The Common Good

Making Their Mark: Interview with Mark Wallace, Youth Worker

Sojourners' June issue features a cover story by Amy Green and a column by Jim Wallis about the new paths of young Christians, plus a set of mini-interviews with 10 next-gen Christian leaders. Here's a taste: part of Sojourners' interview with Mark Wallace, the Facilitator for School Violence Prevention, K-12 for the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in Newburg, New York. People's journeys often follow a complicated path, which can include becoming an "emerging leader" much later in life. After serving almost two decades in Sing Sing prison, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree and helped found the Rehabilitation Through Arts program, Mark Wallace is a youth worker and mentor.

Sojourners: How would you describe your job or leadership role?

I am more or less a mentor/counselor, I would say, [or] group therapist. The [Newburgh School] district has allowed me to set up a classroom setting where young men and women from diverse ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic-status backgrounds, can come and actually voice their concerns, their opinions, and deal with whatever issues or hardships they may be faced with. We get into the heart of all types of matters, whether it be racism, gender, community, policing, how they feel about school, the curriculum, their ambitions, their goals--short-term, long-term--you name it, we talk about it. It's been very refreshing for the students because they feel that here is a forum where somebody's finally listening to what's going on in their lives.

As you think about your work, what's your biggest passion?

Wallace: The kids themselves. The students. I'm a "people" person, so to watch, say, for instance, a young man or woman who comes in who really may be anti-social--they may act out in unproductive behavior--to see them come through this process and then at the end of the school year, just have this 180 degree turn. For me, that's the best reward I could ever receive, or anyone could, because it's life we're talking about here. For me, that's the greatest reward I could receive--that I've helped affect someone's life, put them on the right track.

As you work with the youth, do see them as different in any way from youth of previous generations?

Each generation always says, "oh man, these kids today are not like we were." That could be in my mother's era, her mother's era. There are differences, I guess, in each generation. I find with these young men and women, that they really, in many cases, are more disrespectful towards adults than in my generation. And a lot of them are very angry and very bitter. There are many factors that we can attribute this to. But what I've come to find is that a lot of them, given time to reflect, will come out of that negative, rebellious type of phase that they are in.

A lot of things that have been taken away and cut back from. A lot of these kids in Newburg, they don't have anywhere to go. They come home from school and all they have is the block. When I was young you had boys' clubs, you had the YMCA, you had PALs (Police Athletics Leagues). The kids up here, they don't have any place or anywhere to go.

A lot of them are just angry. That's why gangs thrive so much. They just want to be a part of something, without realizing whether it be negative or positive, and not really taking that into consideration. You want to be a part of something, you want an identity, you want to feel like somebody. And sometimes saying, "I'm a Blood," or a Crip, or MS-13, or whatever it may be, is saying that you are somebody, because a lot of the time they don't feel like they're anybody.

And, may we ask, how old are you?

I'm 45.

Amen. That's a great decade to be in.

Wallace. Yes it is. My father used to tell me--he said, "Son, you're not going to start to live until after you're 30." And I didn't understand, but now I see.

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