DURHAM, N.C. — Otis Lyons says he knows why kids turn to drugs and gangs – because they have no love, no money and no hope.
He knows, he says, because he lived it as a kid growing up in Durham, as a drug dealer and gang leader as a teen, and as a young man in prison.
But 15 years after his release from prison, Lyons is working to interrupt the cycle of wasted lives by bringing hope and love to at-risk kids through his nonprofit, Campaign4Change.
“I go after the people society has given up on,” says Lyons, founder and CEO of the group. “I target those people because if you can get those people to change, the world will be a better place.”
By turning around a drug dealer’s life, Lyons says, he indirectly affects the lives of the people who buy drugs.
And when he turns a gang leader away from crime, those leadership skills can be used in a positive way, he says.
To do that, he brings love, hope and resources into communities with a three-part production that includes a film of Lyons’ life, a segment on “life demonstrations” and a musical play.
The family-friendly, entertainment-centered program draws an average of about 500 people and has a message for adults as well as kids, he says.
The film documents Lyons’ life as the feared head of one of Durham’s most powerful gangs, the loss of his “soldiers” to murder or prison, and his own imprisonment.
“You can’t just talk to them, you have to show them,” he says of the destructive power of gangs.
The segment on life demonstrations uses comedy to illustrate how a job at McDonald’s, or avoiding teen pregnancy, ultimately outshines a life dominated by the ruthlessness of the streets.
And finally, “Ridin wit Joe Crack,” a play written by Lyons, describes what happens to a typical American drug dealer who, without realizing the deal he’s making at the time, “sells his soul and lives a life of demise.”
The group has put on more than 50 productions over the last seven years, traveling outside the Triangle area when invited.
He does it for the kids, he says.
“My job is to wake up that conscience and empower them and tell them they can change,” he says. “Because I did. I’m your living witness.”
Kids turn to gangs and violence primarily because they’ve had no love in their lives.
“These kids are victims,” he says. “The parents don’t know how to show love because they weren’t shown love.”
Poverty is another critical factor, Lyons says, because kids will learn how to adapt in order to survive. And sometimes they adapt by turning to crime, particularly when they see no hope for the future.
His own life is an illustration, he says.
Lyons and his brother and sister grew up in Durham, raised by their grandmother in a home that frequently was without electricity and hot water.
By age 12, he had turned to crime to buy clothes and food, and was arrested for the first time at age 16.
While on probation, he formed a gang called North Durham Vice that battled rival gangs to be called the most ruthless, what he now calls “a ridiculous street rank.”
Despite his street life, Lyons graduated from high school. On the morning of his graduation, his grandmother was taken off life support. Lyons wholeheartedly disagreed with that decision.
“She was my only ray of hope,” he says. “If it wasn’t for my grandmother instilling in me some love, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.”
That loss was a turning point in his life, an event that at the time pushed him further into gang life.
At 19, he was imprisoned, serving five years for attempted murder. But it wasn’t until after his release, while running his Phatnum Music and Videos production company, that his life’s mission came into focus in 2001.
“God told me to create something that will change lives,” he says. “I got up and started writing the play and by morning I had created Campaign4Change.”
About 80 people attended the first performance and within about a year, Lyons had closed down his production company to concentrate all his energy on his new nonprofit.
Attendance at the productions now averages about 500 people, says Lyons, and his largest event to date drew about 1,300.
While the work is rewarding, the needs are great and the funding is scarce.
Right now, he has five volunteer assistants. And during a production, another 20 or so subcontractors are needed to act in the play, work backstage and manage the audience.
His primary sponsor is Capitol Broadcasting Co. and its affiliate Fox 50, and the nonprofit also gets support from Rick Hendricks Motorsports and United Way, he says.
He’s thankful for their generosity, but funding continues to be a challenge.
Ticket sales for the production help, as do sales of programs, t-shirts and posters.
And while the group’s recent annual gala, which featured a nationally known rap group, didn’t turn a profit, the goal was larger than just dollars, says Lyons.
“It wasn’t done to make money,” he says. “My goal was that my sponsors would want to give us money at a greater level. I think I accomplished that. They were all impressed.”
To extend the organization’s reach, Lyons has published a book of testimonials that addresses the social ills of poverty, and a CD of “positive and empowering” music, of varying genres, by up-and-coming artists.
And a new DVD, which features 10 community leaders providing “street life education,” is designed to give kids and youth administrators a foundation in basic areas of life, including health, parenting, and sexual abuse and domestic violence.
“It’s a holistic approach to what most people who live in regular society take for granted,” he says.
He hopes to disseminate the information through community organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and schools. But the information can be useful in prisons as well, he says.
Lyons also is hoping to extend the program to colleges in North Carolina this year. He plans to get about 10 college visits on the books, in addition to his other shows.
Ultimately, it’s about breaking the cycle of poverty and hopelessness.
“People underestimate hope,” he says. “I have to be the person to go out into the community to tell them there’s hope and there’s help. Hope is the start to change.”