Picturing a Better Life for At-Risk Teens

For at-risk teens in violent neighborhoods, one young man is providing an alternative to despair.

Corey James
(Courtesy Corey James)

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When Corey James led a group of inner-city Newark teens to Manhattan, he wanted to free them — at least for a day — from crime-ridden streets. They visited museums, enjoyed a Broadway show, and ate exotic foods. The teens marveled at the Big Apple bustle, the well-dressed businesspeople, the tourists and weirdos and glitz. But when the memorable day was over and it was time to go home, one young man confronted James.

“He said, ‘You’re teasing us,’” remembers James, then a youth advocate in New Jersey’s juvenile justice system. “‘You take us out of our environment, which is infested with drugs and violence, and you bring us to this beautiful city, and then you take us back to the hood.’”

James was devastated. “I thought I was doing something good,” he says. He brooded over the words — you’re teasing us — and eventually realized: He was teasing them. In a good way. He was igniting their desire for a different life.

“He’d seen something better than the hood,” James says of the confrontational teen. “And he didn’t want to go back.”

That idea — exposing inner-city youth to a world beyond their violent neighborhoods — is part of the mission of Painting Pictures (paintingpicturesinc.org), an organization James formed to provide mentorship, life skills, and academic assistance, from teaching anger management to steering teens away from gangs to helping them apply to colleges and trade schools.

“These young people know that where they live is a dead end, but it’s the only picture they see.”

Too often, inner-city youth become trapped in a cycle of violence, crime, drugs, and jail. When James created Painting Pictures in January 2015, that cycle was becoming unbearable. He’d been working with a 16-year-old boy who was shot dead on the streets — a bullet to the head. At the funeral, James hugged the boy’s mother and offered his condolences. He was startled by what she told him: “I didn’t expect this to happen so soon.”

The words haunted him — the expectation that young men were destined to die. And the tragedies continued. Not long after the murder, a 15-year-old boy named Khalil Taliaferro, whom James was mentoring, was shot at a party. The bullet hit his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. For seven months, James visited Taliaferro almost daily in the hospital.

“He was suffering — mentally and physically,” says James. “I just stayed with him and said, ‘Okay — this has happened. We’re not going to stop. We’re not going to regress. We’re going to continue moving forward.’”

That stability and support is essential for troubled teens. And in Taliaferro’s case, it worked. With James’ encouragement, he returned to high school. He’s now taking classes at a community college and working as a youth advocate for troubled teens.

Another of James’ many success stories is Khalil Williams. Williams became involved with James in 2014, at age 19, and is now a senior at Rutgers University. But the journey from mean streets to campus greens hasn’t been easy. “About a year ago, I told Corey that I wanted to drop out,” Williams says. “I was under a lot of stress, my friends and family were getting shot, and I just thought school wasn’t for me. He told me, ‘If you quit, then I quit.’ His face was as serious as I’ve ever seen it. And he said it again: ‘Khalil, if you leave college, then I am resigning.’ It motivated me and helped me realize I had someone on my side willing to make sacrifices.”

Williams is staying at Rutgers. By working with James, he’s learned many important lessons. “Corey has changed my life in a billion ways, but I think what’s most influential is his altruism,” he says. “He gives without desire for recognition, and this made me want to do the same.” Williams works with several youth organizations, and once he graduates — he’s majoring in history — he wants to become a high school teacher in Newark. “I think it’s the best way to give back to my city,” he says.

To change the lives of at-risk teens like Williams, James exposes them to new people, places, and ideas, whether taking them to a Japanese restaurant to sample sushi or to a museum to see the masterworks of Gauguin and Van Gogh. In September 2017, James arranged for four young people to see the Grand Canyon. It was their first time on an airplane. After they returned home, they brimmed with new goals and ambitions. “These young people know that where they live is a dead end, but it’s the only picture they see,” says James, who has also published a book on inner-city youth called Painting Pictures. “Our goal is to help them create a new picture, a new perspective, and to understand that where they are now does not define their future.”

For James, it’s rewarding but difficult work — and progress, he’s learned, requires patience.

“Those that need the most love show it in the most unloving ways,” he says. “They’ve gone all of their lives without it, so when someone enters their life, they don’t know how to accept it. They’re also testing you to see if you’ll stick with them, because they’ve had people come in and out of their lives. That’s why I continue to work with the family and the young person as long as they allow it. Young people that I worked with 10 years ago still reach out to me.”

At the funeral, James hugged the boy’s mother and offered his condolences. He was startled by what she told him: “I didn’t expect this to happen so soon.”

Inner-city kids are desperate for love, says James. They crave it. Many kids are growing up without dads, so gangs become substitute families, offering father figures, loyalty, and trust.

“The misconception is that these kids want to be in their situation,” James says. “That they want to be defiant, and they want to be locked up, and they want to be arrested and on drugs and in gangs. But really, they’re crying. They’re trying to figure out — usually on their own — how to navigate their situation. And that leads to disruptive behavior.”

James understands their pain: He was abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandmother and great aunt in Franklin Township, New
Jersey. “Rather than becoming destructive, I internalized it,” he says. “I had depression and low self-esteem.” The two women were deeply religious, and James aspired to be a pastor. But after graduating from college and working as a youth pastor, he realized he wanted to immerse himself in the community, not be confined to a church. He was working for a nonprofit when a supervisor suggested he apply for a counselor position, assisting kids in juvenile detention. James reluctantly took the job.

“I had no interest in working with disruptive or disadvantaged youth,” he says. “It was intimidating. I thought: What will they gain from me? But I realized that I too had love issues, trust issues, feelings of abandonment and neglect.”

His first day on the job, he arrived at a teenager’s home — and found the young man pointing a gun at his father. James calmed him and successfully mediated the situation.

“I was never taught to do that,” he says. “I just figured it out in the moment. And I walked away and thought, Wow, I’m making a difference. That’s when the journey really began.”

James’ goal is to help more kids. He meets regularly with 20 young people through Painting Pictures and wants to obtain grants to expand the program. He’s also talking with an organization about a joint project to send 20 Newark youths to South Africa this year, where they’ll perform community service, immerse themselves in the local culture, and, yes, paint new pictures.

“For me, it’s all about relationships,” says James. “Because if you build a relationship with a young person, they will begin to look up to you, and to be motivated by you. We can’t move all of these kids into great communities, but we can become father figures, mother figures, big brothers, and big sisters. We can stop judging them and start loving them.”

Ken Budd has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, and National Geographic and is the author of The Voluntourist. For more, visit thevoluntouristbook.com.

This article appears in the March/April 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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