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In Denver, duo forms unlikely alliance to counter gang violence

Haroun Cowans and Trey Staples planned a sports tournament for people with gang ties. There was basketball, barbecue – and some unexpected challenges.

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    Haroun Cowans, executive director of Impact Empowerment Group (left), talks with former gang member Trey Staples about their friendship and their anti-gang work in Denver, Oct. 23, 2015.
    Donna Bryson
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Late on a Sunday morning, when other Denverites were at church or preparing to watch the Broncos, an entrepreneur and a former gang member huddled at a desk. The two sketched out a flier advertising a sports tournament in a church gym – an event they envisioned as a step toward ending violence in their community.

When 40-something Trey Staples grinned at the thought of putting players in giant bubbles, he revealed a glimpse of the boy he was before he joined the Crips, before he went to prison. It had been his idea, in fact, to use sports to bring together people with gang ties with other members of the community.

“Sports is something everybody can talk about – your favorite teams, sports you played in high school,” says the entrepreneur, Haroun Cowans, an intent listener who seems to raise his voice only when he laughs. “It’s a good idea that Trey brought up.”

But before the day of basketball and prayer could be held, a shooting would force its postponement. The event was ultimately more modest, with a dozen or so players showing up. There were no bubble suits.

Yet Mr. Staples and Mr. Cowans, who directs a grass-roots anti-gang project as a volunteer, were trying to do one part of what decades of research have shown to be effective in dealing with gangs. That the tournament was less successful than they hoped shows just how challenging it is to counter gang activity.

The experience of these two men puts a human face on anti-gang efforts – on the hard path trodden by those who want to leave gangs behind, on the painstaking work that members of the community must undertake for former gang members to have a chance. These are efforts that can take years, if not generations. Resiliency cannot be in short supply.

“Good people make good people,” Staples says. “That’s the way the world works. If you want to be a pimp, hang out with pimps. If you want to be a Crip, hang out with Crips. If you want something else, you need something else.”

Recommendations from research

Experts draw on research, some of it sponsored by the federal government's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, when they say that communities must implement a combination of factors to effectively deal with gangs. Arresting the most dangerous players is important, but so is ensuring that young people in struggling neighborhoods have educational and employment opportunities, plus mental health support to handle generations of trauma. One crucial factor, the experts say, is the involvement of community organizations like Cowans’s Impact Empowerment Group, as well as the involvement of former gang members like Staples.

“The roots of violence are very complex, and they’re not responsive to [simply] flooding the streets with cops or flooding the streets with social workers,” says John Hagedorn, a criminal justice professor at University of Illinois in Chicago who has written extensively on gangs and on the racial and economic inequalities he sees as their incubators.

In Denver this year, police reported an upsurge of gang-related killings. The toll by the start of the summer was 12, compared with three over the same period last year.

Staples knew two of the dead. He had grown particularly close to one, a younger man who had ended up in the same federal prison and had been released about the same time.

When Staples left prison in the spring of 2014, he’d served 11 years. Before that, he had a brief stint of freedom and a decade in state prison. “As a child, you don’t think the choice you make when you’re 12 is going to send you to prison for 21 years,” he says.

Once Staples returned to his east Denver neighborhood, where he had an 11-year-old daughter, the priority for the former drug dealer was getting legitimate work. He visited a job placement program, and a counselor suggested he meet Cowans. But Staples was wary because of what he knew about the anti-gang project that preceded Impact Empowerment Group.

Former gang member Terrance Roberts started Prodigal Son in the 1990s to provide after-school study programs and sports as alternatives to criminal activity. But it can be hard to shake the past. In 2013, claiming self-defense, he shot and wounded a gang member. Although a jury found him not guilty last month, the ordeal caused him to distance himself from Prodigal Son. Cowans, a security company owner who had headed Mr. Roberts’s board of directors, reorganized the group as Impact Empowerment and became its executive director.

Staples, troubled by the death of his friend, ultimately decided to put aside his concerns about Impact Empowerment and meet Cowans.

Desire to give back

Cowans had never been in a gang, though he grew up in a neighborhood where many young people were. As a teen, he idolized local black business leaders. He says he was drawn to work on Roberts’s board and then to try to keep the project going after the shooting because of what he had learned about giving back to his community from people like restaurateur Bruce Randolph, who died in 1994. Daddy Bruce, as he was known around Denver, donated meals and clothing to the needy on Thanksgiving and other holidays. A street named for him runs through neighborhoods plagued by crime, poverty, and hopelessness.

Impact Empowerment works with the city, churches, and other community groups to provide the nourishment of after-school and summer activities, job fairs, and mentoring. Cowans asked Staples to join his board and took him to meetings with others committed to reducing violence in Denver.

“I’m very educated when it comes to gang violence,” Staples says. “I have a very long résumé in the streets, in jail, in prison.”

One meeting that Cowans and Staples attended was with an informal alliance of church leaders who had come together because of the spike in violence. There, Staples proposed the sports idea. Cowans and the pastors saw it as a way of overcoming prejudices and misconceptions on both sides. The gang members would see that their community cared about them, and the community would see that gang members could be leaders.

A date in late September was set. A neighborhood minister offered the gym of his Baptist church as the venue. Other partners included a former sportscaster with his own nonprofit built around the unifying power of fitness, and several inner-city pastors who had once been gang members themselves.

Staples, meanwhile, was finding it hard to balance his volunteer anti-gang commitments with his paid job washing cars, where he was struggling to get along with co-workers. He looked into training to be a long-haul truck driver, which he saw as a way to independence and better pay. But when the adviser he spoke to at a driving school heard he had just left prison, she left him feeling as if she expected him to go back there soon.

“If you want to change your life, it’s hard,” he says. “Too many doors get slammed in your face.”

Personal problems arose, including tension with gang members who may have resented his efforts to avoid them – a problem that Roberts of Prodigal Son encountered.

The mother of Staples’s daughter announced she was moving out of state with a man with whom she was expecting a child, and they would be taking the 11-year-old along. Staples began to question his ability to help anyone else when his own life was in disarray.

Not the event that was planned

Then, a shooting not far from the church gym left two young men dead. It’s not clear whether the deaths were gang-related, but that possibility was enough to convince organizers that they should push the event back, to Oct. 10.

Of the players that showed up that Saturday, only two, Cowans says, had gang ties, and those were long in the past. The postponement, decided only days before the original date, probably affected turnout. The players warmed up, played three-on-three basketball, ate barbecue, and prayed together.

Staples arrived after the games and watched the prayers from a distance. He was discouraged to see so few people. Cowans, while happy to start small, had wanted a higher percentage of participants with gang affiliations.

Sharay Hicks, a former gang member, now works for Open Door, one of Denver’s oldest organizations striving to keep young people from joining gangs. Mr. Hicks, who played basketball that Saturday, says he hopes Staples, Cowans, and their partners try again because such efforts can have an impact. It takes time to build trust, Hicks says.

“No one person can reach everybody,” he says. “But together, we can reach everybody.”

Two weeks after the games, Staples stopped by Cowans’s office on the way to a new job, higher paying than the last, as a tow truck driver. Staples, who says he has turned down chances to return to drug dealing, secured the towing gig through a contact made at a job fair hosted by Impact Empowerment. He enveloped Cowans in a hug at the door, then slumped into an office chair that didn’t quite seem to contain him.

A new kind of friend

The friendship that had developed between the two was unmistakable. Staples says he has never had a friend like Cowans. “All my friends had been gang members or drug dealers or prostitutes,” he says.

Cowans has benefited from the friendship, too. “We’ve helped each other along the way,” he says.

Over the summer, Cowans had learned he needed to sharpen his mentoring after helping other men find work and seeing them falter. Waiting for a paycheck, arriving at work on time, and working well with others aren’t the kinds of skills instilled in prison. Some of the men who came to Impact Empowerment for help had never done legal work. So Cowans started counseling them to think like an entrepreneur, weighing the costs of possible arrest, injury, or death when they compared their old lives with the lives they were trying to build.

Staples was preparing for his first 12-hour, overnight towing shift on a rainy, cool afternoon that held the promise of winter. He showed some of his exuberance from the summer when he called Cowans “my brother,” but was otherwise subdued. He did not have much to say about the prospects for another day of sports. But Cowans said it would happen.

“If I didn’t have hope, I would stop,” Cowans says. “Perseverance and hope go together.”

“If anything,” Staples says, “we didn’t hope enough.”

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