Good Brothers Doing Good Things in the Community
(this post edited from Andre Brown’s article for the Uptown Standard, February 2021 edition)
A courtroom for most people in our community is usually not the best place to be, especially when you’re the one on trial. And the worst thing that could happen? A life sentence as a teenager.
For Nasir Shawqi, Jason Campbell, Ian Cunningham, and Brian Randle the worst came to pass when they each were sentenced at 17 to a lifetime behind bars.
“When I received my life sentence, I felt defeated and thought everything was over,” reflects Randle, “You start thinking about things you’ve never done in your life.”
Ian Cunningham, secretary of 17 With Life, remembers a similar feeling when he got his life sentence. “My heart was broken. I remember looking at my family and thinking I will never see them again.”
But, fortunately for many young people in our area, that was not the end of their story. The overwhelming experience first became a bond that pulled the four men together and eventually led them to found “17 With Life”, an organization dedicated to providing inner city youth with positive alternatives to the dangers of street life.
To get their message across, they rely on their own powerful experiences with the criminal justice system. “We went through all the trials & tribulations of prison,” says group founder Nasir Shawqi, “And want them to learn from our experience that there can be another way.”
Shawqi’s own path to prison began from a young age. His mother struggled with drugs. His father wasn’t there. There was little guidance for him. “I went to the streets in my young teens and they gave me drugs and a gun.” Almost as soon as Shawqi received money and was able to buy the things he always wanted, he also found something else – trouble from rivals also out to make their way on the streets.
His biggest message? “We need to stop letting the streets teach our kids!” Lessons learned on street corners can be costly, even deadly, especially when guns are in the mix. “We need to educate the youth and tell them about the truth of the guns, when and why to use one and how to legally obtain one.”
“In our neighborhoods people look up to someone who went to prison before they look up to the person who graduated college,” a truth that all four men agreed needs to change in our communities.
Each man shares a similar story of being misguided and falling into trouble in their youth. All the men were sentenced to life but only served 20 years. After being home for nearly 2 years the men teamed up, not only to warn about danger on the streets but to share successes since leaving prison.
They founded 17 With Life in March 2020, just as COVID was locking down communities. With no support from local government or outside funding, they started several businesses to help in the community, an ice cream/water ice truck, a landscaping business, a car detailing business, a music group, a news van, a clothing line, and the first Black-owned Halal truck in Philadelphia.
As entrepreneurs, they can now teach kids about “gui-nance” a word coined by Shawqi. “It’s a combination of the words guidance and finance,” he explains. “The idea is that a young person needs guidance and money to support them and their needs.”
He has already seen a change. “I pulled a young kid right off the corners, and now he is working at one of our businesses making money and has a new gui-nance plan for his life.”
Jason Campbell, the treasurer of 17 With Life, explained the process of getting young people into the program.
“Before the pandemic we went directly to the schools.” But now they’re including other ways to reach out. “We have started a boxing academy as well as a non-profit that has allowed us to connect to the children that we serve.”
Brian Randle the Director of the organization says that he was surprised by the reception they received when visiting the local high schools. “They thought we were dancers,” jokes Randle, “Once they heard our story, the kids felt our message and paid attention to what we had to share.”
“We caused so much destruction (in our youth) but some of these kids have never seen the other side and what we had to go through” said Randle.
You would think after 20 years spent in a cell these men would come home and think only about themselves, but Cunningham offered a different insight. “Coming back home I realized I was blessed to have an opportunity, even after 20 years, to make a difference. I had no choice but to try to help.”
The other members echo his feelings and added their own lessons:
For Director Brian Randle “Life is a blessing, always look at life as a blessing.”
Treasurer Jason Campbell urges young people to “want for your brother what you want for yourself.”
Shawqi’s lesson is about change. “I’m not that guy. I’m sorry” he says. “This person helping others is not the old Nasir.” For those who think he is, he tells them he’s now in the business of helping change the community.
Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world.” For the men of 17 With Life, they hope the lessons they learned can equip others to realize their dreams.
The Uptown Standard newspaper covers the neighborhoods of Mount Airy, Cedarbrook, West Oak Lane, and Germantown. Visit their site at uptownstandard.com