LONG BEFORE the 10,000 men were called to action, 15 strong African-American men had begun to improve a North Philly neighborhood where they grew up and where most still live.
I saw them - proud in their "Brotherhood of Huntingdon Street" T-shirts - at October's "10,000 Men: A Call to Action" at the Liacouras Center. When they told me what they were about, I wanted to know more.
So, I show up at the Brotherhood's semi-monthly meeting in the 2500 block of N. Colorado, a half-mile north and west of the Liacouras. A few homes on the narrow street are shiny, a few are broken teeth and some - like the meeting house owned by Brotherhood President Jamil Ali - are works in progress.
All 15 members of the nonprofit Brotherhood always attend, says Ali, 49, a program director at Girard Medical Center. He now lives in Pottstown, but his heart remains on Huntingdon Street where he grew up with the other Brothers, now ranging in age from 43-53.
At the meeting, each member gets a folder with minutes, an agenda and other material. Nasir Shaheed, 46, a union construction laborer, chairs it like a General Motors board meeting. These men aren't playing.
The Brotherhood was launched in July 2006 after bull sessions among the lifelong friends about how to help their community. Neither dreamers nor over-reachers, they decided to focus on 8- to 13-year-olds, to step into their lives before gangbangers and dope dealers did.
"We want to decrease the need for the drug dealers," says Brotherhood Vice President Leonard Kennedy, 51. "We don't need to drive them" off their corners.
"No one 'owns' these corners except the city," adds Earl Stevens, 52, a dietary technician. "We want to help the kids if they will allow us to help."
I run my eyes over the 15 men sitting on folding chairs and mismatched furniture to see if I can figure out which 10 had done time.
They've learned some bitter lessons, got themselves straight and now want to help kids avoid bad choices.
They pore over reports, ask serious questions, offer opinions, allow whomever has the floor to speak. When one member speaks while another is giving a report, the only reproach is a soft "Respect, y'all," and the cross-talk ends with a quiet, "I'm sorry."
The Brothers pay $20 monthly dues and often dip "into our own pockets for more," Ali says simultaneously with Kennedy, a psychiatric technician who favors cowboy hats. "I have a great faith in God," says Kennedy. "He won't let my children starve as I help others." Kennedy has 9 kids.
These men aren't playing.
They've signed up for the "10,000 Men: A Call to Action," but "we take the proactive approach," says Ali. "People in the community need the help now."
The Brotherhood's primary goal is to give the 200 kids they work with an alternative to the streets.
The Brotherhood's first outing last year was to the Freedom Theater production of "Violence of a Gun." Next, 50 kids - most of whom had never been to the country - got a week at the city's Camp William Penn. The Brothers also mentor at local schools.
A bus trip to Broadway to see "The Lion King" is planned for next month and fundraisers are underway because the tickets, food and especially the bus transportation is costly. The Brothers don't ask for help, but they could use some.
The Brotherhood attracted the notice of state Rep. Jewell Williams, who's working to get them a grant "to work with young people on reading comprehension."
The Brotherhood, he says, represents "what should happen in every neighborhood."
He knows these men aren't playing. *
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