Man on the street

Will Wallace works to steer young men away from gangster life toward a new path

Dave Nimmer and Will Wallace meet up at Broadway Pizza in North Minneapolis.
Dave Nimmer and Will Wallace meet up at Broadway Pizza in North Minneapolis.

St. Paul and Minneapolis officials have spent time and resources this summer to curtail gang-related crime and violence.

I would argue that one of the best weapons is my friend Will Wallace, a former Gangster Disciple who’s preaching a gospel of love, not violence, to dozens of young gangsters and wannabes.

What he’s offering is patience, respect, training, jobs and support through the North 4 program at Emerge. Officially, the program provides training, employment and counseling for at-risk youth. Unofficially, Wallace is the program’s on-call mentor, part-time father and sometimes spiritual confessor.

As an unabashed liberal, I’m sometimes troubled by social programs with lofty goals and great mission statements. Often they have too many people behind desks writing reports and too few on the streets finding kids.

Wallace is a street guy. He knows how to find the young brothers. He knows how to listen. He knows what to say. Part of his message is simple: Keep doing what you’re doing (drugging and dealing) and your world will be small. Your troubles will grow. Your peace will be gone. Your life will be short.

The alternative, he admits, isn’t easy. Come in (from the streets). Get trained. Go to work. Stay at it. And think about going back to school.

Finding a way out

Wallace’s life is one heck of an example.

He went from a life of slinging drugs and running wild to working hard and standing tall. In the early ’90s, he came under the influence of Bobby Hickman, a teacher and counselor at The City, an alternative school where Wallace graduated.

That’s where I met him when I took my broadcast reporting students (when I taught journalism at the University of St. Thomas) to talk with students and staff who lived a life far different from the Tommies. One day, Wallace came over to St. Thomas and announced he wanted to go to college.

He took a summer remedial course and enrolled as a freshman in 1997. He worked full-time, went to class and raised a family. He lasted two years before being placed on academic probation, a victim of beginning German and shrinking resources.

“I learned a lot in two years,” Wallace recalled, “including the history of my people. Until I took a history course, I never knew of the underground slave railroad.”

A few years ago, Wallace brought a dozen of his Emerge young men over to the St. Thomas campus where books and classes rule the day.

“Some of my guys,” Wallace said, “had never been across the bridge from Lake Street to Marshall Avenue.”

In his first stint at Emerge, Wallace reached out to 113 young men. All of them stayed alive, half of them got jobs and seven of them went to college.

He left Emerge to work in a school program but came back last year at the request of Emerge President Mike Wynne. His first assignment was to work with others to tamp down gang violence, reaching out to 30 known gang members.

10 young men

Now he’s in the midst of his second stretch with the North 4 jobs program, which began in June and ends in September, this time with 10 young men who’ll need to be turned, taught, trained and tutored — all to get a job, find some hope and build a life.

Emerge is a nonprofit and any federal budget cutback means that it would depend even more on local donors.

I’m writing a check to put my money where my mouth is. Taking one kid off the streets, out of a gang and into the mainstream saves taxpayers thousands of dollars a year. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.

Will Wallace is living proof.

Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].

Learn more

Explore the many programs of EMERGE Community Development, including North 4, at