Manny Gay Senior had a story to tell.
Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he remembers as a teen how he and his friends would walk from Garfield to the East Liberty YMCA at 10 p.m. to use the gym and swimming pool. Afterward, they’d walk back home.
“You can imagine 50 young black people walking from East Liberty to Garfield (at midnight),” Gay says. “The police started harassing us.
“So I got this brainstorm. And I got this big 4-foot-by-8-foot plywood and we had it painted: ‘Police: We Need Your Protection, Not Your Harassment!’ “
Gay erected the sign at the corner of Aiken and Columbo streets.
“The next morning, the phone was jumping off the hook,” Gay says. “I had the mayor, the chief of police, the news media, who wanted to know what’s going on.”
The incident had a happy ending. Don Allen Chevrolet donated four minivans so they wouldn’t have to walk.
Gay’s story came from an interview conducted by middle and high school students as one of the latest chapters in “Crossing Fences: Connecting African-American Men and Boys through the Oral Tradition.”
Since the initiative’s 2013 launch, Crossing Fences has grown to a 15-volume series. Garfield, Penn Hill and Northview Heights have just been added.
“We have now profiled 171 African-American men in 15 different neighborhoods,” says Larry Berger, executive director of SLB Productions, Inc., the presenter of Crossing Fences. The project is funded primarily by the Heinz Endowments.
The interviews are archived online as a special project of the long-running youth radio program Saturday Light Brigade. Gay was interviewed by Maxwell Martin, Davon Hamlin, Michael Mosley and Xzavier Rodgers at Brothers and Sisters Emerging in Garfield.
The Crossing Fences approach begins with Saturday Light Brigade staff training students how to conduct an interview and how to edit audio. The students who complete the assignment receive a computer or tablet.
Each neighborhood gets its own booklet, with interviews, photos and a CD of the recording. In addition, “listening boxes” will be installed in each neighborhood, typically at the library branch and local partner organization.
The project began with a simple observation.
“Larry (Berger) says he was hearing youth talking about where they live – sometimes they’re ashamed,” says Chanessa Schuler, manager of Oral History and Youth Advocacy at “Saturday Light Brigade.” “They should be proud.”
The men chosen to be interviewed aren’t just any men.
“Men trying to make a difference,” Schuler says. “Men who know about the neighborhood. Good guys trying to set an example.”
The idea behind the program is to connect boys with men who have had success in some area — politics, fatherhood, community advocacy, education, business or spirituality. From there, the youth connect with role models and possible mentors.
Garfield Gators football coach Garth Taylor, 47, of Garfield, was surprised about how well his interview went.
“It was a good experience,” Taylor says. “When you get into it, you kind of give them more than they ask for.”