PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — Deion Sanders is a big fan of the “room full of winners” that billionaire libertarian philanthropist Charles Koch has gathered in the temperate desert outside of Los Angeles. And more specifically, all they’ve done to support him and his friends help poor kids in dangerous areas.
“I’ve done some wonderful things individually in my life, but my most important things that I can recall has always been in teams,” Sanders told a room of reporters. “In life, we don’t always understand what importance the right team is. In sports, we do — in life, we don’t.”
Sanders has been in Palm Springs the past few days as part of his efforts to help poor children in Dallas alongside Pastor Omar Jahwar, the founder of Urban Specialists. Urban Specialists, a program they’ve worked on for 17 years, takes former gang leaders and criminals and empowers them to return to their communities and help at-risk kids wise up, stay safe, and have a positive role model.
“Finding people who can stabilize environments that others have given up on,” Jahwar told a room of high-dollar donors. “My job is to convince them that their experience is a value-add in some environments.”
There are around 550 individuals included in the “principals” network meeting, which requires at least a $100,000 donation to the network. In addition to these invited people, there are approximately 150 staff and speakers, Seminar Network spokesman James Davis told reporters. There is also a larger press presence than any previous conference has allowed. Held at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort and Spa, the gathering was focused on local, grassroots initiatives Americans can take in what co-chairman Brian Hooks called “the key institutions of society” — “education, community, business and government.” (RELATED: Charles Koch Calls For it focusedAction: ‘We Might Not Have An Opportunity Again Like We Have Today’)
Sanders and Jahwar were joined on stage by Antong Lucky, a former grade-A student who founded a chapter of the Bloods and ended up in prison. Now he’s back helping kids.
“I haven’t always wore a suit and been as sharp as Deion and Omar,” Lucky said to audience laughter. “My father… served 37 years flat… I was a straight-A student, my grandparents were my primary caretakers, and I enjoyed coming home from school with my straight As — my grandparents loved that. My mother was a single mother in the projects… and the [negative] environmental influences that were in my neighborhood were strong.”
“If I missed the bus, I had to run home,” he continued. “Because if I didn’t run fast, the guys in the other neighborhood would beat me down.”
After seeing the 1988 movie “Colors,” about police and gangs in L.A., he decided to start a gang — a gang that quickly grew into dozens of members. And before long, he was in prison.
“When I was standing in front of the judge, the judge told me I was ‘a menace to society.’ And I knew that wasn’t me…. how did a grade-A student end up being labeled ‘a menace to society?'”
Incarcerated at 19, he was well-liked by younger guys who appreciated him and his gregarious manners. But then there was an intervention: “An older man sought me out and he said, ‘Young brother, you’re a leader. You can lead these guys to do wrong or you can lead these guys to do right.'”
He thought about it hard that night, laying in his cell. And he started reading, with the older man recommending books and acting as a mentor. “I realized I didn’t know a lot of stuff,” he told the crowd.
Laughing about how while the others worked out, he would pontificate in the prison yard, Lucky shared the book that shaped him most. “Out of all the books I read… I read this book by Plato in ‘The Republic’ … And Plato had this deal where he talked about the cave… When I read that story, it touched me in so many ways because I realized all my life I’d been living in shadows… When I get out of here, I’m gonna go back and tell my people who still live in the cave about reality.”
Released in 2000, he linked up with Jahwar, a pastor he had seen on TV while locked up. Jahwar, he recounts, told him, “If you come to me, I can’t make you wealthy but I can make you count.”
“You have a voice,” the pastor said.
“What we do as an Urban Specialists, we stabilize very toxic environments in urban communities that are full of violence, full of pain,” Jahwar told the audience of right-leaning donors. “And we believe transformation is possible, but it’s possible by empowering people who you probably wouldn’t” think to. Not the “movers and shakers,” but the former criminals.
By working with police, escorting kids in rough neighborhoods, riding the school bus with kids on dangerous rides, coming to schools, teaching youngsters how to dress, have fun, dance, speak, they’re making a difference.
Sanders also coaches sports, where he goes by “coach.” He gives them all nicknames, too. “I cant remember 200 names, sorry!”
And they work to get absentee dads back involved in kids’ lives.
“Seventy percent of our kids living in a single parent home,” Sanders told the room. “And we even reach out to the dads. ‘I know you and the mother might not see eye to eye, but can you see your kid face to face?'”
“All these guys need to do is come to the game! That, there in the city, is affirmation. Just say, ‘Good job, son.'”
“It’s trying to challenge their vision,” Jahwar says. “Once we convince them from our perspective, then they have to confront the constant images… All the external things are true challenges, but that’s the main one.”
The superintendent of Dallas public schools says performance and attendance are up in the 18 Dallas schools Urban Specialists work in, and police intervention is down, Evan Feinberg, executive director of the Seminar Network’s Stand Together, said. Stand Together provides money and support to efforts across the country that are working to build community.
And the police are pleased as well: Dallas Police community relations manager Joli Robinson called Urban Specialists “critical and powerful,” especially in the wake of the deadly shootings that left five officers dead and showed a city divided.
After the shooting, “She was able to turn to people in the community who were trusted because they had been there for many years,” Feinberg said.
“We are this close,” Jahwar tells us. “We are actually inside of their thinking because we don’t leave room to interpret.”
“I can’t do it alone, just going out in communities every day,” Robinson said. “We have 3,500 police officers, they can’t do it alone.”
Sanders was also moved by the shooting — not simply by the violence, but by all the faith leaders who jumped on TV to pontificate and “never came back” to the community when the fame was over. “These guys,” Sanders said, “were there for the moment.”
Urban Specialists, he says, are different. “These guys are 100 percent authentic. They instill hope in the inner city, they provide safety, support, shelter, consistency, faith, forgiveness and many of the attributes that we all would dear to envelop with a child. These guys live this.”
In a meeting before the panel, one reporter asked Sanders if he had any hesitation about working with Koch and the Seminar Network, given liberal disdain for their politics and support for conservative and libertarian candidates. Sanders, who doesn’t drink or smoke, hasn’t cursed since his sophomore year of college, and has played in both the World Series and Super Bowl, kept his cool with us, but on the panel, let the room know he wasn’t pleased with the suggestion.
“For the media to ask me a question like, ‘Why partner with the Koch family?’ I don’t use profanity but that’s the first thing that came to mind,” he said to laughs. “Why not [partner with Koch]?… I can see good people from a mile away. We don’t have to agree on everything but we agree on most things… No matter how we equate it, as long as we’re doing it for the right reason that’s all we care about. This isn’t about us. This is about blessing people.”
“Stand together. Can you imagine if we actually did that?”
“You’ve done it,” he said, addressing the businessmen and businesswomen in the room. “You got it, you’ve made it, you still get it. This isn’t about you, this is about so many people you make smile.”
“This model of Urban Specialists is working here in Dallas,” Charles Koch’s son, Chase, said in a video showing off their efforts. “It can work in other cities.”
And Stand Together is helping provide the money to do just that — expand.
“You mean to tell me we have an opportunity to stand together with you? To help provoke change in the inner city?” Sanders asked the hundreds of right-leaning millionaires and billionaires listening intently. “We been hustling and bustling on our own. We didn’t even understand that there was a situation like this!”
Sanders mostly stayed out of crime, himself. His dad “was a flashy and trash-talking junkie,” and his stepdad “was a hardworking drunk,” The Star Telegram reports, but Sanders took after his mother. Once, while he played for the Dallas Cowboys, he was arrested in Florida — for fishing in a lake owned by the airport.
When still a kid, a white coach took him “and one other black kid across town join the white team,” he told The Daily Caller, when asked about what motivates him. There, he saw big swimming pools, kids not selling drugs, and a culture not chasing “gratification” in the same way the kids he lived near were. It motivated him.
Sanders was introduced to Jahwar by a Cowboys teammate, Nate Newton, who’d ended up in prison. Sanders stayed in close touch with his troubled teammate, using his own birthday to make visits, and it stuck with him. Jahwar and Sanders hit it off immediately.
“Sports is what I did,” Sanders told us before the panel. “That’s not who I am. That’s just a stage in the platform God afforded me, and I’m thankful that he did. That’s why you are here today.”
“Many athletes,” he added, “are not that way. You’re so consumed on what you have to do to stay on top.”
In Palm Springs on Monday, that was not the case.
“I’ve met some people who are go-getters,” Sanders, who spoke last on the panel, told the crowd, closing out an impassioned speech. “You are winners. It is our goal to one day sit over there and give somebody an opportunity like you give us… If you can just be there with and stand there with us, by God can we provoke change.”
“We’re still trying to chase that place that’s called ‘there,’ and some of you have tasted it, and now it’s time to share it.”
The three received the first standing ovation of the conference.
Editor’s Note: Christopher Bedford was a fellow at the Charles Koch Institute in 2010.