Offering a safe place to talk, Derek Rhodes hopes the weekly conversations he is organizing in Durham are helping young African-American men to feel valued, empowered, and equipped to incite change in their own community.
Nolan Smith, a former National Basketball Association and Duke basketball player, is a close friend of Rhodes and the two have done extensive work this summer in an attempt to uplift the community in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.
Rhodes, a Duke alumnus, began to realize after speaking with fellow friends in Durham there was no designated safe space in the city where people could unapologetically voice their opinions surrounding injustice facing the Black community.
“Barber shops were closed, communitycenters were closed, schools are closed, rec centers are closed,” Rhodes said.“We had an opportunity while Nolan was in Durham as well to address some of theconcerns that I had heard from my friends growing up and that he (Nolan) heardfrom students at Duke.”
Rhodes continuously spoke withSmith, and through venting on FaceTime the two began to realize there was anopportunity to connect the community and create the safe space that was deemednecessary.
Initially, the structure of thesetalks were simple. The two invited the entire public to a location in Durham tofacilitate discussions with the community. On June 27th, they held a discussionfor the public at Shrimp and Pasta’s Dankery, a prominent black-ownedrestaurant in Durham. During the meeting, Smith shared stories about encountershe had with the police and how he believes the accomplishments in his careerwere completely irrelevant when he “fit the description” for an officer.
“If I had acted tough, I probablywould have been in the ground,” Smith said. “I would have been a hashtag threetimes in my life. That NBA stuff doesn't matter, my skin is still black.
That Duke tag doesn't matter, my skin is still black. I fitthe description. We all fit the description.”
After a successful first meetinggarnered attention on social media, these discussions have become moreintricate and a staple in the Durham community. During the span of seven weeks,the pair have led engaging and well-attended discussions in the community. Asthe weeks continued, guest speakers such as Mayor Steve Schewel,representatives from the Durham Police Department, and local business ownersattended and actively participated in the discussions.
Mayor Steve Schewel arrived at adiscussion near a public housing project at Cornwallis Road on July 24th andexpressed his delight with the engaging nature of these talks.
“We have to keep it peaceful,”Schewel said. “We got to be together. We have to support each other, love eachother, love our families, and take care of our families.”
The appearance of the mayor at thisdiscussion validated the effect of extensive and engaging dialogue in the city.
Chris Kenan, a youth football coachin Durham, has helped to host discussions and encourages the youth of Durham to attend these meetings in an effort toput them at the forefront of the fight for change in their own community. Themeetings provide a safe space for kids to socialize, do activities, and playsports. Football is often played after the discussions and some were able toplay basketball with Smith on July 24th at the end of a discussion.
Rhodes and Smith have prioritizedvisiting some of the most impoverished areas in Durham. Police attend theseevents to provide security. Household supplies, free food, and free drinks havebeen provided at these meetings to assist the community. Police officers arealso involved in discussions to share their perspectives on the challengesinvolved in servicing and protecting the community.
Sheriff Deputy Anthony Sharp, anA frican-American member of the Durham PD, shared his perspective during one ofthe discussions. As a Black man who grew up in Durham, he is able to relate tothe experiences of other young Black men currently growing up in the city. Heurged the community to have patience with police officers as he remindedattendees of intense situations and experiences officers have witnessedthroughout their careers.
Sharp believes the community shoulduse police as a last resort as he feels enormous pain whenever he has to arresta young Black male.
Lawrence Charles, the owner ofLobster Trappn’, a seafood restaurant, has been at the forefront of thesediscussions urging young Black men not to slip into the same pitfalls thateventually found him at odds with the law.
At the age of 12, Charles becameinvolved in gang violence after his cousin was robbed by the Crips. WhenCharles was growing up, gangs were beginning to proliferate in Durham. Thelongstanding rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips has plagued the city formany years.
“We had a lot of stuff to do growingup, but that’s when gangs were introduced to Durham,” Charles said. “You had tobe cautious. You were either a Blood or you were playing sports. Or, you werein and out of both of them. I was playing sports and in a gang.”
At the meetings, Charles has openlyspoken about shooting rival gang members and the guilt he carried afterunintentionally shooting a civilian. His previous life choices led him torealize he wanted to take a different path.
“When you are coming up as a kid andgetting in trouble I thought if you succeed with your probation a felonywouldn’t stick,” Charles said. “I didn’t know once you chose probation that youautomatically have a felony. I built up so many probations that if I got onemore that it would automatically take to habitual status.”
In North Carolina, someone who hasbeen convicted of three felonies is at risk of becoming a habitual felon afterreceiving a fourth charge.
Charles, now 31 years old, with twochildren, wanted to make a change in his life to avoid five to nine years inprison as he was on the cusp of becoming a habitual felon.
“It was either choose the streets,or choose my kids,” Charles said. “With me growing up without a father, Icouldn’t choose the streets over my kids. I couldn’t let them get raised up andcall the next dude father.”
Charles has become a successfulbusinessman and wants to become an example to the next generation to focus onmaking the right choices.
He believes life is all about thechoices someone makes.
“If they grow up around that, that’sall they are going to want to be,” Charles said. “We have to give them option sand show them it’s bigger than the environment you are in. At one point I didn’t know I was important. Once kids know they are important, they are going to grow into something special.”