Four years ago Kenneth McClain spent Saturdays slanging drugs and getting high. But today he is standing in the middle of the intersection of Natural Bridge Avenue and Grand Boulevard, passing out fliers.

It's hot — one of those triple-digit afternoons in the St. Louis summer. But when the light turns red, McClain, sweat-soaked white T-shirt pasted to his skin, springs into action, weaving between vehicles holding up two leaflets, one about "Put Down the Pistol" and the other about a green jobs training program at the MET Center.

Some drivers look straight ahead and ignore him. Others roll down their windows, and McClain says, "Here you go, brother," or "We're trying to get people to put down the pistols," or "If you know anyone trying to get a job," depending on which message he thinks will best connect with the recipient. At the bottom of the leaflets, it says: "Interested in crime reduction and job training? Join the Men Claim the Neighborhood every Saturday at 10 a.m., 6017 Natural Bridge."

"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.
Jennifer Silverberg
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

Ostensibly, saturating a neighborhood with fliers seems like an underwhelming effort to reach people. But the restraint is by design.

"The lion tamer doesn't tame a lion in the jungle," Clark tells his troops one Saturday. "He doesn't run up behind the tree and say, 'Roll over.' He takes the lion out of the jungle, into a controlled environment, so that the lion can receive it. We can't deliver the message to these brothers in their element. You can't talk to the brother at the base of the projects, smelling urine and the elevator that don't work and a sandbox full of glass. He's not gonna receive a message.

"But if you bring him here, sit him down, talk to him, he sees the pictures of other young brothers on the wall, he meets me, meets Mr. Bush, meets some of the other guys, now he's more receptive. I don't stand out there on Kossuth and give him a fifteen-minute lecture. I say, 'Man, if you wanna change, come up to 6017 Natural Bridge.'"

McClain came up to 6017 Natural Bridge for the same reason as many of Clark's other soldiers — a friend had attended a few of those Saturday-morning meetings and convinced him to check it out.

"I never seen so many positive black people in one room," he says. "To be a part of something positive, it's like a new kind of high."

And then there was Clark himself.

"He was really the first father figure I ever had," says McClain.

Even at the height of their drug dealing, McClain, Willingham and Robinson say that a large part of them thirsted for somebody to come in and offer a different path. The father figure who tells them straight up that they're going to get killed if they keep hustlin' and runnin' with gangs, who calls them out for missing a job interview, who challenges them to go to college and move out of their mom's house and buy a car — because a man isn't supposed to be borrowing his girlfriend's.

"The first time I came in, I was like, 'Whatever, I'll see what this is about,'" says Robinson. "Then he went up there, and he did the speech. And the dude, he's a modern-day — and I hate to compare anybody to anybody — but he's a modern-day Martin Luther King. The dude is powerful. His words really possess power. He has a lot of energy. He gives off a lot of energy. And it was just like, this dude, he's real."

They canvas neighborhoods every week, walk up to packs of shirtless young men with dreadlocks and ball caps standing on street corners and hand them fliers, because they know that there's a chance at least one of those guys is looking for a way out. And they know that once that young man sets foot in 6017 Natural Bridge on Saturday morning and hears Clark speak, he'll be passing out fliers by the afternoon, and he'll be back the next Saturday with one or two of those other guys from the street corner.

They know it because it happened to them.

"You see all these people from all these different neighborhoods, who are ex-dealers, maybe even still dealers, who are ex-dope fiends, maybe even still dope fiends, ex-alcoholics, maybe even still alcoholics," says Robinson. "They're all in the same room. For the same cause. And guess what? This is week after week after week after week. And none of them are getting paid. They're volunteering to be here. The dude has the message."


James Clark grew up in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, just northwest of downtown St. Louis. Raised by his mother and stepfather, he was a mischievous child. His mother sent him to Catholic school, but he got into fights and was suspended multiple times. So after sixth grade, she switched him to public school, telling him, "If you're going to behave like this, you can behave like this for free."

After graduating from Business and Office High School of St. Louis in 1985, Clark enlisted in the army, where he was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado for three years.

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