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