NORTH LAWNDALE — Chicago native and Hollywood actor, writer, director and producer Robert Townsend returned to his West Side roots Thursday as he kicked off his "Man Up" mentorship initiative with the West Side branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The 57-year-old Austin High School alumnus, who grew up in the "K Town" portion of North Lawndale, said it was the wave of violence in Chicago that brought him back home.
"I wanted to do something to help West Side youths escape the street trappings I am all too familiar with as a fellow 'West Sider' myself," Townsend said Thursday after speaking to 35 incarcerated young men at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. "Not much has changed for kids living on the West Side, which is why it is important to provide male mentors they can talk to about their issues."
The detention center inmates watched Townsend's 2012 movie, "In The Hives," which is based on a true story about Vivian Sanders, a cook at an alternative school who took on the responsibility of educating boys that no one else would.
Karl Brinson, president of the West Side branch of the NAACP and community activists Benny Lee, Antoine Day and Rhonda Sherrod, joined the “Five Heartbeats” star Thursday.
"We had all these strong men here today talking 'real talk' and that planted seeds in their minds," Townsend said. "One young man stood up and said, 'I don't have any questions but I do need help.' That really touched me."
Peer pressure, Townsend said, plays a big role in how kids behave and what decisions they ultimately make.
The collaboration between Townsend and the NAACP was an effort to save young people "from the madness that's going on in these streets," Brinson said.
"In order to save us we must save them," Brinson said. "As black men we all want to make a difference in the lives of our black youths."
The inmates also heard from Lee, an ex-offender who grew up in Austin but now lives in Chatham.
"I am familiar with the West Side so that's why I came back. I shared with them my experience as a young man who made a lot of bad choices that landed me in and out of prison," said Lee, who works with the nonprofit National Alliance for The Empowerment for The Formerly Incarcerated.
Lee, 60, added that while he grew up with both his parents in a middle-class household, he still chose to follow his so-called friends on the street.
"When I stepped outside the home I saw what my peers were involved in and I got attracted to that. I was too busy trying to be there for my friends instead of being there for myself," he said.
Lee said he eventually became addicted to drugs and that led him to commit crimes to support his habit.
"As a result of my addiction I spent time in prison for a shootout with police after a home invasion went bad," added Lee. "Like most addicts I wanted fast money."
But Day said if the West Side is ever going to get "fixed up" it is going to take getting the next generation together first.
"Youths are our future leaders and we as men must set positive examples for them to follow. That's why I wear a suit and tie so much. I want our young men to see that not all black men walk around with blue jeans and gym shoes." said Day, who lives and works in Austin where he grew up.
Townsend will speak from 9-11:30 a.m. Friday at the Cook County Jail;, 1-2:30 p.m. Friday at Malcolm X College, 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday at Columbia College Chicago, and from 6-10 p.m. Saturday at a fundraiser for young people and the NAACP at Whitney Young High School. Tickets are $50 and can be bought online.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: