PATERSON - They sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the first two rows at the graduation ceremony, 18 young men and women with firsthand experience of Paterson's street violence.
Some were shooting victims. Others had been arrested for gun crimes. On the streets, they may have been rivals in Paterson's violent group turf battles.
But for the past four weeks, they came together at the downtown offices of the Paterson Healing Collective as students in the nonprofit organization's first Leadership Academy, where they participated in mental health groups, technology training, and entrepreneurial skill sessions.
"They proved a lot of people wrong," said Teddie Martinez, a violence intervention coordinator at PHC, speaking during Thursday's graduation ceremony. "They wrote us off. But we're going to prove that they can't write us off. We're going to become better brothers, better fathers, better community members."
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Liza Chowdhury, PHC's director, said the graduates should no longer wear negative labels, like gang members.
"These are leaders in our community who want to change," Chowdhury said. "They are ambassadors for people."
Several graduates spoke during the ceremony and answered questions about their training, including the experience of sitting in classroom rooms with former street "opposition."
Nygee Dennis said he thought about leaving the training when he first saw the faces of some of the other participants. But he decided to give it a try.
"It was really crazy," Dennis said about seeing opponents in the program. "I'm not going to stand here and lie, I never thought we would be in the same room, with the same goals and the same mindset."
Dennis told the audience that he has friends serving 40-year prison sentences who he "won't ever see again."
Another graduate, Keshawn Lawson, expressed regrets about getting involved in the "negativity" that became his lifestyle. Lawson said he now wants to go back to college and get a good job. He talked about how the Leadership Academy participants put aside any street differences.
"If you want to be negative, keep it outside," he said.
The third graduate speaker, 28-year-old Jaquan Johnson, lost his vision in 2012 when he said he shot himself in the face while playing with a gun. That accident, he said, landed him in prison for six years after police connected the gun to other crimes, which he said he didn't commit. Being in prison without being able to see was difficult, he said.
Johnson got involved with the Healing Collective through his parole officer and he said he is grateful he found the program. Now, he said, he would like to become a mental health therapist, someone who could help people with and without sight.
Jason Davis, a crisis intervention specialist at PHC, praised the graduates for their "dignity and humility" during the training, noting that "not everybody was friends" when they came to the program.
"You left those egos outside," Davis said. "You left the hostilities outside, where it belongs."
The audience at the graduation included top officials at St. Joseph's University Medical Center, PHC's partner in its violence intervention programs, as well as small children of the graduates, siblings and parents.
Keica Holmes came to the event even though she had just been discharged from the hospital after being ill for five days. Holmes' two sons - Keshawn Lawson and his brother Mazeik - were among the graduates.
"I always told my sons, you do not have to be a product of your environment," Holmes said, mentioning his children urged her to stay home and rest. "I have to be here. These are my kids."
Another attendee, Dellwanna Miller, lost her son, Jaleek Burroughs, to Paterson's street violence in 2014, when he was fatally shot as a bystander in a gang attack. Miller spoke briefly during Thursday's ceremony.
"What I see right now," she said, "is what I prayed for."
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press. Email: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Paterson NJ Paterson Healing Collective leadership academy