Julian White-Davis, Photo and Publishing Editor
Thrett Brown sits on a bench overlooking the Puget Sound in Point Defiance Park, sporting a flat-brimmed hat branded with his motto: CMCC 1080, or “Change Media, Change Culture.” He talks animatedly and openly about his life and the curving, treacherous path it has taken.
Brown is a prominent social justice leader in the Pierce County area, where he works in both gang prevention and the restructuring of the prison system. He has helped to start and run many organizations in the area that help young people avoid and remove themselves from a gang lifestyle, which they often find hard to avoid.
Brown founded Numbers 2 Names, an organization of storytellers, activists for social justice and the formerly incarcerated. He is also the executive director of the Young Business Men and Women Organization, where he helps at-risk youth to start their own businesses and become self-sufficient in an attempt to turn them away from gang-related behavior.
Brown’s gang-prevention strategies differ from more common methods, which often funnel great sums of money from school districts to do research and tend to see few results. Instead, Brown chose to lead his clients by example, for he was in their exact position during his youth, and saw firsthand the consequences of such a lifestyle.
It can seem difficult for those who have grown up in households with a strong support system and wealth to understand why someone would join a gang or engage in gang-related activities; however, for others it can seem like the only available option.
Throughout his childhood, Brown’s family moved from town to town in Louisiana as his mother searched for places with higher diversity and better opportunities. They never stayed one place for more than three years.
When Brown was around five years old, however, the Child Protective Services (CPS) got involved.
“My first encounter with white Americans was when they kicked in my mom’s door and snatched us up,” Brown said. “I looked through the blinds at the CPS people and I picked up a little plastic butter knife and was wielding it at them, and they grabbed me. We saw my mom banging on the window, and they just drove off.”
Brown and his three sisters spent time in foster homes as a result, and their father passed away soon thereafter, leaving Brown without a consistent adult role model.
“I didn’t find out [until] I was [about] eight years old that he had passed away,” Brown said. “I never had a rapport with him.”
Once CPS allowed the family to reunite, the family moved to Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, a small town of about 700 people still suffering from segregation.
After a short back-and-forth move from the Kinloch projects, a low-income neighborhood in east St. Louis, Missouri, to Seattle, then back to Louisiana, the Brown family ended up moving to Tacoma, Washington, when Thrett was 17 years old.
It was during this time that Brown became more affected by the lack of a father figure in his life. Surrounded by his mother and sisters and with no outlet for his curiosity and attraction surrounding masculinity, Brown began to seek out both male role models and violence.
“I remember standing in the house and looking out the window and hearing this commotion outside,” Brown said. “My mom told me to get away from the window, but I kept hearing this arguing and fighting. I heard this thud thud and looked out the window and someone … had [a] knife in his stomach. They were kicking someone on the ground. That was my turning point: standing in that window, looking out there at these black men with comradery, feeling powerful, hearing gunshots all around.”
“The next day when I walked to the store, they asked me if I drank or smoked… I said, ‘Yeah I drink, and I smoke.’ I played the role, and so I smoked with them. Right then and there, I started to come home late. That’s when my mom told me that I couldn’t be disrespectful to the house. So I left the next day.”
Brown spent the next three months homeless, sleeping on benches at his high school and couch surfing before he dropped out in freshman year. With his first paycheck from a job at McDonalds, he bought a pistol and some cocaine. That same night, he gambled away the rest of his paycheck in a dice game.
“That was the moment when I realized that I was completely submerged in [gang life],” Brown said. “I felt that these were the right people that I needed to surround myself with. I could be a little bit more playful; I had people who I could relate to.”
Brown continued this lifestyle until he was arrested at the age of 21. He was charged with possession of a controlled substance, cocaine, with intent to deliver and unlawful delivery of a controlled substance. The judge only gave him four years out of the potential eight for this crime. Nonetheless, Brown found himself forced out of his previous way of life.
“What I don’t share with young people is that prison did do a lot of good for me,” Brown said. “It took me away from getting myself killed, but it also gave me the discipline that all these young people need.”
During his sentence, Brown’s best friend was murdered; his youngest sister had her face cut open in an assault; and his mother’s house was attacked by gunmen.
“That was my time to reflect — for four years,” Brown said. “I couldn’t change the way that people saw me; the environment still attached me to who I was. So, I just became [a] new person so that people could start identifying me as who I am [now].”
When he got out of prison, Brown became more and more aware of the consequences of his behavior, and that the people he was with stimulated that conduct even more.
“I understand now that that lifestyle is just as addictive as crack and heroin,” Brown said. “I went and talked to my [parole officer] and said ‘If I stay here, I’m going to run into some people consistently enough to where I’m going to go to old habits. I need to get out of Washington.’”
His parole officer then allowed Brown to leave the state on the condition that if he got into trouble anywhere he went, she would report him as a runaway.
Before leaving, Brown hit a major turning point. He walked out into his backyard with a gun and prayed.
“I said ‘God, what do I do?’” Brown said. “And he spoke clear as day and said, ‘It’s your words, son. You have to use your words. If you believe in me, then throw that gun away.’ So I threw it in the bushes. The next day I took a one-way ticket to LA. That’s where it started.”
Brown spent the next five years traveling around the U.S. with friends to find some of the most violent, crime ridden areas of the country. Each time they reached a community that recently witnessed a murder or a major crime, they would set up a barbecue in the neighborhood and talk with the people who lived there about their lives and loss. Then, they would travel to another similar community and repeat the process.
“What made me travel to those places was because … I still needed to be in that type of environment,” Brown said. “I was so amped that I couldn’t go to a stable environment because I had too much intensity. By going to these places with reckless lifestyles and not being known by anybody and not having any enemies, I could feel comfortable and process what I wanted to do with myself.”
After his travels around the country, Brown came back to Tacoma and began working with at-risk youth and families. He has continued his work as a motivational speaker and workshop expert in anger management and family communication for teens and parents.
He explains the situation in which these families have been put in and gives the rationale for why some people join gangs.
“Each one of [the] gangs represented something in the beginning: they were programs for the community to restore itself and keep the community thriving,” Brown said. “Then society came with the drugs and the alcohol and guns and threw them dead in the hearts of the communities. Then they limited job opportunities and said, ‘This is your only way to survive.’ Then it’s just common sense — how are you going to pay your bills if you can’t get a job? Well I’m going to go hussle some dope or go rob the dope man. I’ve got to provide and there’s no other way to provide. That’s the scary part.”
Brown, however, found other ways of getting money after being released from prison.
“I don’t hustle dope any more,” Brown said. “I don’t rob; I don’t push drugs; I don’t con people. If I need some money, I go do odd jobs — moving jobs, painting jobs, yard work. But it becomes pride for people, so they don’t do it.”
For this reason, Brown started the organizations mentioned above. He wants to give youth the means to support themselves and show them real-life examples of the suffering that gang-related activity brings on.
“People would tell me, ‘We’ve got a problem with the kids,’ and I’m like, ‘It’s the way you’re talking to them, or the way you’re approaching them or the way you’re not approaching them,’” Brown said. “What a lot of people don’t know is that you have these kids who are killing each other or watch their best friends get murdered. For you to say, ‘get out of that lifestyle,’ they’re like ‘the stains are on my hands; I’m in this lifestyle.’ It’s better to help them understand how to stabilize themselves in the situation while still extracting themselves.”
Brown uses music in his CMCC 1080 program to convey to youth just how to do this. The goal of this organization is to change the media that youth are exposed in order to better support them in being the best possible version of themselves. It also focuses on opening lines of communication between youth and connecting them to older community members, thus creating a web of support.
Brown is currently finding success in his social justice projects and is attending Tacoma Community College for business and communication degrees while taking care of his 10-year-old son.