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Violence prevention innovator receives USF’s ‘Common Good’ award

new 05 USF PAGEJoseph E. Marshall Jr. is the recipient of USF’s 2017 California Prize for Service and the Common Good for his work as founder of an international program that treats violence as a disease with a “prescriptive” treatment. (Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

April 6, 2017
Christina Gray

Nearly 50 years after graduating from the University of San Francisco where he organized the school’s first Black Student Union, Joseph E. Marshall will receive the university’s 2017 California Prize for Service and the Common Good on April 27.

Since 2008, USF has awarded the California Prize for Service and the Common Good to an individual to organization in recognition of significant service to the poor and marginalized as well as for groundbreaking achievements in pursuit of the common good.

As this year’s recipient, Marshall is being recognized for his work as co-founder of Alive & Free, an internationally recognized violence prevention program based in San Francisco’s blue collar Dogpatch neighborhood. A 1968 graduate of USF, Marshall is the first alumnus to receive the prize.

The Alive & Free “movement,” as Marshall prefers to call it, treats violence as a disease with a “prescriptive” process that helps change the self-defeating mindset that often leads to actions that deprive at-risk youth from fulfilling their true potential. It’s this medical model authored by Marshall 30 years ago which has since helped thousands destined for jail or a violent life – or death – on the streets change their choices and their lives.

“You can think of it as an immunization,” Marshall told Catholic San Francisco March 23 during a visit to the historic schoolhouse that serves as Alive & Free headquarters and a safe home-away-from-home. “We are building up their immune systems,” to resist peer-pressure and self-destructive, risk-taking behavior.

Young people ages 14-24 voluntarily walk through the doors each week to attend a weekly “family meeting” during which Marshall, Alive & Free staff and students openly discuss subjects like domestic violence, black history and anger management in a group setting. Though some come toting guns and gang grudges, violence has never erupted in the cause of violence prevention, Marshall said.

Most stay because “they want a home like this,” he said.

Education is the cornerstone of Marshall’s approach to violence prevention. Alive & Free offers rigorous college-prep classes each week. To date, 220 young people have graduated from college with scholarships funded from grants and private donations. More than 60 have received graduate degrees.

Marshall was a middle school math teacher for the San Francisco Unified School District for more than two decades when he started the Omega Boys Club with a fellow school counselor, Jack Jacqua in 1987. The pair began the “club” after seeing too many of their otherwise promising students – largely young men of color – fall victim to violence and drugs.

“We provide the family structure and leadership these kids need, principally fathers,” he said. A statistic in Marshall’s book, “Street Soldier,” states that well over half of America’s black children live without fathers in the household. “I tell them I am their father forever,” he said.

Marshall grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Unlike most of his protégé, he benefited from his parents’ commitment to each other and to their children’s education. His ditch-digging father and working mother put all nine children through Catholic schools and college.

On the wall in Marshall’s office are family photos, including one of his grandmother who told him repeatedly, “The more you know, the more you owe.” To that end he has shared his prescription with dozens of schools and nonprofits across the United States and in countries including South Africa, Canada, Nigeria, Botswana, Thailand and Haiti. His Sunday evening, nationally syndicated radio show, “Street Soldiers,” reaches up to 60,000 listeners each week and a national bestselling book by the same name is in its fourth edition.

“We’re talking here about a couple of underpaid schoolteachers with nothing more than a desire to make a difference,” said Wilbur Jiggetts, an Omega volunteer and grandfather figure. “They have done more than all the poverty programs of the ‘60s. That’s what can happen when someone makes it a high enough priority.”

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