Teenagers tend to listen to Thrett Brown.
The 15 or so teens the 36-year-old mentors in Tacoma say he grew up in circumstances similar to theirs, which means he gets it, and they trust what he has to say.
It’s partly that he’s open about his past, including his time in prison on drug charges.
“I don’t ever hide my story from nobody,” Brown says.
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When he tells them to stay in school, they do. When he says to avoid negative influences such as drugs and gangs, they spend time with him, working out, and sometimes doing community service.
Meanwhile, Brown keeps tabs on their grades, behavior and futures.
He also dissects their music, often explaining why it’s promoting negative messages.
“They’re listening to straight garbage, and it inspires them,” he said.
Brown calls his grass-roots program Young Business Men.
“In YBM, we basically strengthen our mind, our body and our soul,” said 18-year-old Malik Banks. “We strengthen our body by working out.
“We strengthen our mind by reading, staying in school and just learning about the things to help our problems, like dealing with our hormones and dealing with anger and frustration.”
The group works out several times a week at the Tacoma Strength Crossfit gym downtown in exchange for cleaning the gym for owner Morgan Blackmore.
Some of the rigorous workouts, called “fallen homies,” are dedicated to youths who have died, in some cases from gun violence.
Blackmore trusts the boys to lock up the building when they’re done.
“They do the actual hard work of reaching out to people in need ... in our community, in our schools, who are underwater for whatever reason,” he said. “Life or school or whatever is catching up to them and they’re not making it.
“Thrett, YBM, they reach in and kind of give these kids a hand out.”
‘Change your company, man’
YBM started several years ago, when Brown brought his three nephews from Texas to live with him in Tacoma. Their mother, Brown’s sister, asked him to help, and he took the boys in.
They envisioned a program where young men would learn skills to help support themselves, make business plans and use exercise to help focus their minds.
But they didn’t have a gym.
That’s where Amy Tiemeyer came in. She heard Brown speak at a community meeting about the idea, and put him in touch with Blackmore, who she knew. Now she helps out with the workouts.
She’s taught a couple of the teens how to drive, and the boys know group movie nights at her place often come with pizza.
“These men can be great leaders in Tacoma in 10, 20 years from now,” said Tiemeyer, a military relations liaison for America’s Credit Union. “They have every reason to be.”
Banks said he’d like to open a youth recreation center, or maybe become a doctor.
Thrett has helped him with homework along the way, and Banks said YBM in general has made school a bit easier, in the absence of a father figure growing up.
“It just keeps you focused, so you don’t have any time to go to the streets,” Banks said. He defined streets as: “Like gang banging or selling drugs, smoking weed. Basically doing anything that’s negative for your body.”
Brown tells the teens that the people he spent time with was directly related to the drug charges that in 1999 sent him to prison until 2005. Charging papers say he was caught selling cocaine with a friend.
It’s important “for me to show them: ‘Change your company, man,’” he said.
Growing up, he had altercations with a couple gangs as well, he said.
“They know not to follow my pattern,” Brown said.
A state court records search indicates he hasn’t had similar run-ins with the law recently.
There is some teenage frustration in the group. There’s been more than one fist put through Brown’s apartment walls by an angry teen, he said.
“I understand the outbursts,” he said.
And the boys understand they’re responsible for fixing the holes.
“They get to patch them, ASAP,” Brown said.
YBM isn’t right for everyone. Some teens who workout at the gym with Brown stop coming.
Another heard Brown speak at a juvenile detention center about his experiences, and later asked if he could join the program when he was released. He joined, but didn’t stick with it.
“It’s real hard to see, because I know what they do when they leave,” Brown said. “They’re right back outside.”
A path to graduation
Brown isn’t alone in mentoring the boys.
“They’re starting to look out for each other,” he said.
Plus, younger YBM members have started to look up to Brown’s 18-year-old nephew, Justice Phyllips, who recently danced in an audition for “America’s Got Talent” and leads a YMCA dance team.
Phyllips plans to graduate from Stadium High School this summer, go to Tacoma Community College for a few years and then hopes to transfer to the University of Washington Tacoma to learn how to run a dance business.
“They look at me like, ‘OK, JJ, I see you doing it. If I can see you doing it, and you went through the same stuff as me, then I’m going to do that too.’”
Phyllips credits his uncle with his path to graduation.
“He didn’t say you need to accomplish it, he didn’t say you have to accomplish it, he said I can,” Phyllips remembered.
Brown did not graduate himself, instead getting his GED while in prison, which is a big part of why he encourages the YBM crew to get their degrees.
For now, Brown provides for his nephews with public assistance, and puts his energy into the zero-budget mentoring program.
If it came down to it, he said, instead of mentoring, he’d get a full-time job and focus on supporting his nephews.
Tiemeyer said there’s value in having Brown’s attention focused on the teens.
“By doing it this way, he’s teaching the kids a much bigger lesson,” Tiemeyer said.
‘School is a part of business’
To support themselves, the teens do odd jobs – landscaping, babysitting, handywork. One can install heating and air conditioning systems.
Sometimes their work is community service. Last year they helped at an event to honor mothers who lost children to youth violence. They also talk to city officials about what they’re doing and network with community groups.
“They want to be speakers,” Brown said. “They want to be mentors.”
Liam Brady, 14, said he felt like he was on a positive path before starting with YBM, but it’s been helpful to have Thrett’s advice.
“Half the time I’ve been angry about something or arguing with my girlfriend, he’s helped me understand why she was mad,” Liam said.
YBM is helping him make a plan to one day open an art gallery.
For Brown’s 19-year-old nephew, Tank Brown, the goal is to one day have his own record label.
“School is a part of business, and you need to do school to get anywhere in life,” he said. “That made me settle down and realize that once I do accomplish goals in school, it makes me feel a lot better.”
He expects to be one of four YBM members to graduate high school this year, the first graduations in the program.
His uncle plans to be there, and he’s looking forward to them.
“It’s like I’m graduating four times,” he laughed. “I give them love, and that works.”