Despite every obstacle, Ahmad Haynes celebrated a powerful new truth as he graduated from a program aimed at lifting up Black men.
He knows his future is boundless. His past, he’s realized, does not define him.
But it wasn’t always that way. His young life was replete with struggles from bouts of homelessness to violence, encounters with law enforcement, expulsion, incarceration, even gunshot wounds as recent as last summer. His path wound throughout places like Portland, Vancouver, Atlanta and Baltimore — through arrests, and in and out of jails and detention.
Now at age 22, he sees his past more clearly.
“Everybody goes through something with their family,” says Haynes, using a pseudonym for this story. “There aren’t many men in my family as compared to women.”
And likewise, not as many male role models, he says.
“The few men in my family have been in and out of incarceration,” he said. “My emotions can be up and down. I can go from hot to cold. And I’m learning how to control that. Anything that anyone ever did to me. But I’m more at peace.”
For Haynes (a pseudonym for purposes of anonymity), the ability to move through pain and trauma came with both the desire to do so — and a support system to help keep that desire from flagging.
That support was found — in part — through Choo Fair, a local community activist, mentor, case manager who works as a Multnomah County Department of Community Justice (DCJ) Corrections Counselor. Choo Fair and other leaders with the Department’s African American Program teach H.E.A.T. or Habilitation, Empowerment, Accountability, Therapy. It’s a curriculum tailored for African American men involved and leaving the criminal legal system. On Thursday, Fair joined Haynes and two other men who celebrated the completion of the nine-month curriculum at a graduation ceremony in North Portland.
The small, in-person/virtual ceremony was the first since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year and the multitude of crises that followed.
Black men and women already face some of the worst outcomes in multiple systems, from health to human services to the criminal legal system. They face intergenerational cycles of poverty, health challenges, and toxic stress that can begin in utero. But the pandemic and recent surge in community and gun violence poured kerosene on that smoldering fire.
“Black families should be saturated with the support they need from the beginning,” said Erika Preuitt, who serves as director of the Department of Community Justice. “Upstream before they ever enter the justice system. But too often, we find our community members struggling. If someone does become involved in the system, having support to get them through is crucial.”
Fair — whose chosen first name, Choo, stands for “caring and helping out others” — walked down some of the same paths as the young men he teaches. He brings that lived experience to his teaching, just as he brings the lived experience of what he’s accomplished since then.
Haynes first met Fair last fall while he was on probation. Fair offered him the H.E.A.T program.
“I had heard about him, so meeting him was like, ‘Dang, this is you,’” he said. “It was definitely an experience, because he is a different man from who he was, to who he is now. Once I got to know him, he’s definitely the most genuine dude I know. He’s never forced anything on anyone. I appreciate that.”
The H.E.A.T. curriculum goes deep — broaching topics from fatherhood to historical strengths of African Americans to healthy relationships.
Haynes’ mother was 13 when he was born. His father was 14. He spent his childhood and adolescent years living with some combination of his mother, grandmother, aunt and other matriarchs.
“Acting out,” he said, started in the 6th and 7th grades. Petty things at first. But the petty matters escalated, forcing Haynes to move in with different family members, sometimes in a different state.
By the time he was in 8th grade, he’d committed a crime for the first time. He experienced homelessness. He also joined a gang. He would spend months, then years, incarcerated.
“It allowed me to think about those days — back to back — and to lose out on so much. It makes for so much pent-up aggression."
But the curriculum, Haynes says, “was the best I’ve done since my involvement [in the system].”
“It pinpointed circumstances in our community, and especially in Black men that aren’t allowed to be spoken about,” he said. “Like you’re not allowed to have these feelings because you’re a Black man. It also broadened our views. I can be very narrow-minded and I’ve been narrow-minded.”
The curriculum dissects relationships. “Street smarts is one thing,” he said. “But they focus on the person and not the problem. Why is this happening? What do they need to stop doing this?”
Last summer, Haynes was shot while walking in North Portland. The bullet entered his left leg; hit his bladder; then lodged between his femur and hip bone. Thankfully, he was able to walk away. A nurse happened to pull up to help. She fashioned a tourniquet, then called an ambulance.
He had surgery and was hospitalized for four days. In a week, he went from needing a walker to just a cane. “I really pushed myself to rehabilitate,” he said.
The experience also pushed his commitment to the work and strengthened his relationship with Fair.
“It’s easier to take it from Choo,” Haynes said. “He’s like the big bro. He’s been through it. Choo broke out of that track. And he can move through all aspects of life.”
The H.E.A.T curriculum includes three phases, each with 12 sessions and principles to live by. The instructors are as invaluable as the curriculum itself.
H.E.A.T. graduates said they also felt heard by leaders who genuinely cared and listened to them.
“They allow us to speak about how we feel when we want to. If we agreed or not, they allowed it. That matters,” Haynes said. “That’s why I stuck through it. I actually felt it.
“It was never really like we’re doing homework or doing work. We’re actually having a topic of conversation. ‘What is your input? What can we do to help this? What does this mean to you?’
That made it a lot easier.”
H.E.A.T. leaders provide resources to help with the other parts of someone’s life, from Winco grocery cards to career-boosting supports, from barber certificates to something as simple as a connection to someone who can get you to where you need to go.
Even if it’s something that’s mentioned in passing, said Haynes, Choo would say “‘Let’s see what we can do. It’s not just about being heard, it’s about taking what we say seriously. I'm offering to do this to help you, too.’”
Poverty is identified as a primary issue. Support for Black fathers in homes is another. But overall, the work aims to elevate Black men and youth.
Thursday’s (April 8) graduation brought celebration and tears. Speakers included Felesia Otis — mother of Keaton Otis — who was killed by police during a traffic stop in 2010; Nike Greene with Portland's Office of Violence Prevention; and Carl Rucker, a mentor with Volunteers of America who talked about the deep loss community members have experienced due to gun violence. The original graduation was intended for nine students.
The young men who are here today, said Travis Gamble, a County Community Justice Manager, “Are so intelligent and that’s something they probably don’t hear often, especially wrapped up in the system."
“There are Black folks who don't feel like they could be a lawyer or a doctor,” said Haynes.
“They don’t believe it. They feel like they can only be this or that. But we can learn about stocks and investments, real estate, how to own your own home, even having a company.”
Haynes says he’s thinking about his future, and what he wants to be. He has a car, he’s making money, and he’s ready to take care of his needs.
“I’m getting ready to apply for a job,” he said. “I want to be a barber and retire as a barber.
That’s a trade you can take with you.... I take care of what I need to take care.”