Getting to first base

There’s an alternative to “three strikes your out”There’s an alternative to “three strikes your out”–but it requires coaches.


In “Can We All Get Along?” (Nov./Dec. 1993), we looked at ethnic change in California–a state that, within a few years, will become the first of many mainland states where whites will not be the majority population. We examined what this change means by looking at people in four California communities: 1) State Assemblywoman Martha Escutia, helping Latino political empowerment in Los Angeles; 2) Maria Ha, among Asian-American students integrating the University of California at Berkeley; 3) Sacramento Sheriff’s Deputy Donald Northcross; and 4) a white suburban family in Orange County. (The family has dropped out of the project and will be replaced in a future installment.) In this second of an occasional series, we revisit Northcross and his OK Program, in which black officers serve as mentors for young black men in Sacramento.


When Donald Northcross was 13, community in his small Arkansas town meant a home with a strong, loving mother and father, as well as a larger “family” of friends who helped each other. Both empowered him to go on to college and a good career.

Nearly a quarter century later, the world of Sacramento’s 13-year-old D-Hop is the shattered opposite: His mother was murdered, launching D-Hop on a series of interstate moves between relatives and cruel foster parents. He joined the Crips, only to see his gang leader gunned down in a drive-by shooting. His best friend died the same way.

In the absence of a supportive black community, D-Hop sought to belong to something. The gang was available, and treated him well. This acceptance–not money or drugs–was the attraction. Now, D-Hop is rejecting the gang for the OK Program, Northcross’ attempt to replicate the strong black community in which he grew up.

According to teachers, the program works. Kids in it are doing better. But there’s a problem: not enough successful black men are involved.

“I wish I could work with 20 guys who were really committed,” says Northcross.

Instead, Saturday at the OK Program’s study hall in a suburb of Sacramento finds Northcross the sole adult in a room with 23 youths. Sweat beads down his brow as he goes from student to student, coaching them with homework, helping them with problems that would sear the sensibilities of upscale suburban teachers, trying to keep some order as the decibel level doubles with the approach of lunch.

Northcross is aided by a fellow sheriff’s deputy, Charles Turner, but only a handful of other men have volunteered to counsel students.

“We had good numbers at the beginning of the year,” says Turner. “Then they just fell by the wayside. A lot ask what this program is going to give to them. It’s not them who need help. They all have jobs, they all have homes, they all are living good.”

It’s lonely these days on the frontier beyond the civil rights movement. Maybe it was more gratifying three decades ago to march in the South, when thousands risked their lives to change American apartheid. That was an easy dragon to slay compared with the problems scarring the black community today–economic deprivation, drug use, broken families.

Yet a number of leaders like Northcross are emerging. In the past few years, there has been a grassroots growth of black mentoring programs, according to Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard psychiatrist who has studied the black community. All the programs, however, face similar dilemmas–trying to get time from busy role models.

“Mentoring is a big commitment,” says Poussaint, adding that it’s difficult to expect people to sacrifice time from their own families. “But the need is so enormous that even if you had a thousand men out there, it would help only a small number.

“There is no magic solution,” he admits. “It’s going to be a struggle.”

The reasons why the black family needs help from the community already fill books: broken families, poverty, the decline of black churches, etc. The reason why successful black men are not coming forward is the same one that applies to whites and other racial groups–the absence of community in a society riven by lack of time and connectedness.

Modern urban planning has segregated us from one another by designing towns for cars, not people. Developers have created hundreds of marginalized suburbs like the one where D-Hop lives, cookie-cutter zones made up of cul-de-sacs, Wal-marts, and McDonalds, replicating themselves like cancerous cells.

How can Northcross create a sense of small-town community in such an environment? The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has reassigned Deputy Turner to the OK Program, which will give Northcross more free time to recruit. His next step is to work the churches–but he knows what he must overcome.

“You’re not going to sit down in five minutes and convince somebody to get involved in the program,” says Northcross. He asks volunteers only for a few phone calls to a couple of kids each week, and to show up on Saturday once in a while.

Northcross works with one kid at a time. In D-Hop, he sees a bright youth who may be able to make it–with a little help.

“Some of the things he’ll tell me, it’s heavy, you know, for a 13-year-old. I understand why he’s not doing as well as he could, but at the same time, I won’t let him use that as an excuse. Do we say, ‘I can’t do anything now, because of the problems I had in the past?’ Or do we say ‘I want to go forward from here.’ Any man in his right mind would say, ‘I want to go forward from here.'”

D-Hop is trying hard. One minute he quotes Buddhist philosophy: “Everything in life suffers.” Then he says, “I pray for myself. I pray for my Grandma. I pray for my friends. I pray that I can make it. But I don’t want to be some big movie star, making a lot of money on TV. I hear you won’t really be that happy when you’re rich like that.

“When I grow up,” D-Hop continues, “I want to be somebody where I can help the community, where I could get a good enough job where I can make money, put it into the community, like the projects, get them off welfare, get them a decent place.”

“What did I tell you the other day about the fish?” Northcross asks.

“Yeah,” D-Hop says, “like you can give a man a fish, and it will only last him one time, for one meal. But if you teach him how to fish, he can have a lot of meals. You can learn it, and you can do it for yourself.”

Dale Maharidge, who teaches journalism at Stanford University, is working on a project for Times Books based on this series of articles.