At six years old, Bruce Franks Jr.’s life was forever changed when his nine-year-old brother was gunned down by an exchange of bullets between two warring drug dealers. The St. Louis neighborhood where Franks grew up was no stranger to scenes like the one that took his brother, and it was often roiled by similar acts of senseless violence. But it wasn’t just everyday citizens caught in the crossfire: police, he observed, were actively – if not passively – fanning the flames of violence. The fractures of understanding and trust between community and the police entrusted to serve it was only widening. This, he knew, had to change. Franks also knew that if nobody else was going to step up, he would.
His neighborhood had another problem: with high rates of crime, the community was also deeply impacted by the criminal justice system. But what was long overlooked, Franks also observed, was what happened when these people got out of jail, prison, or the system. And what happened was that they were entirely without the resources necessary to stay clean and to fully re-enter working society.
In recent years, Missouri has been a hotbed for racial tension, police brutality protests, and conversations about the gun violence. The gap between law enforcement and local communities nationwide has widened rapidly, fostering distrust so long as the schism continues to grow. Last year, Franks, now a prominent community activist, launched a nonprofit, 28 to Life, to address that divide.
While police officer and protester may seem an unlikely pairing at first glance, it’s an entirely necessary one. By working with local law enforcement and forging bonds with officers in the area, Franks has planted a seed for positive change in St. Louis. He began the long process of restoring trust between what are often viewed as “warring” parties with the founding of 28 to Life, an organization committed to developing relationships between members of the community and the police force, empowering young people, and working to drive economic development by providing employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals.
One of the organization’s primary missions is to emphasize the importance of unburdening those attempting to re-enter the job market after leaving the criminal justice system. The group actively assists previously incarcerated individuals by hosting monthly job fairs, classes on skill-building and resume development, and seminars about starting businesses. Additionally, 28 to Life operates as a partner to the Face Forward program, helping juveniles who have been involved with the criminal justice system to continue their education and gain employment. Among the 300 young people in the program, the recidivism rate is just 12 percent.
As the founder of 28 to Life, Franks plays an instrumental role in its operations, organizing a summit in July where 13- to 19-year-old attendees met local police officers and had serious conversations about both gun violence and police brutality. Creating pathways for open and clear dialogue, especially with St. Louis youth, is one of the ways 28 to Life’s organizers have started tackling police-community relations.
With 28 to Life, Franks also works to positively influence the lives of young people in St. Louis through peer mentoring, tutoring, and other youth-focused initiatives that encourage art as an outlet for personal expression and move community members to get involved in politics from an early age.
Bruce Franks, Jr.’s own story has greatly impacted the mission and drive behind his work. Through his work with 28 to Life, young people have been empowered to take the lead in creating positive change in St. Louis. In his own words, “we have to start with the youth because the youth will always be our future.”