HOPE For the Future
Michael Willis believes wholeheartedly that community problems require community solutions.
“We have a great culture, a great everything in New Orleans,” he said, “but if we don’t all figure out what we have to do together, we will continue to see the crime rate go up.”
Willis is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization HOPE: Help Other People Endure. The core tenets of HOPE’s approach to solving the crime problem that is so threatening to New Orleans are community engagement, community informing, community opportunities – and community accountability.
“We must all be held accountable when we are seeing parents, family members and friends going live on social media sites encouraging children fighting and/or committing a crime,” Willis stated flatly.
Willis walked the walk long before he began talking the talk. The youngest of six children born to a mother who started out poor and then fell into drug abuse to make the situation worse, Willis grew up mostly in a variety of foster homes, and mostly separated from his siblings. He was homeless at age nine and again at fifteen. Yet somehow he stayed in school, and found mentors in the classroom, on the playing fields and in music.
“I became a drum major at L.B. Landry High School,” he recounted, “even though we had to build our own drums. Even though I had a void of a male figure at home, certain people stood up for me.”
While this support and the attendant experiences helped build his confidence, it also introduced him first-hand to another core problem in our city.
“My senior year I got moved to O.P. Walker High School, which was our archrivals,” he recalled. “Being the drum major and switching schools, it made me the most controversial kid in the city. One thing about New Orleanians, we are really territorial.”
Indeed, whether consolidating schools or tearing down housing developments, an unintended and sometimes deadly consequence has been turf wars between the entrenched and the displaced. As Willis described it, “when you put the lion and the tiger and the bear in the same cage at the zoo, you’re going to have a problem.”
This in turn leads to one of Willis’ biggest areas of advocacy: the need to return to community schools.
“You see kids going all over town on buses, they can go to any school they want, but you lose that community,” he explained. “You lose that knowing what the kids are up to, that letting parents know if their kids are not in school. We have got to reconnect communities and schools.”
Despite his background, despite being the first in his family to graduate from high school – Willis drew on the positive aspects of his life experience and an innate entrepreneurial spirit, and began launching a variety of enterprises. In the music business, he began working with talented friends to launch their careers, teaming up with the likes of now-household names such as Master P and Big Freedia. He helped initiate and fund sports leagues, he did talent shows, he ran a music club, and he created the Westbank version of Super Sunday.
And along the way, he founded HOPE.
“HOPE comes from Superman,” he explained. “He was the strongest person on earth. He could have used that strength for good or evil, but he chose good. And when they asked him what the S on his chest stood for, he said it stood for hope.”
Willis believes that successful approaches of the past can help solve the crime problem of today. “We have to reintroduce some of the old ideas that will save kids now,” he commented.
Among these are mentorship programs like Big Brother, Big Sister and scouting, along with tutoring and test preparation courses. He is resuscitating the “It’s 10:00, do you know where your kids are?” entreaty for parental accountability. And in a real retro touch, he is bringing back Crime Dog McGruff, as a way to “soften” young people’s attitudes towards the police and authority in general.
“We have to rebuild trust between community and police,” he stated. “Authority figures are no longer respected.”
The centerpiece of HOPE’s efforts is hosting monthly Night Out Against Crime activities throughout the city. Instead of the once-a-year gatherings that feel good but accomplish little, Willis wants these to be regular opportunities for neighbors to get to know each other. He points out that after Katrina, people came together across lines of race and class to bring the city back, and he sees similar urgency – and opportunity – in the current circumstances.
This tracks back to his core philosophy of community as the source of the solutions.
“If you take the community out of anything, these are consequences you get,” he said. “We all have to step up and do what we need to do, for ourselves and for our community.”