My grandfather was from Texas, and he used to say that most people in life are “fixin’ and finnin’” as in they’re fixin’ to do this, and finnin’ to do that. But in the end, they end up doing nothing. Well, don’t put Dr. Joseph Marshall, Jr. in that fixin’ and finnin’ column. With his San Francisco based Omega Boys Club, Dr. Marshall has been making a difference with black youth for over twenty years.
“It was the loss of some of my best and brightest former students that led me to start the club,” Dr. Marshall recalls. “I was a middle school math teacher and some the kids I had given good grades to ended up pregnant, dead or in prison. I just couldn’t take it any more so I started the club 1987 to literally save their lives. To keep them alive and free.”
Dr. Marshall, who was initiated into Omega Psi Phi Fraternity at the San Jose State University campus in 1967, began the Omega Boys Club as a way to help black boys and girls realize their dreams of attending college. He promised them that if they worked with the club, and made it to college, then he’d do all he could to help them pay for it.”
“My first college graduate was in 1993. As of August 2010, there are now 157 college graduates—male and female,” he said. “In 1997 I started teaching other folks how to keep young people Alive & Free and now the movement is worldwide.”
One of the immediate issues Dr. Marshall recognized when building the Omega Boys Club was the corrosive connection between the prevalence of violence, and the degradation of mental health in black kids. So eradicating violence became the emphasis behind numerous Omega Boys Club initiatives.
One of the most successful initiatives is the concept of the Street Soldiers, where Omega Boys Club members and their mentors are empowered to create environments free of violence. Dr. Marshall looks at violence as a public health crisis in the community, as a disease, and dealing with it as a health issue is the first step to creating healthier black boys and girls.
Dr. Marshall says it was the violence he experienced pledging Omega that made him wonder about why it was such an integral part of black life, and why that reality couldn’t be change. In his book, Street Soldier, One Man’s Struggle to Save a Generation—One Life at a Time, Dr. Marshall talks about his experience.
“In the years since, I’ve given a lot of thought to the pledge experience. Why did I allow myself to be beaten like that—sometimes so severely that I couldn’t sit down—and why did I turn around and inflict the same punishment of those who came after me?” he writes. “I’ve never really made complete sense of it—I’m not sure anybody has, but it seems that , somehow, the Omega pledge process was a manifestation of our history; that in many ways, pledging represented the best and worst of being a black American, the African part and the European part—what we’ve retained from the motherland what we’ve inherited from our slave ancestry here in America.”
Dr. Marshall rejects the idea that violence is inevitable in both fraternities and sororities, and in the black community. In 2006, in response to the increasing number of black kids being shot and killed on the streets, and black kids being incarcerated, the Omega Boys Club launched the Alive & Free movement, which tackles violence as a disease that has a specific prescription.
“The disease is transmitted by the germs of bad information, bad instruction, bad advice, and bad example that to young people appear to be good. Youth are exposed to these germs via their families, peers and neighborhoods; and through music, television, video games, and movies. The disease appears as techniques for survival when, in fact, the opposite is true. Infected youth do not survive, they only learn how to die or go to prison. The Alive & Free Prescription works to change beliefs, attitudes, values and actions that promote violence.”
Through the Omega Training Initiative, community leaders and black youth are trained to implement the Alive & Free Prescription by identifying the risk factors in their community, how to deal with the issues of violence, and then change behavior. As a result, Dr. Marshall has been asked to travel around the country, and to international venues as diverse as Thailand and South Africa, to help provide solutions to violence in communities. Recently, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome declared that the Alive & Free program would be the basis for all violence prevention training in the city.
And Dr. Marshall is adamant that black fraternities and sororities need to learn the lessons of Alive & Free, and find solutions to the hazing violence, before they can be considered credible when working with black youth.
“Hazing has to go—for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least if which is mentorship of the young,” said Dr. Marshall, who is also president of the San Francisco Police Commission. “We have a saying here—“good advice and bad example cause confusion,” and I don’t want our young people being confused when it comes to staying Alive & Free. For me anything that jeopardizes our life and freedom has to go, and that definitely includes hazing.”
For Dr. Marshall, you can’t be a positive force in the black community if you accept violence in your community. He’s doing what he can to make a violence free world a reality, one Street Soldier at a time.
Contact Lawrence Ross on Twitter: @alpha1906
Contact Lawrence Ross via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.