Organization helps give youth on the wrong path a new chance
Growing from gang member to activist
Blair Seals and his mother were very close. They shared everything. They loved each other. Then, in the winter of 2017, she died.
When her funeral took place, none of the men that Seals spent his time in the streets with showed up, all because the funeral was taking place “in the wrong side of town.” That was a turning point for Seals. His gang, he said, did not have his back, and his mother, who was the only person that really cared about him, was gone. After spending years of his adolescence as a member of a local gang called 110, Seals wanted to turn his life around. He realized he needed to leave the gang life.
Seals, now 20, grew up on the southwest side of Syracuse, where he said violence and the selling and consumption of drugs were everyday occurrences. According to The Associated Press, 48 Syracuse youths between the ages of 12 and 17 were killed by guns between 2014 and 2017. Teen shooting rates are especially high in Syracuse — more than double the per-capita number of shootings of other U.S. cities with more than 50,000 citizens.
Throughout middle school and high school, Seals saw many of his friends and loved ones die — many of them killed by gun violence and gang activities. Seals named a lot of them: Chuck, Daniel and his brother, Tyshawn, Little Chuck, Little G, Stray, JR, Deja, YG, Elbert. He needed both hands to count them, and a minute of silence to remember them.
At 14, Seals moved in with his older brother. This is when he started hanging in the streets and joined a gang. He was selling drugs and took part in shootings as well — activities he referred to as gang banging. It was especially serious during his junior year of high school.
“The reason I was doing all my gang banging … was for my mom. I’ve seen them bring all that bread, counting all that money. I just wanted to be able to take my mom to dinner and buy her some shoes,” Seals said.
One of his close friends from high school, Dashawn Dickerson, explained how even though Seals took part in gang activities, he was not 100% convinced by that life.
“He’d call me and say ‘Hey I’m about to go to the hood,’ but I could tell he didn’t really want to do it,” said Dickerson, who considers Seals a brother. “He was kind of fed up with it but he couldn’t just walk out.”
Seals stayed with Dickerson in the summer of 2018, and by the end of that year, Seals’ life really started to change.
“He really got his life together, he got a really good job and just stayed out of the way,” Dickerson said.
And the day after his mother died, Lamory Graham, Growth and Development’s organizer, approached Blair and invited him to join the organization.
Growth and Development was founded by Larry Hoover, a former leader of Gangster Disciples which is a powerful gang in Chicago’s Southside that grew nationwide. According to Seals and Graham, once Hoover was incarcerated, he started telling the Gangster Disciples’ members that they needed to change their ways to make the community better.
The organization now works to bring people from all different sides of town together to make the city a place they can be proud of. Seals said the message that Growth and Development is spreading is that they all need to grow as a whole and develop the community. That way, no group is left behind.
Graham said he recognized the potential that Seals had, as he had goals to better himself and leave the gang life by going to the Navy or back to school.
“I felt he was at a time in his life where negativity wasn’t going to be the answer, because the next step would be jail or death,” Graham said.
The pair had had negative encounters in the past. According to Seals, Graham tried to jump him once.
“We weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing, but we didn’t know any better,” Graham said. “We were going off what we see out here and what we think is cool, but it wasn’t.”
Since joining Growth and Development, Seals and other members of the organization have coordinated a variety of community events, like park clean ups, water handouts to homeless people and walks to stop gun violence. These walks are in partnership with OG’s Against Gun Violence. Seals and Clifford Ryan, founder of OG’s Against Gun Violence, have known each other for four years. Their families’ relationship goes back — Ryan and Seals’ mother went to high school together.
“She asked me to talk to him when he grew up and started getting in trouble,” Ryan said. “He’s working towards turning his life around, I can see that.”
The relationship he has established with Ryan, and the position Growth and Development and OG’s Against Gun Violence are taking in the city, gives people like Seals a voice in the community. According to him, those with real power to make changes in the city will listen to them as they have earned the spotlight through their activism.
Now, Seals is living with one of his brothers on the Northside of Syracuse. He holds a full time job at a factory and has dreams of opening up a skating rink in the city where young people can go and have fun in a safe environment, he said.
“I saw Blair [Seals] come a long way,” Dashawn said. “I saw Blair when he was at his lowest and he really turned his life around. I’m so proud of him.”