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The Joe Marshall Plan (USF Magazine)

Joe Marshall founded the Omega Boys Club with the belief that many inner-city youth want to escape lives of drugs, gangs, and violence, but don’t know how. His no-nonsense, no-judgment program saves their lives.

Then it sends them to college.

Joe Marshall ’68 is live on the air at San Francisco’s KMEL radio station, asking questions, telling stories that don’t often get heard on a hip-hop station, and challenging his listeners to think.

Tonight’s topic is women, and Marshall is slamming the current rash of female-based reality shows, arguing that their catfight ethic is demeaning to women everywhere. “Why do people enjoy these reality shows and want to see women attacking each other?” he asks. “It disgusts me, it’s just not entertaining to me.”

The subject shifts quickly to Michelle Obama. Marshall calls her “a classy lady” and suggests that she’s the opposite of the female hip-hop and rap stars typically heard on the station.

“Has Michelle had an impact on the way young women act?” he asks the call-in audience. “I want to know what effect Michelle has or hasn’t had.”

This is the Street Soldiers weekly radio show. Every Sunday night since 1991, Marshall has used it to address violence, gangs, the black experience, life in the city, and just about anything else he, his co-hosts, and his listeners think is interesting or important.

Billed as a “solutions-oriented call-in show for youth,” the KMEL broadcast is also the voice of Alive & Free, a San Francisco youth organization that Marshall co-founded more than 28 years ago as the Omega Boys Club, an after-school program that gets youth off the streets and gives them skills to succeed in school—and life.

During the two-hour broadcast, Marshall improvises. He changes direction—and topics—in an instant. It’s a lot like jazz, Marshall says during a chat at Alive & Free’s headquarters in the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood. Playing jazz piano, he adds, is one of the few hobbies he has time for

A Campus Radical

Marshall is an author, educator, community activist, police commissioner, winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, trustee emeritus of the USF Board of Trustees, and recipient of a USF honorary doctorate degree. Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey are among the many fans who celebrate his work.

He grew up in the tough South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles and came to USF from LA’s Loyola High School. “When I got up here, I found that just about the only other blacks were on the basketball team,” he says. “I loved Jesuit education, but I wanted a little more color in it.”

So Marshall became, in his own words, “the campus radical.” He founded a chapter of the Black Student Union (BSU), pushed for a black studies curriculum, and fought to bring more ethnic diversity to the university.

“I met Joe in my freshman year, when the handful of African American students gravitated together and ate lunch in the cafeteria,” says classmate Adrienne Riley, who’s on the board of Alive & Free. “He wanted to change USF then and he’s followed through.”

Marshall still remembers the day in 1970 when he thought his future was wrecked before it started. He had graduated from USF and was working on his teaching credential when a confrontation between the BSU and the administration resulted in hot words and broken windows.

Following a dispute after an intramural basketball game, Marshall and about 40 other BSU students took over a room in the student union. They barred the doors, broke some windows, and trashed the place, “essentially making a shambles of all the progress and good faith we had built up over the preceding years,” Marshall wrote in his 1996 best-seller, Street Soldier: One Man’s Struggle to Save a Generation—One Life at a Time.

The dean of men fingered Marshall as a ringleader and ordered him to appear at a university hearing, accusing him of destroying campus property and inciting a riot.

Marshall was 22 years old and student-teaching at San Francisco’s Woodrow Wilson High School. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to lose it all,’” he says. “I went in there with my rosary going and everything.”

USF law professor Robert Taggart spoke for Marshall at the disciplinary hearing. He described life for an African American student on a predominately white campus, the casual racism of some of the students, and Marshall’s fight to make changes he knew had to come.

The next day, the complaint was dismissed. It was more than a win for Marshall.

“Everything that happened at USF prepared me for what I would become in life,” he says. “It all began at USF. There was an awakening of my leadership ability, recognition that I could do things.

“The school’s new motto, ‘Change the World from Here,’ is exactly what I was doing.”

written by John Wildermuth