Good People

How one ex-gang member is addressing the 'root causes' of crime

'I’m part of what created the problem there, what can I do to turn it around? '

'I’m part of what created the problem there, what can I do to turn it around?'

Marcell Wilson, a former gang leader-turned-anti-violence advocate, explains the importance of attacking the root causes of violence. 2:22

Marcell Wilson is the president and co-founder of the anti-violence organization One by One Movement. One by One provides mentorship for people newly released from prison and jail, as well as street-involved youth. They also function as a think tank, telling governments how to combat gang and gun violence. 

How does Wilson have this kind of expertise on gang violence? Twenty years ago, he was running a very different kind of organization, as the leader of a gang that was based Toronto's West End, but had members and affiliates across the country. He was shot twice, and saw get friends killed and locked up. Eventually, he decided to leave gang life behind after realizing it was putting people he loved at risk. Starting One by One was part of what he called his "road to redemption."

On Good People, host Mark Sakamoto meets Wilson to talk about how we can keep young people from turning to crime and make our streets safer. 

CBC: What made you want to do One by One?

Marcell Wilson: I felt like, a lot of the stuff that's happening now, especially in the area I grew up in, is residual from my time there. Kids that I watched grow up from birth are getting killed, or killing people and getting locked up. The everyday average person that lives there is terrified and are sort of prisoners to their own area. I felt like 'Shit, I gotta do something.' I felt like I'm part of what created the problem there, what can I do to turn it around? When we started, we didn't actually start with kids. We started with people who had served long terms in prison, or were active gang members at the time, and they were generally a little bit older. They came up with this idea that we could show people that we could change and reform, and that our voices are important, and we all have stories to tell that could lead others down this path of righteousness. 

CBC: So what is One by One doing now?

MW: We consult with all three levels of government. They come to us for our lived experience, asking what do we think will quell some of this gang stuff? Everyone thinks they have the answer. They want immediate fixes like gun bans. But we know from our experience that the things that lead us to doing really bad shit, were poverty and racism and classism. We had no idea about financial literacy. Most of us didn't even have bank accounts or credit cards. We just didn't live in your world. So, teaching people these basics, it's really rooted in poverty reduction. 

So, dealing with root causes and getting people who live in marginalized communities to care more about their communities, care more about their finances. So we consulted with all levels of government, and other organizations that do this kind of work on how we can address these issues and use some of us frontline guys to go into these communities and get people activated.

CBC: What does activated look like?

MW: Our pitch is really simple. We're not afraid to walk up to young guys chilling in Driftwood [a neighbourhood in northwest Toronto], or their mothers, and explain to them that there's neighbourhood grants going on. "The city gives out X-amount of dollars. They're spending your money? Do you know you can have an input in this and in bettering your community?" That usually gets people quite interested. Or they have complaints about certain things in their area. Let's say they live in a TCH [Toronto Community Housing] community and they have cockroaches. All these things can kind of lead to negative lifestyles. So, we let them know the bylaws. We bring in a lawyer or a paralegal to come in and have a class with them.

Marcell Wilson and Mark Sakamoto at a charity boxing event in Toronto. (Good People/CBC)

CBC: Tell me about the people you're proudest of who have been mentored by One by One.

MW: We have a few people that we're very proud of who are doing some amazing stuff right now. Edward Hertrich is one of the ones I'm most proud of. He wrote a book called Wasted Time that came out late 2019, and he's now one of our ambassadors of change. He's really focused on anti-recidivism. Getting guys who've just come out of jail, helping them find their footing, letting them know that it is possible, even for a guy like him who's serving life-parole, to do some positive stuff. 

CBC: What's the best way to keep someone who's just gotten out of jail or prison from going back?

MW: Number one for us, is getting them out of the environment that they're used to. If someone's coming out of jail or prison, and they're going right back to the environment that they were in and hanging out with the same people, we know that can only cause bad things. 

CBC: And what about a kid who maybe hasn't been to jail yet, but is heading down a bad path. What do you do there?

MW: We've had a lot of trial and error with the young ones. The most effective thing we've found is getting in with the families. Getting in with mom. We know that sometimes the problem is the home, where you have a parent who is complacent in the child's behaviour, because their child is pulling in an income. They're conflicted. Because obviously no mother who loves their kid wants them involved in criminal activity. But without that extra income, maybe they can't buy groceries this week. Maybe they can't pay whatever bill. So it's really about getting families involved when it comes to the younger ones.

Marcell Wilson addresses young people as part of the OnebyOne Movement. (CBC/Good People)

CBC: What can we do to combat employer bias against people with criminal records?

MW: Oh wow. That's one of our more daunting tasks. We've spent more than half of time in the boardrooms with these organizations that have employment power, like [Toronto construction union] LIUNA 183. Trying to get groups like Big Brothers/Big Sisters to change their policies in terms of letting people with criminal records mentor. Getting the City of Toronto to lighten up on their mandates surrounding people with criminal history. These people have a lot to contribute. So a lot of it is advocacy for people that have made mistakes.

CBC: Is there anything else you want to add?

MW: We know that violence and gun violence is on the rise and people are scared, and we get that. Especially people who don't live in these communities or know anything about them, and they kind of just jump to whatever solution sounds the best. The solutions that we've been putting millions and millions of dollars into aren't solutions. They're band-aids. We're taking a sledgehammer where we need a scalpel. I would want the average Torontonian and the average Canadian to look into groups like ours, and know that we're coming from a place of experience and we know what needs to be done. We need a shift from the Canadian masses, to start getting on board with things that are dishing out real solutions.   


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