Inside the Malcolm X Center one Sunday afternoon, a 31-year-old man in a hoodie joined a circle of people and started the meeting.
“I’m Leo,” he said. “And I live in the ‘Found Period.’ ”
One by one, some two dozen others introduced themselves and said they lived in something called the “Found Period,” too.
They had been lost — some to street life, some to a wrong path, some to a general disconnect from their church, job, neighborhood or society — and now were found. Found, at least, in the sense they had found others who shared the experience of being black, of being black in Omaha and of making sense of the struggles that still persist.
By design, the Found Period’s weekly two-hour Sunday sessions are being held at a place named for Malcolm X, the Omaha-born civil rights activist who was killed 50 years ago today.
While 1965 is ancient history to Leo Louis, Malcolm’s story of poverty, racism, crime and personal transformation still seems all too relevant.
The parallels are disheartening to those in the group — same problems, different era. But Malcolm’s life also offers them an example that people can change and grow. And lead.
Malcolm reinvented himself from criminal on the streets, Leo said, to someone “beneficial to the streets.”
That’s what Leo wanted to do in the fall of 2007 when he and two other young Omaha men decided to change their lives.
Leo, his brother Latron “Chrome” Louis and a friend, Carl Thomas, wanted to reinvent themselves. All three had rap sheets, but they wanted to start over. They had talent and charisma and believed life held something better for them than the dead end of a gang. But they lacked direction.
So they decided to meet at a Godfather’s, with others they knew who wanted out, and talk about their futures.
Leo, then 24, was searching for something to believe in. He felt distant from his church and disconnected from everything around him. Chrome, 22, wanted out of gang life. So did Carl, also 22. Carl was exploring the Nation of Islam, an organization that helped transform Malcolm Little into Malcolm X during his time in prison.
The group talked about the risks involved in leaving a gang, and how frustrated that made them feel. They began to ask bigger questions: Why were their choices seemingly so slim? Why did things seem so futile? How did they end up here?
The young men had few answers and decided to meet the following week at Carter Lake. Even more people showed up. They didn’t realize it, but this was start of what would become the Found Period.
They met for a third week and a fourth and kept meeting, moving their sessions indoors and applying some rules and structure. No weapons. Everyone got frisked. No disrespectful language, interruptions or talking longer than three minutes at a time. Violators had to do push-ups.
Leo and Chrome and Carl also sought answers elsewhere. Leo watched director Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X” and saw instant parallels in the poverty, the crime and the ability to reinvent oneself for the better. The three went to the Aframerican Book Store at 32nd and Lake Streets and got an education in black history and encouragement from store owner Marshall Taylor.
The trio began doing their own sorts of gang interventions, trying to settle street beefs. They got noticed by Councilman Ben Gray, Empowerment Network head Willie Barney, the late Roy Davenport, a community activist, and philanthropist Susie Buffett.
They earned stipends for voter registration efforts during the 2008 presidential campaign and for helping at a summer jobs program. For over a year, Chrome was employed at Girls Inc. Leo spent several summers running community gardens. They had children and became fathers. Most recently, they are running their own businesses: Leo fixes computers and sells computer parts, Chrome runs a T-shirt business and hosts teen events. Carl has a cab company.
Their paths haven’t been smooth. There have been minor run-ins with the law and job changes.
But through all that, they continued the Sunday meetings of the Found Period. Instead of identifying themselves as lost, they saw themselves as “found.”
The Malcolm X Center became a natural home. Leo had helped the Malcolm X Foundation raise money to buy the center, an old Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall at 3448 Evans St. He felt a link to what Malcolm X tried to do in his short life. He knew that Found Period members want to make life changes the way Malcolm did.
At a recent meeting, members were frisked by Carl, the former gang enforcer, as they entered. They took seats around the circle sharing fist-bumps with Chrome. When Leo took his spot, the room quieted.
Everyone stood around a lit candle for a moment of silence, in part to “acknowledge our ancestors,” Leo said.
Everyone gave an introduction that included their names and why they had come.
Leo said he was there to “be an asset for my community and my family.”
Discussion on this particular Sunday centered on contacts with police and frustrations with the criminal justice system.
One woman told of being booked into jail on a warrant she didn’t know existed and then being denied a timely phone call to arrange school pickup for her son. Another woman described how it felt to be followed by a police cruiser for nine blocks.
“I got the feeling they’re looking for something, for a reason for me (to make a mistake),” she said.
Older members talked about civil rights activists of times past. Younger members discussed whether race or social class was filling America’s prisons. Plenty of people did push-ups for talking too long. Sometimes, young members dropped to the ground to do the required push-ups for their elders.
After two hours, Leo said it was time to come together. In a symbol of that solidarity, he asked the members of the Found Period to rise and join hands. As they bowed their heads in silence, gazing at them from a poster was a familiar, bespectacled face: Malcolm X.