People’s journeys often follow a complicated path, which can include becoming an “emerging leader” much later in life. After serving almost two decades in Sing Sing prison, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and helped found the Rehabilitation Through Arts program, Mark Wallace is a youth worker, a mentor, and an example of the power of redemption.
Mark Wallace, 45
Facilitator for School Violence Prevention, K-12, Newburgh Enlarged City School District
Newburgh, New York
[transcript of phone interview]
Wallace: I can definitely appreciate from a journalistic perspective your concern with the various issues and vocations of people around the country who are doing positive things in the community, to help uplift the community. I definitely think that’s good. A lot of the newspapers today and media focus on the sensationalism and all the negativity. It’s refreshing to have another perspective—one that’s more positive and in line with trying to build up. It’s always like that—there are so many things that go on in neighborhoods and communities that you don’t hear about, because they don’t sell papers.
Sojourners: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Sojourners: How would you describe your job or leadership role?
Wallace: My job title is “Violence Prevention Facilitator for the Newburg school district, grades K-12.” Pretty much what that is, is I am more or less a mentor/counselor, I would say, group therapist. In the sense that what I do is I come in and the district has allowed me to set up a classroom setting where young men and women from diverse ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic-status backgrounds, can come and actually voice their concerns, their opinions, and deal with whatever issues or hardships they may be faced with. It’s an amazing type of approach and method to overall learning because you get your academia, where they get their science, reading, math, etc.—however, a lot of these young men and women, things that are troubling them outside of school are usually not a concern of the school. Newburg, like a lot of New York City schools, has taken on this new approach to a holistic type of educational experience with students, in terms of them getting their academia, but also having a place where they can talk about whatever it is that’s bothering them.
So I pretty much go in and facilitate this type of life-skills type classroom. We get into the heart of all types of matters, whether it be racism, gender, community, policing, how they feel about school, the curriculum, their ambitions, their goals—short-term, long-term—you name it, we talk about it. It’s been very refreshing for the students because—you know, the classrooms have been growing and also a list of students wanting to come in—because they feel that here is a forum where somebody’s finally listening to what’s going on in their lives. And that’s pretty much what I do.
Sojourners: That sounds like a lot of ground to cover—you must be spread pretty thin sometimes.
Wallace: Actually, we were just talking about expanding it—they are like, “can we clone you, and get maybe 10 or 15 more people like you?” (Laughs) [We’re] trying to see right now if can we get money to expand the program, because it’s something that’s needed. Not only do I talk with the students, but I also go out to the community, and I meet with their parents. And I go and meet with other community organizations that may have different resources that we can utilize to get the young men and women something to do after school.
I talk with parents and meet with parents and invite them to come into the classrooms and even the school to visit so they can understand what it is their child is experiencing in this setting and in the schools, and how to become involved in their children’s education—it’s very important. What we come to find is that, when young men and women feel that their parents are involved, their teachers are involved, and everybody is concerned, it reinforces what we try to instill in them in the beginning—good morals, principles, and values—knowing that they have a community that’s in support of them and their overall success. It’s really wonderful. I wouldn’t say “program,” [but] “process,” because a program can be for a certain amount of time, then it ends, but this process is something that’s life-long.
Sojourners: So are you the first person to have this position?
Wallace: I’m the first person in Newburg, yes. I’m not going to go as far to say in any district, I don’t know what other districts have. However, I know some districts call me because they’re interested in what I do here and they want to learn about it also. In Newburg, I’m the first; this position was actually created for me.
Sojourners: As you think about your work, what’s your biggest passion?
Wallace: The kids themselves. The students. I’m a “people” person, so to watch, say, for instance, a young man or woman who comes in who really may be anti-social—they may act out in unproductive behavior—to see them come through this process and then at the end of the school year, just have this 180 degree turn. I don’t say 360 because then you would end up at the same point you were! But this 180 degree turn, about-face from that negative behavior to [become] a young man or woman who’s productive, back in their classes, attending school, joining the various different organizations and functions that the school offers them, and taking advantage of the educational process.
For me, that’s the best reward I could ever receive, or anyone could, because it’s life we’re talking about here. It’s not about materialistic things, it’s not about success in terms of monetary gains, but success in terms of finding that peace, that contentment that carries us through life. You know, that purpose, that meaning. So for me, that’s the greatest reward I could receive—that I’ve helped affect someone’s life, put them on the right track in a positive lifestyle.
Sojourners: You’re working for a public school district, so this isn’t a faith-based program, but I’m imagining your faith motivates you, and that you see faith at work in the young people you work with. Can you talk about that?
Wallace: Oh, most definitely. Faith is the foundation, the essence from which I exist. It’s my relationship with the Creator, and knowing that all of us are intimately and intricately connected as a brotherhood, sisterhood. It’s knowing that service to my fellow human beings is the best service that one could ever do. We look at [the] Bible, Qur’an, various other books, religious books, the Tao Te Ching, whatever it may be in, all of them pretty much have the same thing in common, the same essence, when it talks about being examples for one another, good examples, you know, visiting our brother or sister when they’re sick, or if you have extra clothing and coats to spare, to give one to someone who doesn’t. To feed a person, to help a person, to sit down and just listen to a person, to talk, to be sociable, all these different things, all these different virtues.
I believe that religion in and of itself is a cultural phenomenon for a group of people dependent upon whatever region they’re from, their experience in trying to understand the Creator. I figure in most cases when we fight each other over that, we really don’t understand we’re saying the same thing. It’s just this group’s experience as opposed to the next.
But there’s only one God. Only one Creator, and in that there’s a diversity and that’s our strength, the brotherhood of humankind. We learn from each other, we survive off each other, we grow with one another. I believe that the whole purpose of life is not so much to obtain billions of dollars or different materialistic things, but this whole process is about understanding ourselves and our relationship to the Creator, and through that giving of ourselves to one another, that’s what motivates me each and every day.
Sojourners: As you think about faith and as you work with the youth, do see them as different in any way from youth of previous generations, or do you mainly see a lot of constants?
Wallace: You know what? Each generation always says, “oh man, these kids today are not like we were.” That could be in my mother’s era, her mother’s era. Over and over again—my era, my children’s era. I think one constant is this—in that human journey, to find oneself, you’re always going to see some form of rebellion at a certain age. I think the age from 12 to 18 is a difficult period for each generation. It’s that period where you’re trying to find that identity, “who am I?”—self-expression, difference, uniqueness. And we go through these things and a lot of times we label it “rebellion;” however, it’s just that evolution from child to teenager to womanhood or manhood.
There are differences, I guess, in each generation. I would say in my time, the level of respect for older people was at more of a high than it is now. I find a lot, with these young men and women, that they really, in many cases, are more disrespectful towards adults than in my generation. And they are very bitter. A lot of them are very angry and very bitter. There are many factors that we can attribute this to.
But what I’ve come to find, in doing what I do, is that a lot of them, given time to reflect, will come out of that negative, rebellious, type of phase that they are in. I’ve seen with my kids that a lot of them, when given the opportunity to talk about whatever it is that’s bothering or troubling them, have come around to actually being more productive.
There are school programs—a lot of things that have been taken away and cut back from, you know, their places to go. A lot of these kids in Newburg, they don’t have anywhere to go. They come home from school and all they have is the block. They don’t have places to go and just things to do. When I was young you had boys’ clubs, you had the YMCA, you had PALs (Police Athletics Leagues). You had a lot of different things, even in school and after school; you had various different programs to get involved with. The kids up here, they don’t have any place or anywhere to go. And a lot of them, as far as jobs, to make money, our society has such an emphasis on that—clothing, what we wear, to be in the latest fashion—the peer pressure that comes from that, having and not having.
A lot of them are just angry. That’s why gangs thrive so much—to be a part of a group, to be a part of something. They just want to be a part of something, without realizing whether it be negative or positive, and not really taking that into consideration. You want to be a part of something, you want an identity, you want to feel like somebody. And sometimes saying, “I’m a Blood,” or a Crip, or MS-13, or whatever it may be, is saying that you are somebody, because a lot of the time they don’t feel like they’re anybody.
Sojourners: So, when you say that there’s a sense of bitterness, how would you sum up what the main source of what that is?
Wallace: I feel they really think that society let them down. That’s pretty much what it is. A lot of them have this mistrust for authority figures, whether it be teachers, even older people. Sometimes we’ll talk and they’ll say, “Mr. Wallace that was in your time,” but then when I go into my experiences and tell them things, we can sit there and point out that “Hey, that sounds a lot like this time and a lot of things I’m going through right now.” And I explain to them that there’s nothing new under the sun. We’ve gone through those periods. It’s not just my time. All I have over you is not that I’m smarter or anything, but I’ve just been here a little bit longer and I’ve had the ability, or I was afforded the opportunity, to contemplate or ponder over my experiences. And that’s how I can share them with you and have this empathic approach, because of stepping outside of myself and remembering what it was like to be [their] age. Even though now they’re bombarded with so much information, because we’re living in this so-called “information age,” whether the information be good or bad or indifferent. There’s just so much information coming at them from all points all the time. So there’s a lot of confusion also.
Sojourners: How has your life journey influenced and motivated you and your work?
Wallace: I grew up in Harlem, in the Bronx, in the city. I come from a God-fearing family. These values and integrity and good principles and things my mother and father instilled in me. However, as a young man, I was enticed by the quick and fast life, wanting instant gratification, things right now, and chose a path that was negative. I ended up going to prison, serving 18 years.
But during that time, ironically in that physical incarceration, I found a spiritual and mental freedom that I didn’t possess prior to going in there. I thought through that deep introspection in assessing how I had gotten into the predicament I was in. And through that process I came to find out the good things that were part of my character and focused on them more, and the more I focused on them, the negative things began to dissipate and I eradicated them. I’m not saying I’m perfect, no one is. I just realized that where I went wrong and the things that [made an] impression upon me as a young man.
And understanding that, and seeing what’s going in with these kids, I felt that my life could be utilized as an open book for them to read from and take chapters as they may and whatever information they would like to take, to help them bypass the stumbling blocks, stepping stones, and potholes that I fell in, and to go on to live a better quality of life. And that’s really my motivational factor.
Because a lot of these young men and women, you know, they believe in a lot of these false gods. A lot of them don’t have good guidance at home, or some of them, their mothers are only 13 years older than them. Some of them, their mother is working two jobs, and some of them don’t know where their fathers are, or even if their father’s there, he’s working two jobs. A lot of times they’re not home to really talk to them or be with them, so the street becomes their teachers or their parents.
I just really would like to use my life as something that could counterbalance that, by showing I’ve walked that walk before, I’m not just talking this talk. It’s not something I’ve read out of a book, it’s something that I experienced. In that I’ve shared my experiences with them and why I made my decisions, and where I could have avoided the problems that I caused myself.
I tell them what you think is your reality—your perception is your reality. I ask them a lot of times, “Where’s the ghetto?” And they’ll say, “Oh, the ghetto is the ‘hood” or “That’s where I live” or “It’s the city”, and I go around and hear some of their answers to that question. And then I tell them that no—the ghetto is a state of mind. And what you believe of yourself is what you’ll act out. What you see in your community and around you is a reflection of your perception of yourselves. No one tells you to go out and write on your walls, no one tells you to go out and urinate in your hallways, no one tells you to go shoot guns out in the streets where grandma and the babies can’t play, or grandma can’t go out to the store. It’s how you feel about yourself; it’s the things you feel are right—the things you feel that are important in your life. We act this out and this is what our community becomes. A lot of them come to understand that, you know, “Hey, he has a point.”
Sojourners: I hope they can clone you, because that’s such an important message. Just a couple more quick questions. Are you personally participating in a specific faith community?
Wallace: Not at this time. I’m a graduate of New York Theological Seminary. That’s where I got my master’s degree from. Right now I’m pretty much jaded by the churches, the mosques, the synagogues, and all these places, the stone edifices. I believe that my body is a temple, and it’s about doing the work with me. I’ll go to visit any of them, and any of them that are working toward doing something in the community, and really living the mission as I perceive it, as Jesus, or Mohammad, or Moses have set out and gone out into the community to uplift people, them I’m with that. There are very good churches around with very good ministers, so when I make this statement, I’m not saying “all.” It’s just that what I’ve seen a lot, especially from these mega-churches—All this ostentatious wealth, and so-called “preaching the word”—to me it’s disgusting. Come out and walk over the person who is lying right here in the street, to get inside their Mercedes Benz—I’m not with that. I figure that I do what I do, and it’s genuine. I’m really at those places helping them constantly—taking clothes they may use and going to shelters and giving them to people. Like today I cooked for all my kids; I made food for them so we could sit down and break bread together. I go into the community, I talk to their parents. A lot of times, if I have money in my pocket, I’m constantly giving them $5, $10, whatever it is I have, if it’s something that they don’t have. So for me it’s about doing the work. I pray every day, all day, and give thanks. I’m just not affiliated with any specific place or church in that sense.
Sojourners: And, may I ask, how old are you?
Wallace: I’m 45.
Sojourners: Amen. That’s a great decade to be in.
Wallace: Yes it is. My father used to tell me—he said, “Son, you’re not going to start to live until after you’re 30.” And I didn’t understand, but now I see.
I’m a God-fearing man and I believe in the Creator, and I don’t think that any one group has it exactly right. I believe that religion in and of itself, how you pray, what you wear, that’s a cultural experience, but the prayer in knowing that God is real, true and living at all times is the absolute foundation of my faith, and being a good person, and a good service to humanity and the Creator is where my church is right now.
Sojourners: Amen to that! Thank you so much for speaking with us. God bless in the great work that you’re doing.