Anti-gang task force working for "A Better Tomorrow" - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Anti-gang task force working for "A Better Tomorrow"

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CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- You don't wind up in Washington Alternative School, unless the Hamilton County school district, or the court system, determines you have issues.

So instructor Richard Bennett gets the answer he expects when he asks his students who, among them, knows a member of a gang.

Every hand goes up.

"Actually, I would have thought the white guy would have been here (get sent to the class) for the pill, and you for the weed," he tells one 15-year-old.

"It just ain't true."

Bennett's ministry, A Better Tomorrow Inc., is all about redefining truth for middle and high school students judged 'at-risk' for joining, or coming under the influence of gangs.

That puts him on the front lines of Chattanooga's re-dedicated and officially announced "War on Gang Violence." But that doesn't make him a point-of-contact for the task force that Mayor Ron Littlefield has charged with researching the threat and developing solutions.

Bennett's lessons come straight out of the book, of his own life.

"You know when you say you've been there, done that," he asks. "You see, 'real' to me, means, relevant to me now."

Bennett cops freely, to a history as a gang member and leader. What should be relevant to all of us, he says, is that gangs have stepped in where families have failed.

"What you want to do is love them out of that situation," he says.

It's course in straight up tough love.

Tuesday, 'Eric' would offer the class a testimony, gleaned from 28 years on the streets.

"A lot of people come, trying to recruit you (to the gang), tell you the good stuff about it, we do this, we do that," he says. "I've had two of my relatives killed by gangbangers.  My grandmother got murdered. I've had bullets graze my face and one split my thumb."

For 'Big Mike' Turner, living 'the life' is about learning to accept its consequences.

"Man up," he exhorts the class. "You do what you do? Lay it down!"

He wanted the money, cars, clothes and the women.

Reality hit, with a felony conviction, and the birth of his now-almost-5-year-old son, Michale.

"He (Michale) sees everything I do," Turner says.

"These days, I drive a cab. I cater. Find five lawns, and I'd be out there mowing 'em. That's what I tell them; ain't nothing wrong with hustlin', as long as it's legal hustlin'. You don't hurt nobody."

Bennett knows money is at the root of a lot of it.

"I can't supplement the income they're getting (from selling drugs)," he says. "But I can show them another way."

A Better Tomorrow calls it "transitional entrepreneurship."

The flip response would be to call it Junior Achievement for juvenile delinquents.

It's much more; 100 hours of training: spread over this entire year and leads on summer jobs, lessons in how to develop business plans and raise or borrow the start-up capital.

It also is about finding faith in yourself and others, when your gut tells you otherwise. 

"You've gotta find something outside that comfort zone that you have," Bennett tells his class. "This is about change, and adapting to it. Because change is gonna come, whether you're on board with it or not."

Bennett and Turner know of the doubters; inside this class and out in the community. Experience is tough to overcome.

But Turner maintains that the message is getting through; he sees it in their eyes.

"If they didn't want to change, they wouldn't be here."

To learn more about A Better Tomorrow, click here.

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