An inspiring example can be an agent of change. Shanduke McPhatter, a former inmate on weapons and robbery convictions who has spent the last five years trying to curtail gun violence in his native Brooklyn.
After serving 13 years in various New York prisons, the 39-year-old former Bloods gang member turned his life around, and today, serves as the executive director of Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, a nonprofit organization focusing on minimizing gun violence by helping local youth.
“My strongest weapon in this fight is me,” McPhatter explains to PEOPLE. “What can these kids say when I am showing them that it is possible to change? What can they say when we take one of their peers, someone who we have helped and who is doing things differently in their life, who has employment, who is not hiding out in the corners anymore, and we show them even their own peers are doing it? That’s what keeps them motivated.”
McPhatter tells PEOPLE he started changing his life back in 2003, while he was jailed on a false murder charge; McPhatter was later released when the real killer admitted his guilt.
“I came across a mentor I’d known from my first state prison bid, and his son, he had got time — his son was actually about 17 years of age and his son was sentenced to 35 years to life,” McPhatter explains. “When his son came into that same facility, I was in the yard with his father. The son’s attitude and his demeanor was nonchalant, like he had made it into something that should be glorified.”
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The teen’s father was heartbroken. “When the son walked up, his father started crying, and that threw the kid off,” McPhatter says. “I watched the interaction to the point where I kind of felt like it was a message to me. And the father said to him, he said — ‘What are you glamorizing? What are you happy about? You are young and you are my son and you have more time than I have because you wanted to be like me.’ That was the main turning point for me to say, ‘Do I want this for my sons?’ I thought about them and thought, ‘Did I want to see my son walking into my prison yard because he wanted to live a life that I was living?’”
30 Percent Drop in Shootings
The Brooklyn-based nonprofit McPhatter founded has helped more than 300 kids find mental-health counseling, legal aid and job options. New York City officials have credited the program with creating a 30 percent drop in shooting incidents from 2012 to 2017 in the precinct where it operates.
“The goal is prevent gun violence, to minimize it,” he explains. “We are not going to stop it abruptly. But if we focus on changing the mindset on the streets, then we’ll minimize the gun violence. That is the focus of our work — understanding that mentally, there is something that each person is going through that is triggering the violence in that individual. How can we show them there is an alternative to committing that violent act? And once we get them to understand there is an alternative, what alternative do we have to get them out of that lifestyle that is so glamorous to them?”
McPhatter says he shares his life story with the kids who walk into his offices. He tells them to overcome the immediate impulse of retaliation, which perpetuates the cycle of violence.
“We talk about minimizing and stopping retaliations, because we understand that in society, if you are lawless, it is chaotic,” McPhatter offers. “We need law enforcement to take the guns off the street, but we also need to be looking for the people who have the mindset to get the gun, and talk them down. Sometimes, that is all they need. They need that ‘talk-out’ point and not feel like they are being a sucker by walking away from a situation — that it is ok to do so.”
Mentoring Inmates — and Giving Them Hope
McPhatter also visits New York City jails, where he mentors young inmates.
“Jail promotes the lifestyle, and it promotes the gang mentality,” McPhatter says. “When you are in the streets trying to minimize something, we can help those who may be coming home by pushing them in the right direction before they’re out.”
McPhatter also says violence is perpetuated by people who believe they are beyond change — and may have been told they are passed saving. To this day, he carries a note around with him from a corrections officer who considered him a lost cause.
“The day I was getting out, I was in the shower and I hear him come in saying something like, ‘It’s time for you to get out of there’ — something along those lines,” he recalls. “After I get out of the shower, on the shower stall there was a letter and the letter was from him. The letter said, ‘Good luck on your journey home, see you soon on your next bid.’”
Those looking to turn their lives around need the support of their loved one, McPhatter says.
“What’s hard is, when you’re doing something and make a change, people don’t believe you have changed or that you can change — that you are capable of doing something different. Sometimes we need reinforcement in order to make those changes.”