DC program points participants in a new direction — away from violence

Graduates of D.C.'s nine-week Pathways Program stand on the stage at Capital Turnaround.(WTOP/Kate Ryan)

The graduates were turned out in fashionable suits, high-fiving and shaking hands, hyping each other up before crossing the stage at D.C.’s Capital Turnaround venue.

But this was not a college or high school graduation ceremony.

This was the capstone event of D.C.’s nine-week Pathways Program, one that’s designed to change the lives of young men aged 18-35 who, according to the program, “are at risk of participating in and or/being victims of violent crime in the District.”

Each of the 23 graduates was introduced, their accomplishments spotlighted, their challenges recognized as they collected their certificates and awards.

As 25-year-old Marjai Shears’ name was read, a woman’s voice could be heard exclaiming, “That’s my baby!” and “I’m so proud of you!”

That voice belonged to Arnjenate Wright, who explained that Shears’ mother died when he was just 14 and that he had also lost a sibling to violence.

“It was one of the best feelings in the world to see him actually accomplish something when he’s been through so much,” Wright told WTOP.

Beaming, she added, “It’s hard to put in words (just how exciting it was to see him prepare for a brighter future).”

As the graduates took photos with their families and enjoyed refreshments in the Capital Turnaround lobby, Shears explained that he was working on a dual path — getting his high school diploma while participating in the Pathways Program.

He explained that in 11th grade, he was incarcerated: “So I wasn’t able to finish, but the crazy thing about it — guess what I’m about to say: I just enrolled last year.”

He enrolled with five credits left to get his diploma: “I knocked out three, I’ve got two more. I graduate in December.”

The Pathways Program includes life and work skills, things Shears said he knew he had to work on.

“I’m grown now, so I had to transition from waking up from whenever I want to (and develop the habit of getting up to be on time for work each day),” he said.

During the graduation ceremony, the participants cheered and applauded each other, taking obvious pleasure in the growth they’d seen and experienced. They were urged to rely on each other and to reach out to each other as they move on to their next chapter.

Kwelli Sneed, interim director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, said word-of-mouth has helped grow the program.

“We are a program that sells itself. We don’t need a lot of marketing materials, that is for certain,” she said with a laugh.

Sneed said the bonds between the young men that were honored at their graduation ceremony happened over time. She said that on the first day, many were reserved, holding back during discussions.

But, in short order, noting that they shared similar experiences, they began to open up.

“They care about the community, they care about the group,” Shears said.

Shears’ immediate goal is to enter a trade training program, specifically for welding: “I want to be the man of the house and be like, ‘I can fix it!'”

Because, he said, he wants his family members to be able to call on him when they need him.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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