A battle to build self-esteem

Leader strives to inspire young blacks' outlook

The Courier-Journal/June 3, 2004
By Jessie Halladay

Christopher 2X addressed a weekly youth group at the Urban Learning Center. 2X organized the meetings to help young people in Louisville deal with daily pressures in a more effective manner.

Tyneka Burks, 15, right, and Stephannie Dunn, 16, listened during a presentation at a weekly youth meeting at the Urban Learning Center. Tyneka said the sessions help provide a perspective on violence.

Christopher 2X has run with gangs, dealt drugs and done time in prison.

When he got out of prison for the last time in 1999, he straightened up his life, became a member of the Nation of Islam and dedicated his time to helping young people escape the troubled lifestyle it took him decades to turn away from.

So, when Michael Newby's mother, Angela Bouggess, asked 2X to help make something positive come out of her teenage son's shooting death in January by a Louisville Metro Police officer, 2X got inspired.

He formed a group for young people, especially black youth in western Louisville, to help them develop into community leaders. He calls the group "The War Zone: How to overcome it in the hood."

"What this group is going to accomplish - Monday after Monday, maybe month after month, hopefully year after year - is to build spirit," the 44-year-old 2X told about a dozen young people gathered last week.

The weekly meetings with teenagers and young adults focus on building self-esteem, promoting self-improvement and developing respect for authority. The meetings are held in partnership with the African-American Think Tank, a community group dedicated to the development of Afrocentric values.

The group started meeting about three weeks ago at the Urban Learning Center on 34th Street. During each session a guest speaker addresses an issue facing young people, from how to deal with police to how to have healthy family and romantic relationships.

The speakers are volunteers. The programs cost nothing.

Those who attend come from varied backgrounds. Some have had family or relationship problems. Others have been in trouble with the law. And some are good students and model citizens looking for encouragement.

"I take them from all walks of life," 2X said. "I want those on the right path and the hardest one I can find on the street. I want to be the catapult into a new mindset."

An active member of the Nation of Islam, 2X opted to take X for a last name when he converted, but there was already one Christopher in the Louisville mosque, so he added the 2.

In recruiting for his sessions, 2X aims to cross boundaries - religious, social and economic. He constantly puts up fliers and stops to talk with groups of youth gathered on street corners.

"Most people will lock their doors or point their finger, but he'll get out of the car," said Jerald Muhammad, local minister of the Nation of Islam. 2X has a "unique God-given ability and talent to attract our youth. He sacrifices a lot of his time."

That time is well spent, 2X said, if he can reach even one person.

"If I can touch one, I might touch a thousand," said 2X of the domino effect he hopes to create. He'd like to see the people who come to the sessions go out and affect others positively.

2X said he gets by on about four hours of sleep, after working an overnight shift that starts at midnight in a local factory. He has helped organize poetry nights at Expressions of You, a coffeehouse at Muhammad Ali Boulevard and 18th Street. He volunteers at his mosque. He counsels anyone who asks for his help.

"I'm impressed," said Ericka Prentice, a 34-year-old insurance agent and poet. "This gives children some adult guidance."

One of 2X's goals is to build self-esteem among black youth.

"At that age, it's important to build self-esteem," said Aqueelah S. Haleem, who is one of the adults working with the young people. "Someone needs to step in and show them we care."

In a recent meeting led by Haleem, young men and women ranging in age from 12 to late-20s vented their frustrations about dating relationships. Some of the young women complained about a lack of respect from men, while the young men griped about women who just want their money.

With open discussion, whether based in anger, frustration or pain, 2X said young people can start to move past the issues that keep them locked in a cycle that holds them back.

2X tries to keep it real with the young people by using contemporary slang, a preacher-like tone and direct eye contact to get his message across. He stands before them in a neatly pressed suit, moving toward them and gesturing to draw them into the conversation. He keeps the message spiritual without being religion-specific.

"His spirituality was real warming about what he's trying to do," said Derek Anderson, an NBA player with the Portland Trail Blazers who lives in Louisville during the off-season. "He has a passion for helping people."

Anderson, who grew up in western Louisville, said it's going to take people like 2X to make a change for the young people. Anderson said he met 2X at a community event, and they now support each other's efforts to work with young people and try to build bridges with police.

2X is doing a "good job of letting the kids know they don't need to be so aggressive all the time," Anderson said.

These lessons are critical for young people to understand if the community is going to heal from tension, Bouggess said. She said it's a tension bred by distrust of police and other authority.

"It makes me feel really proud," Bouggess said. "What helps me make it every day is looking at a change in this community."

In the weeks after Newby was shot in the back in what authorities described as an undercover drug buy gone bad, community members gathered in a string of meetings, protests and assemblies to figure out the best way to respond to the shooting. Time after time, activists and residents talked about working with young people to build leaders in the black community.

Bouggess, along with her husband, Jerry, asked the public to help make something positive out of her son's death.

The Bouggesses' desire sparked something within 2X.

"My job is to teach how to overcome the fear," 2X said. "And teach them how to act when they encounter police."

His message is getting across to the young people.

Tyneka Burks, a 15-year-old Central High School student, said the weekly sessions help her get a perspective on the violence and problems she sees in her community.

"I want to see the killings stop and people to get along," she said.

Her twin sister, Tysheka, said she appreciates the opportunity to speak frankly about the issues she faces as a teenager.

"It gives me a purpose to do something," Tysheka said. 2X "just comes at it so real."

Through open discussion, 2X said he hopes that young people will become examples for each other. He hopes that instead of solving problems through violence, young people will use intellect and dialogue to resolve issues.

James Linton, co-owner of the Expressions of You coffeehouse, believes the meetings are giving people hope. "When you begin to give hope, change will follow."

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