For our #MakingHistory series, Generation Progress profiles young people making a difference in their communities. This month, National Youth Justice Awareness Month, we’re featuring leading activists who work to empower youth in their communities. We sat down with Bruce Franks, a St. Louis, Missouri native and founder of 28 to Life, a non-profit that encourages partnerships between young people and law officials to tackle local issues.
28 to Life, the nonprofit that you founded in March, aims to build trust between law enforcement and the community, empower youth, and encourage economic advancement through small-business ownership. What made you chose those three specific principles?
If you look at all of our neighborhoods, no matter what, there’s always going to be police in the community and there’s always going to be youth. Every single community has a small business, be it corner stores, laundry mats or cleaners. These small businesses can come together and create more job opportunities.
What’s the background behind your organization’s name?
I owe a lot to the Gun Violence Prevention Network at Generation Progress, because I came up with the program at the GVP summit during one of the exercises we were doing. While I was searching for a name, I found this small independent study that said every 28 hours a person of color is killed by law enforcement. I figured if they gave us 28 hours to fix our community, how would we do it? I concentrated on the three aspects of 28 to Life to turn things around and organize.
28 to Life has an upcoming Youth Leadership Teen Summit this month. Tell me more about that and other events you are creating in St. Louis.
The teen summit gathers law enforcement and young people to have a real conversation on what’s going on in our neighborhoods. Our teens were broken into small groups, and each one came up with an organization that they’re going to create to fight conditions in the neighborhoods. One team created a youth drug awareness program and others had a youth against violence program. They all came up with it by themselves. For their next event, they’ll create marketing tools to inform people and figure out their target audience, allies, long term goals and short term goals… they’re really going to put some actual structure into their programs.
28 to Life has also been involved with a prison to prosperity program. We help teach job training, life skills, behavior modification, and empowerment. The young men that are in the program are 18 to 24. Once they’re out of jail, we provide mentorship and they’re enrolled into a local technical college with a scholarship—it was given by one of the alumni. We focus on whatever we can get our hands on to actually replenish and revitalize our community
Criminal justice is on the public agenda right now because of the Black Lives Matter movement. How can advocates push juvenile justice reform particularly?
Actually do something. We can’t continue to talk about or just shout about these issues. We have to take the good foot forward and change the juvenile institutions in any way that we can. Then we have to put the right people at the table to talk about the issues.
Why do you think you faced criticism from other activists within the BLM space for working with officials for change?
Because I’m working with the very people we protest against, but I firmly believe that I can’t draw a conclusion about somebody until I sit down and talk to them. That way I will know if they’re genuine or not. The moment we start to judge and put law enforcement and others in one box, it starts to seem as if we’re pro-violence.
How can young people lift up fellow neighbors and peers who have suffered discrimination in the hands of the law?
Encourage them. Put them with the necessary tools to fight against this, whether it be coming up with coalitions or getting involved in organizations. And make sure you inform them on what they can do—give the youth different resources. The biggest thing today is information.
Discuss the recent Generation Progress criminal justice roundtable in South Carolina that you attended.
The good thing about it was that the conversation was more general and national. There isn’t a big spike in crime and police brutality in Columbia. You got to hear honest opinions from both law enforcement and community leaders about what’s happening nationwide. It was a good, healthy place to hold a conversation and sit in a room with those who don’t necessarily agree with you, but you can still come to the table and find middle ground.