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The Justice League

In just two years, the RVA League for Safer Streets, a basketball-plus-education program for young men from Richmond communities with high crime rates, has had an extraordinary peace-making impact in the lives of participants—and on the city at large. Founded by two formerly incarcerated Richmonders who bring to the table experience and insight wrought by decades behind bars, the League is dedicated to keeping people out of prison, and helping those who are returning to become successful members of their communities. The article that follows contains audio quotes from the League's founders about pivotal experiences in their lives in and outside of prison.

Photos @ Julia Rendleman

Paul Taylor and Jawad Abdu met while they were incarcerated in a Virginia maximum security prison—between them, they served more than 40 years for their connections to gang-related crimes committed in their youth. Though they were transferred to separate facilities for a decade, Taylor and Abdu followed a parallel path on the inside: they turned their lives around, each vowing to find ways to keep men like themselves from ending up behind bars, and to help people returning from prison to succeed on the outside.

Paul Taylor (left) and Jawad Abdu met in prison and founded the RVA League for Safer Streets. Taylor served 23 years, and Abdu, 17. They each have sons who are currently incarcerated. In fact, it was the realization that their sons were perpetuating a cycle of violence that shocked them onto the path of service and reconciliation that they are now dedicated to following.
Paul Taylor (left) and Jawad Abdu met in prison and founded the RVA League for Safer Streets. Taylor served 23 years, and Abdu, 17. They each have sons who are currently incarcerated. In fact, it was the realization that their sons were perpetuating a cycle of violence that shocked them onto the path of service and reconciliation that they are now dedicated to following.

They schooled themselves in prison and became inmate leaders. Taylor served as a mentor in his prison's state-mandated re-entry readiness program—at a time when he believed he’d never be released himself (his sentence was life plus 26 years). And they each founded workshop programs that offered education for inmates on everything from conflict resolution to fatherhood to PTSD (a nearly universal consequence of incarceration).

Together, Taylor and Abdu conceived, researched and refined—all under the prison roof—the RVA League for Safer Streets, a community basketball league and empowerment program that connects former inmates with youth, young adults and local law enforcement officers in Richmond. Their motto is "workshops before jump shots" because, prior to each practice or game, they and other experts lead mandatory sessions on critical thinking, problem solving and other essential skills for the players. Together with lessons in sportsmanship honed on the court, the program offers participants a different approach to making life decisions, and at the same time, it's forging unity between former enemy neighborhoods.

Abdu and Taylor's experiences in prison, and the role they played in brokering peace between rival gang members inside, skilled them up for their work as mentors and leaders of the RVA League.
Abdu and Taylor's experiences in prison, and the role they played in brokering peace between rival gang members inside, skilled them up for their work as mentors and leaders of the RVA League.

Abdu began laying the groundwork for the League when he was released in 2016; Taylor consulted from a prison phone. They teamed up with Robert Morris, a Richmond native who had been a coordinator for the city's midnight basketball program in the 1990s, a highly successful youth development and crime reduction program that was allowed to wither when local government funding dried up. Morris was instrumental in pitching a partnership to the police department and managing league logistics. The three men scheduled their first season of games, in the summer of 2017, for hours when crime tends to be highest in Richmond's public housing projects. Taylor, to his surprise, was paroled at the end of 2016 and led the League's first workshop soon after his release.

Robert Morris joined the RVA League founders, lending invaluable insight and experience from years of working with the midnight basketball leagues that had helped quell crime in Richmond in the 1990s. A successful program that was the victim of the politics of funding.
Robert Morris joined the RVA League founders, lending invaluable insight and experience from years of working with the midnight basketball leagues that had helped quell crime in Richmond in the 1990s. A successful program that was the victim of the politics of funding.

The early outcomes have been breathtaking: a 12-year feud between two rival neighborhood gangs that took many lives was effectively defused through the League's conflict resolution intervention. Young men who were mortal enemies put aside guns and now spar regularly on the court. Abdu describes how the League now holds games in places he would never have been able to set foot back when he was a gang member. "Now we working in the place where we had our beef. We working where I couldn't go."

Former rivals now meet on the streets and on the court. Children, wives, partners and friends attend the games, along with members of the Richmond police force, who are an enthusiastic part of the league's fan base. Says Abdu, the players are "relieved that they don't have to kill no more. They can go to school. They don't have to get a life sentence."
Former rivals now meet on the streets and on the court. Children, wives, partners and friends attend the games, along with members of the Richmond police force, who are an enthusiastic part of the league's fan base. Says Abdu, the players are "relieved that they don't have to kill no more. They can go to school. They don't have to get a life sentence."

On the nights when league practices and games are underway, crime—especially shootings and homicides—have plummeted. Alfred Durham, chief of Richmond’s police department who retired in December, credits the RVA League with helping lower the city’s crime rate by eight percent last year, saying it was unlike any other community-based crime reduction initiative he’s seen in his 31 years in law enforcement.

The goal of the RVA League is to help people returning from prison re-enter the community and join in the mainstream economy, as well as to prevent at-risk young men from getting entangled in crime and the justice system.
The goal of the RVA League is to help people returning from prison re-enter the community and join in the mainstream economy, as well as to prevent at-risk young men from getting entangled in crime and the justice system.

In spite of the League's initial success in helping reduce gun violence, and the overwhelming demand from players and their friends and families for more teams and seasons, there's a long way to go to ensure that the program can strengthen, grow and, ideally, be piloted in other communities with the same challenges. LISC Virginia has provided funding, technical assistance and lots of encouragement to the League. LISC's Safety and Justice team channeled nearly $50,000 from the Walmart Foundation's race and equity grant program to support last year's seasons (the Richmond police department acted as fiscal agent). LISC AmeriCorps is working to place a member with the partners to help them develop as a nonprofit.

As Robert Morris and his partners know, powerful solutions for lowering violent crime and supporting young men of color on a path to success and wellbeing are too often overlooked, or underfunded, or both. "A lot of these guys, they don't want to be in the situation they're in," says Morris. "They're smart. They want to help their friends. They want to help their parents. If America invests in that population of people, they're investing in society as a whole." 

For the League's participants, Taylor (above) and Abdu's personal histories serve as cautionary tales. "We ask them to imagine what it would be like to be in prison for more years than they've already been alive," says Taylor. "We tell them: 'You don't need to go to prison. We've done enough time for all of you.'"
For the League's participants, Taylor (above) and Abdu's personal histories serve as cautionary tales. "We ask them to imagine what it would be like to be in prison for more years than they've already been alive," says Taylor. "We tell them: 'You don't need to go to prison. We've done enough time for all of you.'"

Hear more about the RVA League for Safer Streets in a video from Virginia LISC. 

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