[Vision2020] A Matter of Pride

Tom Hansen thansen at moscow.com
Sun Dec 9 09:18:44 PST 2007

I have included the Vandal listserve as an addressee of this article
primarily because of an extremely familiar name within the article:  Mao

>From today's (December 9, 2007) Anchorage Daily News at:



A Matter of Pride
East High grad gives students an alternative to gang violence

By Beth Bragg, Anchorage Daily News Reporter


During a session at the Fairview rec center, from left: Jose Mercado, Tyrese
Gilbert, Ivan Doucet, and Pedro Otero get together for a free-form rap. Mao
Tosi's Pride Club is held at the center Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Gilbert is the music director for the Pride Club.

Mao Tosi is a former East High football player.


When 18-year-old Jose Mercado sat down to write a verse for the song his
after-school club composed and recorded during Domestic Violence Awareness
Month, the words came tumbling out.

Every day after school I found my mother crying

Some days she look like she looking forward to dying

She feels like death will take out her misery

That my dad became to be

It all comes back to me

She didn't say much; growing up I can tell

That she don't believe in heaven 'cause she living in hell

I pray every day I won't end up like this

Because it don't feel good growing up in the mix.

Mercado's dad is long gone. His mom is OK. His feelings of helplessness have
abated, but as an aspiring musician, Mercado has learned to coax sorrowful
memories into powerful lyrics.

A senior at East High, Mercado found creative release, genuine role models
and a way to fill empty after-school time at the Pride Club, a group formed
a year ago in response to gang violence that has since grown into something
of an artists' colony.

Rap songs, ethnic dances, poetry and journal writings are the order of
business at club meetings, held after school every day at either the
Fairview rec center or East High. 

Meetings are loosely structured. There's a lot of talking, a lot of music, a
lot of people doing their own thing. 

At a recent meeting at East High, a kid spun into a series of break-dancing
moves while five or six others sat at a cafeteria-style table singing a rap
song they had collaborated on. Out in the hall, boys went through the moves
of a traditional Polynesian dance. One or two girls sat quietly, writing in

No one called the meeting to order. No one took roll, at least not formally.

"Where's Antron?" 

"He's at work detail."

"Oh. So he got into some trouble."

These aren't perfect kids. Pedro Otero, 16, missed a couple of meetings
while serving a school suspension. 

"I dressed like a Mexican for Halloween," is how he explained his dress code
violation. It was his third strike; previous offenses included insulting a
teacher and trying to start a fight.

Once he was back in school, he was back at the Pride Club making music.

If there wasn't a club, Otero figures he might find trouble more easily.

"This keeps me off the streets," he said. "If I wasn't here, I'd be starting
fights. Doing crazy stuff."

If not for kids doing crazy stuff, there wouldn't be a Pride Club.

The club was formed in the fall of 2006 after months filled with headlines
about gang murders, gang shootings, gang retaliations.

Much of the violence involved members of the Polynesian community. That
bothered Mao Tosi, a native of American Samoa who came to Anchorage as a
teenager in 1989 and became a star athlete. He went to college on an
athletic scholarship and played briefly in the NFL.

He came back to Alaska with his wife and growing family. So his wife could
stay at home with the kids, he took a second job as a security guard at West

That put Tosi, 30, near ground zero for wannabe gangstas. He saw kids with
too much time and nothing to fill it, so he started the Pride Club.

"So many kids have died. It breaks my heart," he said back in those early
days. "I have to find something more interesting to them than being on the
streets or in a gang."

Tosi initially reached out to Polynesians, but the club attracted kids of
all cultures.

"We're diverse," 17-year-old Jennifer Spence said as she looked around at a
recent meeting and ticked off what she saw: "Polynesian, Asian, black,
Hispanic." There are whites and Natives, too.

When word of Tosi's club spread beyond the West High hallways, things took
off. The city was looking for solutions to a gang problem, and Tosi knew how
to reach at-risk youths.

Communities in Schools provided $60,000, enough for Tosi to quit his
security job. The Anchorage School District ($60,000), Cook Inlet Regional
Inc. ($10,000) and Taco Bell ($10,000) kicked in too. 

Today he splits his time between East High and the Fairview rec center,
drawing anywhere from 20 to 50 kids each afternoon. But he wants more --
more kids, and more things for kids.

"We need video games. We need furniture," he said. "I've got kids sitting on
old broken pool tables." 

Mostly he wants transportation to get kids to Fairview on the days the club
meets there. The Howard Johnson hotel sends a van to pick up students at
East, but those at West are on their own.

The tiny storage closet that serves as his office at East High barely
contains him. 

Tosi still looks like a football player -- 6-foot-6, 315 pounds -- and when
he walks through the halls at East, kids notice him.

He works the crowd that he towers above, high-fiving, hugging, trading soft
punches, cajoling.

"Hey, what's up with you, man?" he greets a boy whose head doesn't even come
up to Tosi's shoulder. "You gonna dance with us?"

As the Pride Club became more viable and more visible, Tosi's role changed.

"I'm meeting with people all day long," he said. "I'm fundraising,
networking, building up programs."

He was named to the mayor's gang task force. He started a summer program at
Goose Lake that provided activities and meals for about 100 kids a week. He
received a Chamber of Commerce gold pan award. He was named one of the
city's "Top 40 under 40." He gives speeches everywhere and is trying to
start a program at McLaughlin Youth Center.

That spreads him thin. But the kids are all right. Tosi used club funds to
hire three instructors for the first half of the school year.

Two are East High grads -- poetry teacher Trey Josey played basketball with
Tosi on East's 1994 state championship team, and dance instructor Jevon
Miller starred on the East football team a few years later.

Tyrese Gilbert -- better known as TwoFace, his performing name -- came to
Anchorage with the military and stayed to raise a family and play music.
He's a member of AK49rs, a rap group that performs and records in Anchorage,
and he's worked magic with the kids.

He provides a beat and either throws out an idea or someone picks a topic
from a hat -- say, domestic violence. The kids go from there. 

The song that draws from Mercado's stormy past is called "Be Strong." Eight
people each wrote a verse, none more powerful than Mercado's.

"When I heard his verse, I almost cried," Gilbert said.

The creative process works like therapy, Mercado said: "It takes the
negative I've been through and makes it a positive."

Hearing their words and voices on a CD or radio station gives the kids
confidence and pride -- something few have known before. And it gives them a
reason to go to class. They sign a contract with Gilbert and the other
teachers agreeing to grade-checks and classroom progress reports, and if
they don't measure up there are consequences.

"If you don't do it, you don't get to record, you don't get to do nothing,"
Mercado said. "If your grades are slipping, no studio time."

That's motivation enough for Mercado, who said working with Gilbert and the
Pride Club helps keep him on the right track.

"I don't even know what I'd be doing otherwise," he said. "Probably nothing


Seeya round town, Moscow.

Take care, Vandals.

Tom Hansen
Moscow, Idaho
UI '96

Came a tribe from the north brave and bold . . .

"Here We Have Idaho"

"I-D-A-H-O Idaho Idaho Go Go Go"

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