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The Tough House

January 3, 2011

by Marlon Crump

Tanya Joseph and Jamal James Modica describe the Tough House Project at POOR’s Community Newsroom. – Video frame: PNN-TV
“I want the community in general to wear their rights (laminated ‘Know Your Rights’ cards) on their chest. I want mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, nephews, nieces and children. I don’t want anyone left out!”

This is the mission statement of Jamal James Modica, founder of the Tough House Project. It’s his idealistic goal for the San Francisco community of Bayview Hunters Point to combat numerous issues in his neighborhood, including police terrorism.

Community can mean unity for us all, on local and global levels. It begins with the “I” voice, ending with we as a community.

An example is the voices of the Race, Media and Poverty Scholars – and this Revolutionary Legal Scholar – of POOR Magazine and POOR News Network. Every voice empowers our writing. Art and poetry is fighting, resisting and healing. Our own self-scholarship develops to challenge “academia” – formal institutions of learning.

Self-empowerment via entrepreneurship allows us to avoid the workforce apartheid here in AmeriKKKa. We report and support community actions against injustices. Our lives are heard, undetermined and undeterred by corporate mainstream media.

We hear it within ourselves, then share with and educate the world: “P-O-O-R scholars till we die! The revolution begins with I!” (And it ends with we!)

Jamal James Modica, a young man of African descent, exemplifies this as a living testament stemming from organizing, safeguarding and loving his community of Bayview Hunters Point, a community not exempt from poverty, violence, racism, police terrorism, gentrification, institutionalized ignorance, displacement and demonizing media coverage.

Jamal, however, deeply expresses and displays numerous ideas for his community to implement change. One of them is called the Tough House Project, a non-profit grassroots organization he founded in 2001, called “the Tough House because there is nothing tougher than growing up in the projects,” Jamal says.

He grew up in the West Point projects in Bayview Hunters Point. Currently, it is undergoing gentrification, codified as redevelopment.

On Dec. 7, Jamal attended POOR’s Community Newsroom to share with everyone the goal for his project. He was accompanied by his comrade and management assistant, Tanya Joseph. Jamal had been referred to us a week prior by my comrade, mesha Monge-Irizarry, founder and director of the Idriss Stelley Foundation.

I followed up with Jamal and Tanya on Dec. 21 to learn more about the Tough House Project and about Jamal James Modica himself. At the time he founded the project in 2001, Jamal also worked full-time at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF/SPCA).

Jamal loves animals and especially pitbulls, which he calls bully breeds, a term used at SF/SPCA for rottweilers, dobermans and bull terriers.

Jamal recalled how he was viewed by his co-workers as someone who could “handle the dogs” because most of them were taken from the street. “I came from the same streets that the dogs came from. If you don’t know what he (the dog) has gone through, then how can you rehabilitate that dog?” He would sometimes work overtime to care for them.

None of his co-workers lived in his neighborhood. “I was the only Black kennel attendant there.” He recalls, “It was more or less a cultural shock to me. It was hard to identify with everyone there. They had a negative outlook on the community I call home.” Despite those barriers, Jamal loved his position and gained numerous skills from this overlooked profession.

He says his co-workers didn’t understand the behaviors, characteristics and nature of the relationship of dogs to young Black men. He related an issue that arose in 2001 regarding pitbulls attacking people on the street.

The media demonizes neighborhoods like Jamal’s by using negative stereotypes such as dog fighting and “bad breeding” by gang members, drug dealers etc. “The reality is that dog fighting has been taking place for generations” Jamal said. I personally concur.

It’s amazing to me how “wild animal behavior” is associated with people. A Black person depicted as an ape or a coon equals imminent danger.

I also feel pitting animals against each other for profit and sport is flat out cruel, but not unusual. Enslavement entertainment, whether in zoos, circuses, rodeos or cockfighting, are really no different from slavery for sport in my eyes.

Jamal talked about the importance of protection among the youth by means of having a dog by their side, even at the age of 13. A loyal dog is a defense from harm.

“Because of reported dog attacks, guns are their only option,” he explained. “If you can’t even carry a pitbull for protection, how else do you think people are going to protect themselves?” he asked, rhetorically.

The Tough House Project effectively tackled “dog fighting” issues in his neighborhood. His full-time position as a kennel attendant at SF/SPCA, however, would end abruptly. The reason, according to Jamal, was his refusal of an offer by SF/SPCA of $80,000 in exchange for their ownership of the Tough House Project.

Jamal would later be elected to the San Francisco Commission of Animal Control and Welfare in 2002. In an ironic twist of events, the SF/SPCA sought support from him. “Instead of me asking for a paycheck from them, they were now asking me for a vote for funding,” he said to me jokingly.

His project has received media attention from outlets such as Dog Fantasy Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, KRON Channel 4 and KTVU Channel 2.

The painful reality of classism would clash with cultural fashion as he was sworn in as a commissioner. Jamal remembers how the Board of Supervisors was displeased with his attire: “I was wearing a football jersey bearing my neighborhood name, while they were dressed to impress.”

For me, image says a lot about someone, but it doesn’t say everything. Undesired images often lead to unfair judgments, assumptions, profiling and even death. I know that all too well as a victim of racial profiling by members of the San Francisco Police Department five years ago.

Jamal also wore a “choke chain” dog leash to honor all of the pitbulls that had either been locked up or “put to sleep” (death).

The main objective for the Tough House Project is to give the community a voice. “How do we teach the children in our community about being able to live through violence?” is Jamal’s rhetorical question to the world.

At POOR, we believe that there is more than one way to teach and educate the masses of people. All youths are scholars.

“There is more than one way to teach political consciousness. The revolution can also come through Hollywood bling, performances, storytelling, poetry, film and art,” the late great poverty hero, Mama Dee Gray, once said. We heed and feed off of her words each day.

One idea Jamal presented is poster art to help children and youth stay safe in the face of such dangers as finding a weapon or encountering an unfamiliar dog: “1) Stop right away! 2) Hands up! Never touch it! 3) Walk away from the area! 4) Get mom or dad, a teacher or Animal Control for help!”

The Tough Talk Neighborhood Newsletter is another way the Tough House Project gives young people a voice they’re seldom allowed in schools and media. The Team Skills Challenge teaches them how to be creative in entrepreneurship and self-dependency.

There is also a project in collaboration with Tanya Joseph for relationship counseling. It is meant to help young women to empower themselves to avoid abuse. Tanya founded it in 2008. “Let go, let God. Instead of listening to what men tell them, let God lead their heart” is the message of encouragement Tanya offers them.

Jamal is currently in the early stages of developing steps to combat police terrorism in his neighborhood. One is for community members to wear laminated “Know Your Rights” cards on their chests in case of an encounter with the SFPD.

Another is the use of armor – bullet-proof vests – to greatly reduce deaths in Bayview Hunters Point from gun violence and police shootings. Far too long now, “stolen lives” – lives stolen by police – have devastated poor communities locally and globally. He is hopeful his project can be a model for us all as a community.

Most recently, Jamal released “Abandoned by Hope, Survived by Faith,” a three-section film documentary that features the testimonies of people who live in Bayview Hunters Point and elsewhere in the Bay Area. His motivation for the film: “It is because of all of the broken promises of change for people in poverty in San Francisco and Bayview Hunters Point.”

For more information on the Tough House Project, go to www.thetoughhouseproject.org. As writer, poet and activist Audre Lorde said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Marlon Crump is an activist and journalist with POOR Magazine and the Revolutionary Legal Advocacy Project. He can be reached at marliniumn@yahoo.com. To learn more, visit www.poormagazine.org and www.racepovertymediajustice.org.

POOR Magazine’s indigenous news-making circle meets the first Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m. at 2940 16th St., Suite 301, San Francisco, CA 94103. The December 2010 Newsroom featured the Tough Project with Jamal James Modica, Myron Standing Bear and Mark Anquo and Hartman Deetz with the Wampanoag Nation Language Reclamation Project.

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