SCHENECTADY — Alfredo Smalls cradled his friend Rashad Robinson before he bled to death after being shot outside of a Mont Pleasant bar in 2011.
That was the beginning of his decision to shun the gang lifestyle.
But the trauma remains.
Ultimately, he attended 28 funerals in 36 months.
“I’m not healed,” said Smalls, co-founder of Save our Streets, the Schenectady-based community empowerment group.
As the city convulses under a recent spasm of gun violence — five people were shot last weekend, while three have been slain by gunfire in two months — a handful of gang members-turned-mentors shared their stories Tuesday in a plea for peace.
“Instead of asking for a seat at the table, we’re creating our own table,” said William Rivas, co-founder of Save Our Streets. The event was organized by 518 Talks.
Representatives from Nationally Touching Greatness and Band of Brothers also gathered at Jerry Burrell Park on Tuesday evening, just steps away from where someone was injured by gunfire on Schenectady Street last weekend.
Each spoke of the allure of getting pulled into the streets, a key factor being the lack of strong male role models.
Smalls’ mother moved the family from Brooklyn to Schenectady, where Alfredo had never seen the sheer amount of open space. But it wasn’t enough to escape getting sucked into violence.
Phyllis Smalls, his mother, asked what more she could have done.
“Honestly, there was nothing you could have done,” he said. “The absence came from the males.”
Ali Walker recounted a similar trajectory. With a single mom working two jobs, four siblings and a father nowhere to be found, he longed for male mentorship.
Sports provided a temporary diversion.
“When I looked into those bleachers, I didn’t see anyone there for me,” Walker said.
By 14, he was making bad decisions.
Shaquan Page said he had poor coping mechanisms, and developed what he referred to as an “f-the-world” attitude.
“I was in accelerated classes, but at the same time, I was the baddest kid in school,” he said.
And while he hated drugs growing up because his mother was an addict, Page gravitated toward the local drug dealer because he had the most money in the neighborhood.
Page was in prison by 16 and served 12 years on robbery and burglary charges.
While there, he engaged down a path of self-improvement.
“These kids need people to talk to,” Page said.
Panelists didn’t make excuses for their actions — several served stints in state prison — but rather wanted to present an unvarnished portrait of the streets to attendees, including city Police Chief Eric Clifford and City Council members Carmel Patrick and Karen Zaleski-Wildzunas, in order to better inform their policy making.
“The people making the decisions don’t know this,” Rivas said.
The rise in gun violence comes amid a national reckoning on racial discrimination and as the city continues to grapple with the fallout of a violent encounter between a Schenectady police officer and suspect.
Rivas offered the crowd of roughly three dozen attendees a chance to ask questions, but mainly wanted the speakers to share their stories.
Marva Isaacs pointed at the shooting last weekend near her Duane Avenue home and contrasted the rash of gunfire with sustained activism in the Capital Region calling for police reforms following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
“All lives matter,” Isaacs said.
Page responded, “They need to be reminded Black Lives Matter themselves … everything starts with self.”
Asked what’s lacking in the community, Page circled back to the lack of strong role models.
“They need a viable, consistent source of morality,” he said, calling for more discipline: Physical. Spiritual. Emotional.
“The community as a whole needs to be a family,” Smalls said.
Each panelist had different reasons for their own personal evolution.
Delvern Cooper, founder of Nationally Touching Greatness, was tired of being incarcerated.
Walker lost his mother, and was unable to be with her when she died.
Smalls said he was about to “do something bad,” but Rivas gave him a job at the Altamount Program, where he now works as a case manager.
The panel also addressed a group of youngsters, who lined up on picnic tables as the mentors gave them a dose of straight talk.
“Be a leader, not a follower,” Cooper said.
Rivas said the kids weren’t much younger than when the speakers had flocked to the gang lifestyle.
“You guys are kids and we want you to remain innocent,” Rivas said.
Smalls said, “I was doing the same things I told you not to do. I shot someone, and I went to jail for that.”
Walker, co-founder of the Albany-based Band of Brothers, says youth mentoring would have inevitably steered him down an alternative path.
“I was getting in trouble because I had nothing to do,” he said. “The fun things were the wrong things to do.”
Clifford attended the event with five officers and said his primary goal was to listen.
“It was very meaningful,” Clifford said. “We never get to hear stories like this.”
While panelists have eschewed the gang lifestyle, several remain gang-affiliated, a measure important to retain credibility with kids, said Smalls, who is affiliated with the Crips.
“A lot of young kids only listen to kids in these gangs,” Smalls said.
On the origin of gangs: “It was always about making sure our community stays intact,” he said, “and somewhere along the line, we lost that.”
Page said gangs need to pivot back and reinforce their original message, and wield their powers for good.
“The structure of gangs is to fight against oppression,” he said.
Cooper, who is affiliated with Nine Trey, roundly denounced gun violence.
“The increase in gun violence is not acceptable in our communities,” he said.