On an unseasonably warm July day, Lionel Irving gets up from the sofa on his front porch to hug his 16-year-old niece Queenie. She's home from a summer program called Self Enhancement, Inc.
“She just came from a college tour,” he says. “That’s our star.”
Queenie visited Tulane University in New Orleans. Lionel sees education as the most important thing for helping young people improve their lives and he gets visibly excited when he talks about Queenie’s success.
“I'm really big on education, because that's the way they make it out,” he says after she goes inside.
That's how he made it out.
In many communities – including in parts of North Portland, where Lionel grew up – gangs, drugs and gun violence are all part of a cycle of intergenerational trauma that is made worse by poor education. But Lionel has decided the cycle ends with him.
The Cycle Continues
Lionel is a big, soft-spoken guy. Growing up in school he was a charmer. But he never did very well in class, so he was always uncomfortable there. Meanwhile, his mom, his uncles – the people he looked up to – were involved with gangs and drug-dealing.
So in sixth grade he did what was comfortable. He joined a gang and started selling drugs. It wasn’t long, he says, before he was carrying a gun, then using a gun.
“Guns have impacted my life all the way back to before I was born,” he said, “When the police killed my uncle Ricky.”
Ricky Johnson was killed by a Portland Police Bureau officer in 1975.
Older gang members recruited younger kids like Lionel to sell drugs and attack rivals. Twelve-year-olds are vulnerable, easy to manipulate. And only moreso if their dad is in jail or, like Lionel, their mom is a drug addict.
As Lionel got older, it was his turn to bring on younger kids.
“It was nothing to have a 13- or 14-year-old with me because that's what I came up under,” he said. “And so the cycle just continues and I'm pretty sure those same young men have done it to somebody else.”
This cycle of violence puts guns in the hands of kids. The first time Lionel shot at someone he was in sixth grade.
“And I was so scared,” he recalled. “I was terrified.”
After that, he says, it became easy. More importantly, people respected him. Suddenly, he had clout that he didn’t have as an unsure kid in school.
Lionel said guns were like a high, one he chased for years.
Lionel looked up to his cousin Donald Means. And Means trusted Lionel, asking him to take care of his children if anything ever happened to him.
In 1999, Means was shot and killed by a rival gang. Lionel spent the next two years looking for revenge.
Friends and family did what they could to help him get over Means' death, but he was fixated. Two years later, Lionel shot and killed 14-year-old Tommy Brock. Brock had been standing with a group of rival gang members on a street corner in Tacoma, Washington. In a press release, the Department of Justice said Brock was an innocent bystander.
Everything, Lionel says, changed in an instant.
“When it happened, that was such a terrible event,” Lionel said. “You can never ‘un-live’ those moments. All the advice you heard leading up to that [moment] all makes sense now.”
Lionel went to prison in 2004 and served 12 years for manslaughter. In prison he enrolled in GED certificate classes. He had never learned how to read and, as in middle school, he started acting out.
A teacher in prison tried something different. She put him in an English as a second language class even though it was his only language. He was skeptical. Teachers had been passing him off to other classes his whole life. It was the other prisoners who invested in each other, encouraging growth and education.
“It's a correctional institution but correction is optional,” he said.
But this experiment with ESL classes worked.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Because now I was smarter than these dudes, man.”
The classes gave him confidence. His world opened up. He read his first book.
“It was a book for a seven-year-old,” he said. “But it was my first book ever and it just kicked the light on for me. I was in another world."
While in prison, Lionel says he became an activist. He wanted to help kids make better decisions before they wound up dead or in jail.
Soon after his release he helped found a group called Men Building Men, which brings together men from the community to mentor young students and instill a culture of accountability. The goal is to break a cycle of violence that has played out over generations.
“The trauma is real. And there’s so many different levels of trauma,” he said. “From hunger, to just being ignored, to violence, to sexual. In the sixth grade, I was having sex with drug addicts. They were adults. You know, I was only, like, 12-years-old. I mean, I wanted to do it, I thought, but that will warp a 12-year-old. These are grown-ups.”
Gun violence is at the heart of that trauma. He lifts his shirt to reveal about 30 tombstones tattooed on his chest.
“You know, most of these are from gang violence,” he said, running his hand over the tattoos. “I didn't recognize it at first. I suffered a lot of trauma from gun violence. And man, guns ain't never did nothing good for my family.”
Reaching Out To The Community
Lionel and other volunteers with Men Building Men planned an August back-to-school event. At a planning meeting in a Northeast Portland community center, Lionel saw a contractor drive by who had been working on his house.
“I got this contractor driving down the street that stole all my money, but he’s going the wrong way,” Lionel told the group as he stood up to look. “He’s not going to the house.”
Lionel learned early on to resolve conflict with violence. Situations like this one with the contractor test a new set of skills — skills that go back to that teacher in prison who, through education, gave him a chance to pick a different path.
Making good decisions is about having a plan, Lionel says, and being able to anticipate the ramifications of your actions. But trauma complicates all of that.
“Your mind is so cluttered,” he said. “You’re angry, you got to make the decision in anger with trauma wrapped around you that you haven’t addressed. You’re going to make a bad decision.”
Now, Lionel visualizes how he’s going to talk to the contractor. He knows he’s likely to get mad and wants a plan to handle his emotions.
He's passed on what he’s learned to his family.
“We have no more criminals,” Lionel said, “No more inmates, no more gang members.”
Now, he’s teaching it to his community.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.