Nova Scotia·Profile

How 902 ManUp is facing down street violence in Halifax

A grassroots movement sparked by gun violence in a Halifax community is working to provide support and second chances to young people who don't always fit easily into conventional community outreach programs.

Grassroots community movement aims to provide young people with alternatives - and second chances

Members of 902 ManUp run events like a weekly Friday night basketball game, holiday dinners and school supply drives to support the community and bring people of all ages together. (Jill English/CBC)

"It's easy to pull a trigger or something like that, but it's difficult to look at a brother and have a dialogue and be able to look him in his eyes and say 'I love you,'" says Marcus James.

The father, uncle and community mentor is challenging men in his Uniacke Square community to do the difficult thing.

After a series of shootings plagued an already marginalized neighbourhood in Halifax's downtown in 2016, James and a few of his peers decided to look within to find solutions to deep-rooted problems in the community.

"I got tired of attending funerals of young men," says James. "Talking about it and seeing people hurt, I think just challenged me to say, 'OK, what can I do?'"

Marcus James, a founder of 902 ManUp in Halifax, is challenging young people in his community to do the 'difficult' thing - look others in the eye and talk, instead of resorting to violence. (Jill English/CBC)

A grassroots movement, 902 ManUp started at the local library as a meeting of black men to discuss their own shortcomings and recognize their strengths.

"We had to have those hard conversations, because it started with us, as older, mature black men, asking ourselves where did we drop the ball? As fathers, as uncles, where did we drop the ball with these young men?" James says.

"We had to start that healing process before we could move on and start engaging the young men."

  • WATCH: The National's story about 902 ManUp Monday night on CBC Television and streamed online

Two years later, the group has a name — 902 being the local area code  — weekly meetings, and an executive board, but no formal funding. The members come from all over, and offer different skills, ideas and life experience. From teachers to community workers to formerly incarcerated community members, the hope is that every man in need can find a supporter that "gets" them and inspires them.

"These are issues we've been talking about and nothing's been done," says James, referring to men slipping through the cracks of government-funded outreach efforts, and needing help with anything from employment resources to legal representation to emotional support.

"We take it upon ourselves to say … what is it we can do to change the narrative and not rely on outside sources."

902 ManUp runs a weekly Friday night basketball game in the summer in Halifax's Uniacke Square neighbourhood. Bringing Back The Blacktop brings out all ages for a fun time, and some mentorship too. (Jill English/CBC)

He adds that in some cases the group figures out how to address an individual's needs from within its own membership. "In other cases, it's finding those resources and making them available in the community," says James. "But with or without the financial support, we're going to get it done, one way or another."

902 ManUp's men also pool their resources to create positive spaces for members to engage with one another and with the larger community — from holiday dinners and school supply drives, to basketball games and live performances.

It's almost like 902 ManUp is whatever it's needed to be, and that's the magic of it.

What does 902 ManUp mean to me?

3 years ago
Duration 1:14
Halifax’s 902 ManUp is a community group that was created in response to gun violence. It is working to create positive spaces for young men in Nova Scotia's black communities. We asked its members what it means to be part of the movement: 1:14

Rich history

The group started in Uniacke Square, a public housing project off Halifax's downtown Gottingen Street.

Built in 1966, "The Square" was created for displaced populations of Africville, a long-established black community in the Halifax-area whose residents were forced to relocate to accommodate the government's vision for urban development.

"It's a rich, rich history, generations and generations," says longtime resident and 902 ManUp board member Shawn Parker, who has seen the low-income community through both triumphs and hardships.

902 ManUp board member and long-time community member Shawn Parker says the low-income community around Uniacke has a rich but turbulent history. (Jill English/CBC)

"Time changes. Sometimes it changes for the good. Sometimes it changes for — I ain't going to say the bad — but for the misfortuned."

Uniacke Square isn't the only predominantly black Halifax community that has a troubled history. From Mulgrave Park down the street, to Lucasville north of Halifax, to the Prestons across the harbour, 902 ManUp has expanded to serve a number of neighbourhoods.

"We're in all those communities, we care about all of them the way we care about one," says James.

But the group's approach is carefully tailored to local needs.

"We don't want to come into communities saying, 'here's what we're going to do,'" he says. "Tell us what it is you need from us … it's community at its very best."

It's that same tailored approach that trickles down to the individuals the group helps. Like James' own nephew, Corey Wright.

Corey Wright spent two stints in jail before he says 902 ManUp helped him change. (Jill English/CBC)

A rap artist, a father and a construction worker, Wright is also a man who vouches for the power of 902 ManUp. He was incarcerated not once, but twice, before getting involved with the community group.

"The first one, I wasn't ready to change," he says. "But the second time I was in, I'm looking and I'm like, you know what, things need to change because I don't want to keep coming in and out, in and out, in and out. I can't do that."

Over the nine years he spent behind bars, Wright says he fought with feeling jaded, frustrated and trapped in a system that seemed like it didn't want him to succeed.

"There are programs that help you do things, but they aren't for the incarcerated. Then there's programs for the incarcerated that don't help regular people," he says.

"When a program puts criteria on a person that's trying to do good, and you don't fit the criteria, that makes you feel even shittier. 'Oh I can't even get help here.'"

Corey Wright talks to his son Kerron at 902 ManUp's September BBQ. 'When you have a collective saying something, it hits harder,' he says of the group's power to influence young people. 'You realize we're all for the same goal.' (Jill English/CBC)

That's where 902 ManUp helped him.

"They speak to everyone individually," he says. "There's no criteria you have to fit."

He had always had his uncle's support, but Wright says having a group was different.

"When you have a collective saying something, it hits harder," he says. "You realize we're all for the same goal, the same struggle — you know what, we're a team here."

Bridging generations

Getting the message across to younger generations is not easy, but James has recruited his son Trayvone Clayton to help make sure what the group does really resonates.

"I tell them what to do to get more people in there, my age," says the 20-year-old basketball player, who attends Saint Mary's University.

"You can't just have meetings inside of a building.  We're young, we're bored of that. We don't want to sit in one spot. We want to be active and move around."

Trayvone Clayton has given his father, James, some ideas for making 902 ManUp relevant to younger members of the community. (Jill English/CBC)

That's part of the impetus behind this summer's Bringing Back The Blacktop event, a weekly Friday night basketball game organized by 902 ManUp in the heart of Uniacke Square that brings out all ages for a fun time, and some mentorship too.

"When these guys speak the truth and have the right stuff to say towards us, we have to listen," says Clayton.

And that's what the older generation hopes, that they can build a collective that encourages positive outcomes instead of negative ones, and ultimately save lives.

"We just take it one day at a time," Parker says. "Gradually making those changes, taking that one step. We are agents of change. We are the ones that are going to set that tone, to let our young folks stand on the foundation we build — and build on from it."

  • WATCH: The National's story about 902 ManUp Monday night on CBC Television and streamed online


Jill English


Jill English is a producer with The National based in Toronto.