One recent Sunday morning, Debra Mendoza got a call from a veteran who was fresh from prison and on the verge of becoming homeless. He didn’t give Mendoza all the details, only that he had to leave where he was staying by 11 a.m. He was nearing 60 years old with a violent offense on his record. Arthritis in his hips had left him unable to walk or drive.
Mendoza and other Dallas Cred team members scrambled. After several phone calls, they found a shelter with space for the man.
Short for credibility, “Cred” is an extension of Youth Advocate Program Inc. (YAP), a national nonprofit organization that provides alternatives to youth incarceration and services like violence interruption.
Dallas Cred violence interrupters fan out to four crime-heavy areas of the city: Overton and Illinois, Webb Chapel and Lombardy, Loop 12 and Jim Miller, and the areas around Camp Wisdom and Gannon.
They don’t intervene in active violent situations. Rather, they try to interrupt the patterns that lead to violent behavior and wreak havoc on communities. It started this year, so the team is still in its infancy, but it has already started work in parts of southern Dallas.
Dallas Cred program director Mar Butler believes the team has a crucial advantage: They know the neighborhoods they’re stationed in and have backgrounds that help them relate with the people they’re trying to help.
Today, Butler is also a motivational speaker and coach. He tries to help troubled youths turn their lives around. But around a decade ago, he was released from prison after being sentenced for gun and robbery charges. He was involved in a violent drug transaction, he said. Trying to get his life back on track, he started working a computer sales job. When he got laid off, things just got tougher from there, and he ended up working a minimum-wage demolition job in Fort Worth. He’d get up around 3:45 a.m., jog half a mile to catch the 5 a.m. train and make it to the demolition site.
Eventually, Butler launched a motivational speaking and life coach business. He wanted to understand why people, particularly ones in his community, made such self-destructive decisions. If he could understand that, he felt he could help redirect people to a better path in life.
“We cannot and should not rely on police alone to stop the violent crime increases in our city.” – Mayor Eric Johnson
Before YAP came along, that’s what he and others were already doing in Dallas communities for free. “When you’re dealing with something of that nature, when people are walking around and they’re reminded of things they don’t have, they pretty much begin to expect that and act accordingly,” he said. “What we do is we provide something different.”
Mayor Eric Johnson advocated for Dallas to adopt a violence interrupter program as one of his Task Force on Safe Communities recommendations. Johnson formed the task force in August 2019 to receive recommendations for non-law enforcement solutions to crime and violence in Dallas.
“We cannot and should not rely on police alone to stop the violent crime increases in our city,” Johnson said in a statement. “Violence interrupters, which were highly recommended by my Task Force on Safe Communities, will stop conflicts before they become violent and can help our people and our neighborhoods to grow and thrive.”
In early May, City Council approved a $1.6 million contract for YAP to run the violence interrupter program. Last year, the council also voted to allocate $800,000 to hire violence interrupters. The 12-person team rolled out for one of the first times in late June.
As director, he’s supposed to work behind a desk most of the time, but Butler prefers a boots-on-the-ground approach.
The first week the team was together, they did nothing but canvas the different high-crime areas they wanted to help. “You canvas, try to find out the hotspots,” Butler said. “If you know somebody, you speak to them, but you’re not necessarily trying to introduce Dallas Cred just yet. You’re just trying to figure out where you fit in and get in.”
Tony Rodriguez, 42, one of the team members, found a fit in the Webb Chapel Road and Lombardy Lane area.
Rodriguez joined a gang with his cousins and uncles when he was just 13 years old. He turned 18 in 1998 and soon after went to prison in California to serve six years for gang-related crimes. After being released in 2004, he came to North Texas, earned a graphic design certificate in Dallas and started volunteering with groups that connected youth gang members to jobs, schools and other alternatives to violence.
When he goes walking or riding his bike in the neighborhood and sees children playing, he sees himself. “My mom was a migrant,” he said. “I grew up in poverty. I’ve lived in cars. I’ve been homeless. I did the gang thing. I went to prison. I sold drugs, used them. So, all this mess, it’s been my life since I was born. Somehow, I’m still here.”
Since getting out of prison, he’s been trying to do something meaningful with all these experiences. That’s why he joined Dallas Cred. “Personally, it’s a life mission,” he said. “I couldn’t go through all that for nothing. This is adding value through all those experiences I went through.”
To gain the trust of skeptics, they’ve had to explain that they don’t work with the police, Rodriguez said. “It’s taken like we’re against the police, and that’s not the case at all,” he said. “To be honest, I think we’re both working toward the same goal: safe and better neighborhoods.”
He appreciates being able to talk to and be a positive role model for children in the community because “They’re right there, man,” he said. “They’re two years, one year away from making choices that are going to affect their life.”
“So, all this mess, it’s been my life since I was born. Somehow, I’m still here.” – Tony Rodriguez, Dallas Cred
Butler said it’s important that the Dallas Cred team members come from similar backgrounds as those they’re trying to serve. “All of our team consists of people who have already been through hard times in their life,” he said. “They know what it’s like to hit skid row, they know what it’s like to be incarcerated. They know what it’s like to have fallen, been on the ground and had to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
For example, Victor Alvelais, one of the team members, grew up in Oak Cliff. He graduated from Franklin D. Roosevelt High School and later enlisted in the Navy. “When I left Oak Cliff to join the Navy, I, unfortunately, took a lot of things I learned there,” he said. “You’re taught these street principles or these ‘hood principles even if you’re not in that street lifestyle.”
He was taught, for instance, if someone hits you, hit back twice as hard. But that lesson didn’t serve him well: In the early ’90s, he got into a brawl at a Virginia nightclub that ended with him shooting and killing a man. At 20 years old, Alvelais was whisked off to prison to serve a 26-year sentence for murder. “What the hell have I done?” he would think during those first nights in lockup.
He eventually decided to refocus his energy toward activities that could help his community. Now, you can often find him in Oak Cliff around Overton Road and Illinois Avenue, wearing his bright orange Dallas Cred shirt.
“This is a passion that I found while inside,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives so I couldn’t keep saying, ‘I’ll wait till I go home.’ I started doing a lot of advocacy, activism work inside of prisons, dealing with self-help and cultural events and things of that nature.”
While behind bars, he worked as a coordinator for the Virginia Department of Corrections Veterans Housing Community. He says he established a veterans housing unit, created a rehabilitative program for residents, organized work projects for veterans and advocated for different resources and opportunities for them.
He’s also the author of L.I.F.E. Sentences, a daily affirmation book that helps prepare incarcerated people for a successful life after they leave prison. “I just said, ‘I want to continue this once I’m released,’” Alvelais recalled.
He said the program is going to let people begin to heal. “We can say we want to stop violence, stop the shooting, stop the killing, but what we want to do is help people. We want to give people the resources and tools to help themselves. Then, we want to cheer them on once we’ve given them all the tools they need.”
“They turn down the temperature, halt the cycle of retaliation and connect people to services. And it works.” – President Joe Biden
Damion Harrell, another member of the team, also grew up in Oak Cliff and wants to give back to his community. He returned home from a 12-year prison sentence and worked two jobs before joining YAP.
Program coordinator Deborah Mendoza helps provide resources and opportunities to the communities where Dallas Cred is stationed. They are hosting back-to-school drives for children and are planning a “felony friendly” job fair for those having trouble landing employment because of their criminal history.
Mendoza is a member of the Brown Berets, a pro-Chicano organization, and when she’s not working on stuff for the Dallas Cred team, she’s often volunteering with others to help people in her community struggling with poverty, crime and violence.
Before, though, she lived a life of crime, spending about a decade trafficking drugs until her mid-20s. She wanted to rebuild her life and leave the rest behind. About two years ago, she partnered with a friend to help homeless women and girls in Wichita. Some had been sex trafficked. Others were involved in the drug trade like Mednoza.
The Dallas Cred team may just be getting started, but YAP has been doing this work for more than four decades.
Founded in 1975, YAP started under Tom Jeffers, its first CEO. In central Pennsylvania, he worked with a partner to get children incarcerated in an adult prison released. As an alternative, they created a new blueprint that included hiring people who advocate for these young people, who live in their communities and are familiar with different resources. They work with the kids individually to figure out what’s going on with them and their families.
“They really take this strength-based approach,” Kelly D. Williams, YAP’s chief communications officer, said. “If you like selling things and you were selling things that are not legal, how do we get to where you’re selling something legally? ‘What do you like? Do you like math, do you like to write? What’s your thing?’ And then really getting them focused on that.”
At the same time, they also tried to figure out what’s going on at home and how they can help the parents. They ask “How can we help you support your kid?” Sometimes they need food in the fridge or help to find a job. Other times they may need help with addiction or their mental health.
YAP now has programs in 31 states and Washington D.C.
“We’re expanding now because a lot of communities are now looking for alternatives to what’s not working when it comes to the youth justice systems,” Williams said. “Our formula is based on not just coming to a city, but hiring people in the city and the neighborhoods that we serve. So you’re bringing jobs, but you’re also hiring people who have both the will and the way to help.”
“They know what it’s like to have fallen, been on the ground and had to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” – Mar Butler, Dallas Cred
She also said the program shows positive role models come in many different forms. A positive role model could be someone who wears a suit and tie every day, she said. But it could also be someone with a criminal history who has managed to change. This is important, she said, “because sometimes when they’re hearing from people, they don’t see themselves and they’re like, ‘OK, well can I really do this? I don’t have this education. I don’t live over there.’”
“I just think it shows kids so much that you can change your life,” she added. “If these guys can change their lives, they know they can change theirs, too.”
On July 21, 55 national nonprofits, including YAP, sent a letter urging President Joe Biden’s administration to invest in their efforts to help rebuild communities. In his infrastructure plan, Biden recently designated $5 billion for community-based prevention programs that target high-crime areas.
The Biden administration also announced a plan to tackle gun violence and other public safety concerns around the country. In the plan, the administration also focused on the need to support these violence intervention programs.
“They intervene before it’s too late, these interrupters,” Biden said at the White House in June after announcing his public safety plans. “They turn down the temperature, halt the cycle of retaliation and connect people to services. And it works. States should invest American Rescue Plan funds in those kinds of violent crime programs.”
Jesuorobo Enobakhare Jr., chair of the Community Police Oversight Board, is confident the Dallas Cred team will help put a dent in crime, but he says it’s only one part of the puzzle.
“If you’re living in a community that’s basically a food desert, you’re almost living in a third world nation. You’re almost living in a warzone,” Enobakhare Jr. said. “So, there is a level of post-traumatic stress, a level of mental anguish that those living in those communities are dealing with. What are we doing to address those issues?”
While the Dallas Cred team members wear many hats in the areas they serve, they know they can’t do it all. Still, they want to be part of the solution because this is their passion, Alvelais said. “We’re getting paid for our passion.”