioned to Shackelford how he inspired Bavoice’s involvement and passion for this movement, he simply beamed.

“He’s an amazing kid, and I knew he had it in him from the beginning,” Shackelford said. “I expect him to be better than me.”

“I still look up to him, more than he knows,” Bavoice said. “He’s like a spiritual father to me.”

We want you!

“When you live in a poor neighborhood, you’re living in an area where you have to have poor schools. When you have poor schools, you have poor teachers. When you have poor teachers, you get a poor education. With a poor education, you can only work on a poor-paying job. And that poor-paying job enables you to live again in a poor neighborhood. So it’s a very vicious cycle.”

These famous words from Malcolm X serve as a platform for Shackelford and his troop of Souljahz and are, unfortunately, as true today as they were in 1964 when they were first spoken. There are those, however, fighting fiercely against this cycle, putting themselves in life-threatening situations while unarmed and preaching a message of peace and enlightenment for the sake of the Dayton community, for the sake of their home.

The grasp of poverty goes far beyond finances, seeping into the hearts of children, teaching them that they came from nothing, that they are nothing and that nothing is the only thing to which they can look forward. The soldiers waging war on street violence are always accepting recruits, whether you can offer your time, your expertise or your resources. Bavoice welcomes anyone willing to participate or to donate toys, coats, food or funds to reach out.

“There’s so many people who need help,” he said. “It’s a job that’s never done.”

Anyone interested in participating in the Street Souljahz or finding out more information about the programs and mentorship is encouraged to contact Marlon Shackelford at marlonshackelford.com/streetsoldiers.html.

Reach DCP freelance writer Melissa Markham at MelissaMarkham@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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