NEW ORLEANS - How many times do New Orleanians ask how to solve the violence and murder rate?
How many marches and funerals have there been?
Now one man with a criminal past is working to stop it.
And he's gotten the attention of Oprah Winfrey and maybe even Hollywood.
Ameer Baraka, 42, is using his gravitas, clout, and fame as an actor, producer and model, to tell his story of saving New Orleans teens. But he's also using his past as a convicted violent criminal.
"The murder came from just anti-social values. Someone does me something, I respond in a negative way. The drugs just numbed me. It numbed me. It kept me numb," Baraka said.
In the Calliope development, at 14 years old, heroin, cocaine, and guns were his life. His mentor, a drug supplier. Dealing afforded him nice clothes and electronics his family couldn't.
"I thought he was helping me where I would sell two eight balls of cocaine and he would give me one free so I would make more money. So at a very young age, I would have Motorbox. I had the nice clothes and everything," he said.
The dealer was his father figure.
"There was a grandmother who is a very spiritual woman, who basically raised us while my mother worked two jobs. My mother did the best that she could but a woman can not raise a man. Men need to raise men and I didn't have that component, so they would spank me and they would beat me," Baraka remembers.
But in prison, his mentors were older men who had reformed their character.
"'Young man you're different. There's something special about you. You're different than the other guys.' And no one had never told me that," Baraka said, quoting the men who mentored him in prison.
Behind bars at Cottonport, he taught himself to read, got a GED and poured himself into books and physical fitness. When he got out and lived in Los Angeles, acting and modeling exposed him to a new life and travel in Europe.
"And it's like wow black people are walking the street with white people. I mean, it's just, people don't even see color there."
Then a role on Treme' brought him home. But nothing had changed, corruption was still on the streets and in government offices. So his next role was in inner city schools teaching values and morals. He brought hopeless students to work on the set of Treme', to learn how the free market works. That mentoring introduced him to Dr. Peter Scharf, a criminal justice expert at Tulane.
"We want to solve this murder problem in the city. Last year we were at 193 murders, you know, which is ridiculous. You know we tend to think the solution is the government. They may be the problem," said Dr. Scharf.
They became great friends, teammates for change.
"The other thing he doesn't tell you is he hangs out in the Calliope with these kids who are about the kill other kids and talks them out of it," Dr. Scharf said about Baraka.
Over sandwiches at the Subway on Carrollton Ave., the two created the idea of a new show called "NOLA life." Baraka plays himself, saving teens from the sordid drug and gun culture. On screen and behind the scenes, all locals get the jobs. Those he mentors in real life, reenact the roles.
"He understands us. He know where we come from. He know where we been. He know what we do," said Sharell Peters, 16, a sophomore at Bonnabel who met Baraka when he taught a life skills class at Booker T. Washington. She says she "adores Mr. Ameer" and now wants to be an actress.
"My passion is to work with kids. My passion is to send kids to St. Augustine, to Brother Martin, to these great schools, because I know education pays off with great values and morals. Imagine if LeBron James, imagine if Jay-Z, imagine if T.I. would start mentoring, who had the desire to start mentoring and taking some of their resources and start helping kids go to school. Imagine if they could start telling young black men, 'Listen, the gun is not the way. The books are the way.'" said Baraka who now knows some of the big names in the entertainment industry.
Now the Oprah Winfrey Network wants an interview.
"I was in prison and I used to get in front of the mirror and I used to see my self interviewing with Oprah. What broke my faith was when she got off the air, I'm like, 'Oh, it will never happen now.'"
When her talk show ended, he thought the dream was over. Now it's coming true.
"One man can really change the world. One person. It takes one person," he said passionately.
And you are invited to a free screening party of NOLA Life tonight at 8:00 at Club Ampersand, 1100 Tulane Ave. The dress code for men, collared shirts, or with jeans, a jacket.
Baraka says behind every angry or violent teen there is a reason, like neglect or abuse.
His show will be on the web but three network production companies are interested.
See what the new show is about here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mp96InGbanE&feature=youtu.be