Project Future Program helps area teens face the right kind of music

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News
Usually, the people who face the music before a judge are the ones with a rap sheet.

But on a recent Thursday at Pontiac High School, it was a trio of judges, facing a group of teens, who held the rap sheet. Except this was not the rap sheet associated with people who have a criminal record. This rap was the rhythmically be-bop, sing-song lyrical rhyme and verse which teens groove to during this day and age. And the only crime committed here was against standard hip-hop fare.

But it was all for a worthwhile cause called Project Future, an eight-week program geared toward teens to educate them on making choices and facing the consequences of their choices, especially on how it relates to the pitfalls of gangs, drugs, and violence.

Project Future is the offspring of a program started by a father-daughter team. Saginaw District Court Judge M.T. Thompson Jr., and his daughter, Monica R. Nuckolls, both Saginaw natives, have seen family and friends fall by the wayside from the perils of drugs, alcohol, and gangs.

Together, they wrote a two-volume instructional guide called “Making Choices and Facing Consequences” that serves as a blueprint for the instructions delivered in Project Future.

“My Dad was frustrated seeing young kids come into his court and not understand the legal consequences of their actions,” Nuckolls said.

And with her having three boys, she said it became a personal, moral obligation “to help teach others how choices and consequences can affect their lives.” Nuckolls path from Saginaw to Project Future began years earlier, actually. When she left high school, she entertained thoughts of becoming a doctor, and entered Michigan State University with that goal.

“But I quickly realized it’s not for me,” she said.
While taking business law classes there, she found she enjoyed that more. Having a father who was an attorney also played a role in their decision to go into law.

“He always said he was the most surprised person when I chose law school,“ she said. “But I found that I really had a passion for law.”

After graduating from MSU in 1997, Nuckolls entered the University of Michigan Law School, and graduated in 2000. She hooked up with several prestigious Detroit law firms and worked as a contract lawyer and practiced commercial litigation.

Nuckolls then joined the Thomas M. Cooley Law School as an associate professor, and teaches Torts I and II, as well as Equity and Remedies and supervises the General Practice Externship class.

But those visions of youths from her high school days getting in trouble, the high rate of youth being sent to jail and her father’s experiences in court brought the two of them together to try to find a solution to the growing problems. And her husband, a teacher at Novi, reported that three former students have died from drug overdoses in the last four years.

Project Future started in Saginaw about four years ago under the program name of “Boyz to Men.” Nuckolls and Thompson wrote the program, but wanted to know if it actually worked, so pre- and post-testing of the students was done. Nuckolls said those results showed that the attitudes and feelings of the students toward drugs, gangs and violence changed dramatically after going through the program.

“We found overwhelmingly that students who have gone through the program leave with a better understanding of the consequences of gang membership, underage drinking, and other youth problems,” she said. “And if we can just help one kid understand and appreciate that, it’s definitely worth it.

“Our major theme is to change the mindset. They must understand that everything you do, intended or unintended, foreseeable or unforeseeable, has a consequence, so you really have to think about that before you make a choice,” Nuckolls said.

After running the successful program for a few years in the Saginaw area, it was brought to Pontiac, and more than 50 boys and girls are involved. Nuckolls said some of the teens applied for the program, while others were referred by officials from area schools.

The program is partnered by Cooley and Pontiac schools, with assists from the Oakland County Bar Association and the Straker Bar Association. The total program cost is $14,000, but teens who participate pay nothing, Nuckolls said. The volunteer teachers are lawyers, judges, law professors, law school students, clergy from African-American churches in Pontiac and community members. All receive training in Project Future before leading the teens through the stories, comments and question and answer sessions.

Nuckolls said Pontiac was chosen because it was recently rated the seventh most violent city in America. Michigan has its share of cities on that list, including Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit.

The Pontiac program began September 25, and will conclude with a graduation ceremony November 20. All the sessions were held at the Auburn Hills Cooley campus on Saturdays, except for one, which was held at Pontiac High School on a recent Thursday. The teens are bused in, and are given lunches.

Each week, different hypothetical stories are reviewed, and the teens are encouraged to comment on the lesson of the day. Some of those included “Snitchin-N-the-Hood,” “The Dice Game that Got Ugly,” and “An Inappropriate Touching.” Other stories center around bullying, revenge, and various drugs.

Nuckolls said that exposing the teens to positive role models as instructors, and referring to the stories, which are written in the vernacular of today’s teens, helps engage the students more and show them that they can be successful.

At the Thursday session, three local judges alternated in presenting the lessons, leading the discussion and doling out their wisdom from sitting on the bench and seeing many instances of youths in trouble.

The session opened with words from Thompson, who said Project Future’s goal was to “throw our arms around Pontiac children.” He told a story of a hut on fire in a remote village, and said the village elder was besieged with questions on how to save the people in the burning hut but told the villagers to wake the people up and “let them save themselves.”

He likened that village fire to the problems going on in Pontiac and elsewhere and told the teens “it’s time to wake up and save ourselves.”

The three judges who handled the lessons – Cynthia Walker from the 50th District Court in Pontiac, and Oakland County Circuit Court Judges Leo Bowman and Denise Langford-Morris – held the teens’ attention by relating stories from their own courtrooms.

Langford-Morris told the teens that Detroit rap artist Eminem appeared in her court and although she did not know of him or his rap lyrics, she did some research and found “there’s a reason kids like rap.”

She said sometimes rap carries the wrong lesson, and sometimes contain the right lesson. But she said teens have appeared before her and a bad decision made in the matter of seconds “can impact the rest of your life.”

Bowman warned the teens to “be careful of the people you chose as your friends.” And if you find those friends on the verge of trouble, “run the other way.”

Thompson and the three judges elicited many thoughtful responses from the teens. What was telling is that many have seen some of the situations depicted in the lessons.

Nuckolls said mentoring of children is good, but falls short of the ultimate goal. “You must give the mentors the right tools to teach those lessons, and (my father and I) have created those tools” with the books and programs.

“The goal is not just to educate them, but to change the thought process,” she said. Then, when they return to their neighborhoods and face those situations “hopefully they’ll flashback to one of the stories and go through the possible consequences. We want to provide lessons that will stick with them for a lifetime.”

The three judges all agreed that Project Future is a worthwhile program. Walker said the teens in Pontiac desperately need a structured program like this with a proven track record of success to influence decision-making and the subsequent consequences.

Bowman said a program such as this “is long overdue” in Pontiac. But he said the program is needed in many more communities as well.

Langford-Morris said she and the other judges want to use their experiences to hammer home the point of making good decisions to teens before they face them in court.

Nuckolls said working on the program has been rewarding, especially since it was something she and her father did together. “We’re both passionate about this, and it’s cool to be able to share those moments with your father,” she said.

But even though she and her father are successful in their professions, Nuckolls said she can’t turn her back on a problem of this magnitude.

“This is my obligation, and it affects everyone,” she said. “We may live in great neighborhoods, but if part of our society is hurting, it spills over, and we can’t live in a society where we don’t genuinely care for the people around us, because it affects all of us.”

The session ended with the judges’ rap, which was tame by modern standards, but carried a powerful message. Bowman rapped about his youth and growing up, while Langford-Morris and Walker had a short-but-sweet rap of “Good choices, good consequences. Bad choices, bad consequences.”

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