‘Right now they’re crying out.’

The Interview: NowKalamazoo talks with Dontray Hemphill about his outreach to protect kids from a racist system and to make choices that will keep them from incarceration.
Dontray Hemphill, a middle-age Black man, sits on a wooden bench. He wears a white baseball cap, blue jeans, and a blue checked button-up shirt.

Dontray Hemphill had no interest in grassroots gun violence activism, but when his son’s freedom was at risk, he turned to the man who first proposed the idea to him.

Hemphill grew up on the Northside of Kalamazoo and says that routine gun violence, along with the pain of burying friends and families caught in the crossfire, led him to become numb to the issue. His perspective has shifted at the age of 42, largely driven by a battle to protect his son from harsh, disproportionate criminal charges resulting from a school fight. “If it hadn’t been video recorded, my son probably would be in juvenile detention today just based on discrimination,” says Hemphill.

That recorded evidence, along with the advocacy and determination of Hemphill and his wife, kept their son safe. However, he felt compelled to extend help to other parents who lacked support to keep unsubstantiated allegations or minor infractions from sending their sons into a pipeline to incarceration. Recognizing that his life before becoming a father and business entrepreneur provided him with unique insight into connecting and communicating with young men who may be themselves on a path to prison, he embraced his friend Ed Genesis’ offer to start BLOCKS Club: Building Leadership Organizing Communities for Keys to Succeed.

Initially, the duo didn’t aim to serve teens, but Hemphill says kids as young as 12 up to 18 have become their priority as more boys become involved in crimes with firearms.

Hemphill shares with NowKalamazoo what he observes teens need most, how the community can offer support, and what he believes is necessary to advance the work. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

So from what I know, you’re the co-founder of Blocks Club. Can you expand on the main projects that the organization is focused on right now?

We’re trying to build future leaders and build the community with the keys to be successful in life and the things that they need to know to build a better community and to be able to keep this work going on. And right now, we’re currently working with the youth a lot. We’re really focusing on the gun violence movement a lot right now.

When you say you’re focusing on the youth, does that mean that your organization is meant to support youth the most?

No ma’am. It’s just right now, it’s really needed hands on with these kids. So we’re more community overall with everybody, but right now, just with all this stuff going on, we’re trying to focus on helping these kids because we feel they are the future.

From your experience with helping kids, what would you say kids are asking for and in need of most right now?

Right now they’re crying out. They don’t have anything to do. As adults, we have our bars, we have our lounges, we have our whatever. Kids have nothing to go to. There’s no kid club, kid event center. There’s nothing. So a lot of that is kids are bored. That’s why they’re doing a lot of the things to get attention. But if they have something to keep their focus on, they’re only limited to a lot of sports stuff doing school. So a lot of ’em need money. I’m hearing that a lot. There are no real jobs for kids. That’s why kids are stealing cars. That’s why they’re stealing, because they’re not receiving any funds. They’re willing to work, they just don’t have the program here for them that’s needed.

From what I’ve read you were also involved with Parents United. Would you be able to give an explanation and focus on the initiatives that were worked on there?

Yes, Parents United was co-founded by my wife, Ebony Hemphill. We got into this work with, of course, my partner, Ed Genesis. That was around my son DJ. When DJ got into an altercation at school with a young lady, I always say this, thank God for video cameras. If it hadn’t been video recorded, my son probably would be in juvenile detention today just based on discrimination. They tried to charge him with assault and battery, and it was like three crimes. Ebony and I just put our foot down and we fought for our son. And so by us getting involved and fighting for our son, and getting the community behind us,they helped us push and advocate for DJ and charges were dropped.

We felt like we couldn’t just stop with DJ. So we wanted to keep going because there’s other kids that needed it. So that’s how Parents United came forth, because there were other parents that didn’t know how to advocate for their child. So we were there to show everyone how to advocate and how to get the community behind. So that’s the whole shift behind Parents United, we just kept pushing with that and helping other kids.

You said you got into the work around five years ago with your son. What would you say the needs were five years ago and how do they compare to today?

I would say probably about the same, honestly. It’s like a turtle race. We’re racing, we’re moving, but we’re not moving fast enough. So change is happening, but it’s not happening fast enough. Like at a fast, rapid pace we would like to see it. So I would say from five years to now things have changed just a little bit. I would say that our initiatives are being able to be heard and be in rooms; five years ago it was a single person trying to get their voice heard. When this happened with DJ, I remember going down to see the prosecutor, but I was going as a father who didn’t want his son to get in the system. This was before really the work started to pick up. So I didn’t get a chance to see him, I couldn’t get his number, I couldn’t get his email. Now it’s like he knows me by name, I have his email, I have his number all off of the work that I’m doing with the community. So the relationship has opened some doors for us within the five year span. So being able to be in the rooms with the who’s who.

How much different or similar is this year to 2020, the year we saw the shocking rise in gun related violence and deaths to this year?

You know, gun violence for me, I can’t even count on hands and toes anymore. That’s how many friends I’ve lost. I’m not even talking about the community. I’m talking about people that I’m close to. So for me, it’s always the same. It’s just the fact now it’s the kids that’s really doing it. I couldn’t imagine at 11 and 12, I was still probably playing with toy guns. So I couldn’t imagine at 11 and 12 back then, how these 11, 12 year olds are now knowing how to handle these guns like that. It is crazy. It’s hurtful because it’s like, where’s the parenting coming from? And so that time span from 2020 to 2023 the only difference is who’s behind the trigger. The age bracket has dropped tremendously from your 20-year-old, 30-year-olds or whatever, to now it’s teens. It’s getting younger and younger – that’s the only difference.

Do you believe that the reason behind that is because kids don’t have a lot of things to do? Or do you think there are more reasons as to why younger kids are getting more involved?

Everything plays a percentage, we’re looking at a pie graph where everything has its sections. That right there, I would say because they don’t have something to do, would be 50% to 40% of the problem. Parenting is another 20 to 30%, if not 40. So they don’t have anything to do. Social media plays a heavy part in this. We can say the music, but I don’t wanna say the music ’cause that’s what they say. I know guys and women that are true hard Christians that still tap into their rap music and don’t think that they’re going to do what that music says, and they just listen to music. So I don’t wanna say the music is an influence, but television, social media, most definitely plays an influence.

In a past interview you’ve said that you’ve been working on the wrong side of the law. What drove that for you and what brought you out of it?

What drove me out of it was when you do something for so long and you get the same results over and over and it’s not good results, then you gotta do something different. Like the saying,”if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” well, it was broken for me, so I had to fix it. It was like, things don’t happen to you, they happen for you. So the things that were happening to me, it was like, you’re doing that to yourself, but it’s something much greater for you if you do this. Having friends come out of the penitentiary after doing 15, almost 30 years, my best friend came out, did 15, life is completely different. Turned over to a good guy, still is to this day, proud of that kid. Got another guy, he does some similar work with me with this gun violence stuff. I’m proud of the way his brain has adapted and how he’s turned a new leaf. Me just seeing that I need to grow and graduate.

I used to think I was on the other side of the law ’cause I really was on the other side of the law. So doing illegal things, you don’t interact with the police. I hate you guys, ’cause your job is to stop me from doing what I’m doing. So you are just doing your job. I can’t be mad for you doing your job now, learning that I can still be the character that was built in the past.

When Ed first pulled me into this work, I was like, hell no. Like, I’m not doing that bro. And then DJ got in trouble. So now it was ‘I was trying to pull you into this work. Now your son’s in trouble. So now what are you gonna do?’ So I did that. And once I started to lead with the police, I gotta say like, Hey, things might not be so bad after all. They’re not asking me to snitch or be a CI or none of that. It is community work. So now I see a difference. I still stand my ground and have my standards, and they know that. I think now everybody has that relationship.

What are the barriers you see to eliminating gun violence in Kalamazoo?

From my perspective, what’s stopping us, and this is probably the one of the realest things that I’m going to say in this interview: What’s stopping us is them not letting us do the work 100% totally. When they say boots on the ground, you really gotta mean boots on the ground. You have your planning committee and then you have your action committees. So I feel like when the planners plan, then the money is allocated and whatever. Now it’s time for the action players to play. They don’t really let us do what we need to do and how we need to do it. The resources are here for us. But it’s like the plan is not strategically intact like it needs to be.

We need X, Y, and Z when stuff happens to be forefront right there, because it’s a lot of guys that really can stop a lot of this stuff, if they knew what was going on and enough time to be able to say, ‘Hey, I need you to do this, I need you to do that’. So to answer your question, the barrier to me I can’t say is the finances, ’cause they have allocated plenty of funds for gun violence. So I just say not letting the key players all the way in the room calling the shots. Saying, ‘Hey, this is how it needs to be’. Instead of just getting the idea from us or suggesting, like really letting us illustrate, orchestrate this whole thing and tell us.

How can the community support the organizations you’re a part of? Local people such as residents in Kalamazoo, how can we get involved in your efforts?

For one, you can sign up to be in the BLOCKS club. That’s what people can do. Sign up to be in the BLOCKS club, because what I want people to understand about the BLOCKS Club is that it’s more than just a saying. I’m cleaning, or you can see us cleaning in the community and say, “oh that’s BLOCKS Club.” Then you can come out and join. You could call and say “Hey, we have this going on, on my street” and then I know who you are ’cause you are a member. Just community. I think we should police our own communities and I think we should keep our own communities clean and safe. I think it’s up to us, not for nobody else to come in and do a job.

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