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Believers Out of Doubters

Marshall believes youth violence is a disease, one that can be treated and prevented. His prescription is Alive & Free.

At its core is the Leadership Academy, which serves about 200 young people every year, ages 14 to 24. Expectations are high, class participation is mandatory, and success is the new norm.

These days, as many girls participate in the program as boys. The academy helps them develop the math, literacy, and critical-thinking skills necessary to graduate from high school or pass the GED exam, and it nurtures the inner strength they need to escape from the culture of violence that plagues so many of the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Special discussion groups help them vent a lifetime of anger and disappointment.

Many say this is the closest thing to a family they’ve ever had.

For the university-bound students, there are more classes, and more rigor, in a separate college-prep program that includes financial literacy classes, academic counseling, and help in applying to and selecting colleges. Alive & Free alumni continue to receive counseling and tutoring—long distance, if necessary—while they’re in college.

Marshall, with his tough-love attitude, has never made it easy for the thousands of young people who have passed through his program over the years. That’s the point.

“It’s a battle with the thug image,” Marshall says. “It’s a real tug-of-war between the streets and us.”

Not to mention the problem of convincing a teenager to give up one or two nights a week for classes when they could be spending that time with friends. The Leadership Academy meets Tuesday nights from 5:30 to as late as 10, and the three-hour college prep sessions are held on Thursdays.

“I didn’t want to come,” admits 25-year-old Dana Ward-Robinson, a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta. “The night classes didn’t leave a lot of time for what I wanted to do in high school.”

But her years at the club helped focus her life and build a network of friends and gave her a feeling that anything is possible.

“The best part of Omega is that I learned to be mindful of my environment and the people I surround myself with,” she says. “I learned how I could be a better person. This is my family. And Dr. Marshall? He’s awesome.”

Ward-Robinson continues her studies while teaching at an after-school program. “I want to be a doctor,” she says before quickly catching herself. “No, I mean I will be a doctor.”

That kind of confidence is every bit as important to students’ future success as strong math and reading skills, Marshall says.

“The biggest block is often their friends, who tell them they can’t go to college or they can’t leave San Francisco,” he says. “It’s our job to make believers out of doubters.”