The Michigan Daily-Monday, April 11, 1988- Page 5
By DOV COHEN
Errol Anthony Henderson sounds a little
surprised himself when he says it.
He says it three times, presumably to
make sure everyone in the audience hears it
and grasps the vital importance of it.
"They pay you to go to college. They
pay you to go to college. They pay you to
go to college."
THE ASSEMBLY of about 80
eighth graders at Spain Middle School on
Detroit's east side has been led up to this
. punch line. "You have to invest in some-
thing that can't be taken from you... No
matter where you go in life, your education
can't be taken from you."
Henderson, a University graduate stu-
dent in political science, grew up in the
Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects across
from Spain school and is one of several
'You are special. You
can't see that right now.
But you are special.'
- Errol Anthony Hender-
son, University graduate
student, speaking to De-
troit middle schoolers.
University students who goes back to De-
troit schools to push the value of educa-
His talk at Spain is an exercise in
"broadening the agenda" for students whose
school lies next to one of Detroit's crack
The purpose of college students going
back to their schools is to act as role mod-
els, as Henderson has written, "to show
these young men and women that there is
an alternative to rolling (drug dealing), or
being in the joint, or joining the Army, or
"There aren't many perceived
opportunities in school," Henderson says.
"The opportunities are not apparent to
STATISTICS bear this point out.
Citywide, about 40 to 50 percent of the
students who start high school in Detroit's
economically strapped public school sys-
tem will drop out by the end of four years,
according to public school statistics. An-
nually, 14 percent (or 7,000) of the stu-
dents drop out of the public schools.
And even for those, who do stay in
school, the education is often painfully in-
adequate. The latest California Achieve-
ment Test scores show that Detroit's 11th
grade students, on average, have reading and
math skills two years below the appropri-
ate national level. Even among Detroit's
public high school graduates, between one
in three and one in four cannot pass a high
school proficiency exam.
The opportunities in school are just not
apparent to the kids, in part because
enough college students don't go back to
their schools and make them apparent,
AS HENDERSON and others talk
about the need for educational role models,
they provide an insightful glimpse into
what the world looks like for too many of
"You have to picture me going back to
Brewster Center (in the projects)," Hender-
son says. "You go back, and you see the
people with the Mercedes and the BMW's.
They are the role models," he says.
Depending upon who you ask, there are
an estimated 1000 to 10,000 crack houses
in Detroit. And the Brewsters, which lie
just across Mack Avenue from Spain, are a
particularly popular area for the lucrative
AT SPAIN, the students giggle
knowingly when Henderson talks about the
fates of the big and small time drug-dealers
on the east side. These are the "symbols"
the students see every day. Henderson grew
up with several of the dealers. And one of
the students in the audience is the brother
of one of the dealers Henderson refers to in
Al Williamson - who also grew up in
the Brewsters and is a part-time student at
Wayne State University - now counsels
at Joy Middle School on the east side and
is Henderson's speaking partner. He gives a
similar description of what things look like
to his students.
"Most of the kids on the east side where
I live don't see people get up to go to
work," he says flatly.
"ONE OF the reasons I stayed was so
they could see someone going to school,
not into drugs, and who cares about them
"The only people (the kids) see doing
well are people selling dope riding around
in nice cars... Until we do things differ-
ently (until more people come back to
work with the students), that's all they're
cocaine, "was legendary" at the east side
Denby High School he used to attend,
Taylor says. "The kids looked up to him
because he had a lot of money."
"The whole lifestyle is a badge of
honor," Taylor says. Beepers worn by per-
sons involved in drug operations have re-
portedly become a sign of status in Detroit
(as well as Baltimore and Los Angeles)
"The whole name of the game is to
flaunt it. If you don't flaunt it, why have it
is their attitude," he says.
"Without a question" rollers have be-
come role models, he says.
"I'm sitting in class and wearing $200
Italian sneakers and gold chains. Let's say
my whole casual outfit totals a (couple
thousand dollars). I'm sort of a celebrity,"
"CAN YOU imagine the socialization
of kids who don't have the buying power
or don't have the status?"
"Indirectly," he says, "it affects all stu-
When he talks to the students, this is
precisely the point Henderson addresses.
What's fast won't last, he says. Education
is an investment in your future that will
sustain you, that no one can take from
In essence, what Henderson and
Williamson are doing is pushing education
and trying to make college students the role
"You can go through all the things we
went through down here and still do some-
thing positive with your life," Williamson
says to the students.
Williamson and Henderson say they
grew up with many people who are now
dead, in jail, or involved with dope - ei-
ther on the supply or demand side.
What helped them to succeed where
others did not was the presence of people
who are doing what they do now.
WILLIAMSON, who grew up during
the Black Power movement, credits people
from the Pan African Congress, who turned
him toward the value of learning about
himself and the community. He is simply
returning the favor. "I always promised
myself it was something I was going to do
(go back and work with the kids)," he says.
Henderson similarly talks about people
who pushed him towards education. He re-
calls being pushed towards "something
positive" by those who would never reach
his level of success. For example, he re-
members a friend who had been in jail
many times and kept telling him "to stay
in school. You're going to be my lawyer."
"I think what they're doing is the shit
(something great)," he says, recalling his
early mindset. "But they're telling me what
I'm doing is good. How do you replace
that? That's why I talk about role models,"
"(The students) need role models to
counterbalance the negative role models"
the students see every day. "You have to
develop a sense of community" and a
strong family system to support young
students - two ingredients that he says are
now lacking in his former Brewster pro-
"I THINK of hunger (when I look at
the projects now)," Henderson says. After
speaking at Spain school, Henderson goes
across the street to visit the projects he
lived in for 19 of his first 21 years. "It's
barren," he says of the run-down housing
complex. "There's nothing to stimulate
Walking through the empty streets in
the rain with his suit and trademark black
leather cap, Henderson talks about the rise
and degeneration of the projects.
"There was a real sense of pride then,"
he says of his former home. "Joe Louis
used to train at Brewster Center" and he
points out the apartment Diana Ross grew
"We planted grass seed every summer,"
he says, standing in front of his old house,
the basement of which someone has broken
into and smoked crack in.
"You should have seen it then. Every-
body had all their lawns together...There
was a real sense of pride then."
NOW HALF boarded up, the projects
are a testament to the sense of community
and family that Henderson says is lacking
for inner city youths. The projects are an
artifact of the "disposable" world the chil-
dren live in.
"People started looking at this as dis-
posable housing," he says. Most of the
families have left; the younger drug dealers
took their places.
Historically, Henderson traces the de-
cline of the projects not to the "scavenger"
street gangs like the Black Killers and the
Errol Flynn's that used to run the east side
("The Errol Flynn's and the K's used to
come down here and get their ass beat"),
but to the next mutation of gang life.
The crackdown on "scavenger" gangs
- gangs that have no real goals or purpose
- began after the Errol Flynn's went on
what one writer described as "a raping and
robbing spree" at an Average White Band
WHAT FOLLOWED the
"scavenger" gangs and what Henderson says
contributed to the downfall of the projects
was the emergence of the group that would
become "the premier youth gang" - the
tough, highly organized drug runners of
Young Boys Incorporated.
The organization, which in its heyday
employed 300 mostly young kids and
grossed $400 million in a peak year, of-
fered a powerful incentive that the informal
street gangs could not provide - money.
Though "scavenger" gangs were popular
- counselor and Wayne State University
professor Beverly Harris estimated that at
their peak one in six young males was
"associated in some way with a gang" -
these gangs did not provide the monetary
compensation that drug traffickers like YBI
"The incentive was too much," Hender-
son says. The rewards were a lot of quick
money; the punishments, since most of the
kids were juveniles, were a slap on the
wrist. "You'd get arrested to do a couple
THE ORGANIZATION started on
the northwest side of Detroit but quickly
spread across the city and into other coun-
ties and particularly made its presence felt
in the city's housing projects.
"We were calling the police (in 1979).
It would create a traffic jam, (all the peo-
ple) selling dope to the cars," Henderson
says. "And when people in the projects call
'YQu can go through all the
things we went through
down here and still do
something positive with
-- Al Williamson, Wayne
State University student..
the police, that's something."
The families started leaving the Brew-
sters. After YBI moved in, "people started
looking at this place as disposable hous-
Taylor concurs that the influence of
YBI was pervasive and powerfully destruc-
IN THE WAKE of hard times for the
auto industry and the '67 riots that "gutted
the community," drugs began to start tak-
ing root for persons socked by despair.
It was the influence of YBI in the late
'70s, however, that delivered a critical
blow. "The drop of the atom bomb was
YBI," Taylor says. "The bases were already
loaded. But when YBI came up, they hit a
YBI was an army - a well armed army
- and it moved with a purpose. YBI was
successful where others failed because
"there was never a gang (before) that had
YBI was the consummate business or-
ganization; they marketed their heroin with
brand names, handed out flyers in some
neighborhoods, allegedly offered "money
back" guarantees at an early stage in their
history, and guarded their turf, their "sales
areas," with Uzis, according to some re-
"YBI came on the scene, and their ob-
jective was to make money," Taylor says.
Lots of money. And they succeeded.
It wasn't until YBI had built themselves
up to be what Taylor says was the "premier
youth gang" that 42 of its 300 members
YET, THE SCARS from YBI still
"We are still dealing with the ghost of
YBI today," Taylor says. The Brewsters
Today's drug dealers are enjoying a
boom, particularly in this project. YBI
showed everyone how to play the game,
and dealers - buoyed by the popularity of
the inexpensive and powerfully addictive
crack - are contributing their fair share to
the 1300 murders Detroit has seen in the
past two years.
Taylor and Harris concur that as much
as 80 percent of the violence may be drug-
related. Drug-related violence, Taylor de-
fines as violence arising from "disputes
over money, property or territory acquired
Friends have shot friends over deals
gone sour. "I'd be surprised if anyone came
from the projects without seeing somebody
shot," Henderson says.
"Here everything is disposable," Hen-
derson says. Even the community. Even
THAT THE KIDS Henderson talks
with live in this environment every day of
their lives gives them a special quality, he
In his talk at Spain, Henderson finishes
up by telling the "high need students" that
they are growing up in very trying circum-
As students living in these circum-
stances, they have a unique perspective
they must share with the world, a keen in-
sight and understanding into the problems
of the urban society, sums up an observer
of Henderson's speeches.
"There's a strength here," he says to
them. "You deal with things on a daily
level that people don't deal with in their
lives. And this is what makes you strong."
"You see people who don't go to work
because they break a nail. You are going to
(school) through people who are rolling
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