When it comes to the criminal justice system, those who were a part of the problem are now obligated to become part of the solution.
That is Eddie Howard’s philosophy. He is a facilitator of King County Credible Messengers Initiative group in Federal Way, a mentorship program for at-risk youth. The community-based collaboration is centered on supporting positive youth development.
“The whole objective is to have individuals who have also been impacted by the system one way or another, now working with youth who are either impacted, or on their way toward being impacted, based on society’s standards,” Howard said.
Last February, Howard was one of five trained facilitators to launch the first cohort of Credible Messengers in Federal Way. Next month marks the one-year anniversary of the King County Credible Messenger Initiative in Federal Way.
Howard himself was incarcerated as a teen and said he spent an extensive amount of time in prison.
“It’s important to be facilitated by individuals that look like the mentees and attending youth, who come from similar backgrounds and can relate on a higher level,” he said.
Howard was joined by four Credible Messenger members and empowered them with words of affirmation, calling the mentees “young warriors” at times during a recent interview with the Mirror.
“So I made it my business to get out and do something, be impactful and change the culture, for which I was raised in myself,” Howard said. “There’s a lot of pain and tragedy, and these young people are going through some serious, serious life events. The things that adults would crumble in the face of.”
On Dec. 4, 2018, the local community was shaken by the death of 17-year-old Federal Way resident Antonio Douglas. Douglas was shot along Marine View Drive in Tacoma and pronounced dead shortly after being taken to the hospital.
Douglas had attended a few Credible Messenger group meetings, and members of the group said they were just getting to know him before the tragic loss. Family members said he loved coming to group.
“He was very quiet, but when he spoke, it was always some powerful words that he spoke… absolutely,” Howard said.
Upon hearing of Douglas’s death, group facilitators immediately changed their group lesson to address the loss. By creating an atmosphere of healing, this opened up a discussion of how to deal with hurt, pain and trauma, Howard said.
“We got some very serious answers about how some youth are dealing with pain. They were very honest,” he said. “Some said they pop pills and drink and smoke it away or sleep it away. [We spoke] about healthy ways to deal with the pain because as we know, pressure bursts pipes.”
Credible Messenger members Jane Faanu, Paradise Viena and Saleenah Viena organized a celebration of life for Douglas on Dec. 13.
The candlelight service included a slideshow of pictures and a discussion about gun violence impacting the youth of today.
“It was a learning experience too because [Antonio’s] mom was saying ‘Make sure you tell your parents or siblings that you love them,’ because she went to sleep seeing her son and when she woke up, he was dead,” said 17-year-old Saleenah Viena.
The Credible Messenger mentees and mentors use real life examples to promote development and learning. The process falls into four phases of curriculum.
The mentees explore personal and professional development through life skills, job readiness, youth leadership and results-based projects about social issues of their concern.
The New York-originated idea developed from the Arches Transformative Mentoring program to change the life trajectory of at-risk youth through meaningful connections and youth development.
The mentees and mentors hone their skills in areas such as power of forgiveness, learning how to get — and keep — a job and breaking stereotype “curses,” Howard said.
“We’re not there to tell them what to do, we’re teaching them how to think,” said Elsa Alvarado, co-facilitator of Credible Messengers. “Just like with family, there’s going to be times where they make mistakes, but we’re not going to just leave them and cut them off. No eject, no reject policy. Even though they messed up … we’re still there supporting them.”
Federal Way hosts the biggest Credible Messengers group in the area, with Seattle coming in second. Ages of attendees range from 12 to 24, averaging between 15 to 18 years old.
Participation at each group ranges from 15 to 25 individuals per group in Federal Way, although Credible Messengers includes nearly 100 individuals across the board in Kent, Auburn, Renton, West Seattle, South Seattle and North Seattle.
“Our best outreach are our youth,” Alvarado said. “They bring their friends and then most continue to attend because they feel welcomed and awakened, and feel a space of family and trust.”
For many of the members, close friends or family members have been incarcerated and the Credible Messenger group provides a safe space to talk about the real aspects of life.
“Our senior year, me and Iris were talking about how we want to help in justice youth,” said Faanu, a 21-year-old Highline College student. “The youth, everybody, you know? Whoever comes my way I can be like ‘Oh yup, we got you. We’ve been through what you’re going through.’”
“The reason why I keep coming to group is because I like to see everybody and know their stories,” said 18-year-old Paradise Viena. “Everybody is open to each other and they trust each other. Everything said is between us. Some people don’t really get to have that space to talk at home and so I think the group has been impacted for the kids that don’t have a voice at home.”
“It gives me a break from my everyday life, I guess you could say I move too fast so it gives me a chance to slow down, connect, and just talk with people,” said Ty’on Nunnelly, a 17-year-old Credible Messenger mentee. “You get to talk about things that people don’t really talk about or you talk about things that are brushed past in real life.”
There’s plenty of time for fun, too. The group often takes field trips to bond and recently experienced Urban League Breakfast in November.
“It opens your eyes to things you that you think you couldn’t do or that you didn’t really plan on doing in your life, and you actually get to do it and experience them,” Nunnelly said about attending the fundraiser breakfast in Seattle. “It’s really cool.”
The event is affiliated with the National Urban League, which provides services to African-Americans and other disadvantaged people throughout Seattle and King County by public advocacy, business and community partnerships.
The keynote speaker at the UL Breakfast was Bakari Sellers, a CNN commentator and TIME magazine’s 40 under 40.
“They were able to come attend this fundraiser and be a part of such a big event where they’re seeing faces that look like them — who are leading things, who are in top positions that are making things happen on a positive end when it comes to the community,” Howard said.
In the fall, the mentees spoke at a meeting with legislators at a Pierce College meeting concerning policies, programs and procedures of the justice system.
“We took over the meeting,” said Saleenah Viena. “They were just giving us information and to be honest, I wasn’t even listening … then one of the lead legislators, she mentioned, ‘Let’s just stop this whole thing right now. They don’t even look interested. Maybe we should hear from them.’”
The mentees then opened a discussion with legislators on how to better assist incarcerated youth, they told the Mirror while reviewing their diligent notes from the meeting.
“‘We must politicize our youth as early as possible,’” Howard said, quoting Dr. Edwin Nichols. “They were able to use their voice in that space and their words, their opinions, their ideas will be taken into consideration as far as recommendations go to help change some of these laws.”
The Credible Messengers group meets twice a week from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Truman campus in Federal Way.
Howard said the group aims to keep youth engaged, address their needs and expose youth to new things.
“There’s a lot of pain and a lot of unfortunate circumstances that they’re faced with, and to be able to still come to the group, finding their voice, finding that place of peace,” he said. “They’re able to express that truth here and allow that release to take place.”
For more information, visit the Credible Messengers Facebook page.