Human rights advocate John Prendergast

Prendergast discusses the remarkable story behind his new text, Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss, and Redemption.

African affairs expert and human rights advocate John Prendergast has spent more than two decades focusing on conflict resolution in Africa and shaping U.S. foreign policy toward the region. He's worked for the Clinton administration, the State Department, the National Intelligence Council, the International Crisis Group and the U.S. Institute of Peace. He also co-founded the Enough Project, an initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity. Prendergast has authored/co-authored several books and Op-Ed pieces and developed documentary films on Congo.


Tavis: John Prendergast is a noted human rights advocate and cofounder of the Enough Project, which continues its work to combat genocide. He is also a best-selling author whose latest text is called “Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss and Redemption.” John, good to have you on this program.

John Prendergast: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: You doing all right, man?

Prendergast: I’m doing very well, thanks for having me.

Tavis: Glad to have you back. Let me start, speaking of “Unlikely Brothers,” let me start at an unlikely place, perhaps, and then we’ll get into the story that I do want to celebrate. I celebrate the work you’ve done with this young brother, Michael.

Prendergast: Thank you.

Tavis: But it raises off the bat for me this question of why it is that white guys, white folk, feel this superhero complex that they can swoop down into Black neighborhoods or to Hispanic neighborhoods and their very presence and engagement can save and turn around – we see it in Hollywood movies, we see it in real life. But what’s that complex all about? Help me understand that?

Prendergast: Frankly, I’m not going to run away from it. I was raised in it. I was a comic book fanatic when I was growing up and I grew up in an abusive household, and so I was – you can react to that in many different ways, and I reacted to it in a way that just made me fight against unfairness.

So I reached adolescence, turned a teenager, and by the time I’m 18, 19, I’m looking at the way the American political system is structured, I’m looking at the way cities are operating and how vast swaths of the population are being left behind, and it was pretty logical for a kid with that kind of upbringing to say, well, let me see what I can do to try to help out.

I don’t think I ever felt like I was a savior in any way, but certainly the culture there allowed one to think that you could actually make a difference in that situation.

Tavis: One of the reasons I started with that is that you’re very open and honest in talking about that in the text, which I appreciated. There’s an authenticity to it which I celebrate.

Tell me about this young brother named Michael who you met when you were 20 and he was seven.

Prendergast: He was seven, yeah. I was just visiting a buddy of mine who was running a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., and talking, it was the height of the Reagan revolution and they were cutting programs left and right – what we’re about to see here in the United States because of this budget deficit.

In comes these two kids, Michael and his little brother James, and we just started hanging around, laughing, playing, and I started taking them out fishing, going to the library, doing all that kind of stuff, and it sort of evolved into a big brother/little brother relationship.

Eventually they came and lived with me for a while because their mom was in homeless shelters and they were going from shelter to shelter with plastic bags, living out of these Hefty bags, and I just formed this bond that has lasted a lifetime.

Tavis: I want to talk more about that bond in just a second, but let me go back to something you said a moment ago. You referenced the Reagan years, and I heard that. You said it’s about to happen again, given the talk about deficit reduction. Dr. West, Cornel West and I were on CNN last night announcing a poverty tour that we’re about to embark on this summer to try to raise this issue high on the American agenda.

The word “poverty,” politicians don’t even want to utter the word, much less do anything about it. But I want to come back to your point because in this talk about deficit reduction, the one thing that politicians are not leveling with the American people about, as you well know, is that deficit reduction most often means fewer jobs.

It doesn’t mean an increase in jobs; you’re going to be cutting things. You’re cutting programs. So it is about to get worse long before it gets better, but why is that not part of the conversation, you think?

Prendergast: Well, it has to be. The timing of your trip couldn’t be more fortuitous, because my fear with this bomb that’s going to explode, this deficit bomb, the most vulnerable populations are going to get hammered and opportunities are going to close, programs for kids who are sort of on the edge in the school systems around the country, they’re just not going to have the opportunities anymore.

If you repress rather than unlock the potential of large groups of Americans, what’s that going to do to our economy? It’s going to contract, not expand. We’re going to do all kinds of things in a deficit-cutting fervor that are going to hurt America’s competitiveness and hurt poverty and issues related to dealing with our biggest social programs in the long run.

Tavis: He’s older now, of course, but what does this political reality mean for the Michaels of the world?

Prendergast: The seven-year-old Michaels or the current –

Tavis: The seven-year-old Michaels.

Prendergast: I’m very, very concerned about what’s going to happen in school budgets and particularly programs for like after-school programs for kids and all that stuff. That’s why both of us have gone on sort of a zealous tear in support of, like, mentoring and tutoring, Big Brother/Big Sister type programs, because they’re just going to get wasted in municipal and state budgets.

So it turns out, all the studies show you invest a little time in another person’s life, often a younger person, and all of us have that capacity to do it, just an hour a week, an hour every couple of weeks, and you can make a tremendous difference in a kid’s life over their lifetime.

Tavis: As I said earlier, John, you were 20, Michael was seven, you were white, he’s Black. Around what issues did you bond? How did the bonding actually foment?

Prendergast: Sports and fishing. He hadn’t learned how to read, he was just sort of left behind by the school system, so learning how to read. Just I sort of – I was having a second childhood, if you will. I was loving every minute of it and we really became brothers as opposed to big brother/little brother, just hanging around doing stuff.

I think we didn’t really see – neither one of us to this day have really looked at that racial element as something that was anything but a binder.

Tavis: What’s amazing about your story, or the story of you and Michael, is that it wasn’t just a relationship between you and Michael. You ended up bringing on what – let’s put it this way, his immediate family ended up being your extended family. They even came to live with you at a certain point. I’ll let you tell the story.

Prendergast: Yeah, so a year after I met him it turned out that the Department of Social Services was considering breaking up the family, taking the kids away from his mom. They were living in a homeless shelter for a while; there were all kinds of abuse situations.

So what I did was I took the three oldest kids and they came and lived with me in an apartment, a little apartment in south Philadelphia, for the summer, and I don’t know how to cook, I don’t know how to do anything. (Laughter) It was a chaos. I don’t know if it was worse or better for them than living in a homeless shelter.

Tavis: I was going to say, it may have been worse, I’m not sure. (Laughter)

Prendergast: But they remember the smallest details to this day, all three. We talk endlessly about that crazy summer, and it was we all pitched in together, and again, there was no big brother/little brother, we were all like sort of co-managers of that little apartment.

But the mom finally got her act together, got into subsidized housing and over time stabilized the situation, but that wasn’t the end for Michael then. Anyway, I went off to Africa, doing the kind of work that we’ve talked about so much, and I sort of abandoned him. I lost him for a while. The school system abandoned him and he eventually went and started working in the drug trade.

Tavis: Tell me more. I was going to go there, so tell me what happened when you guys lost touch for a while.

Prendergast: For a while he was sort of weighing the options, and the school system abandoned him, his family was still, the structure was there’s no male in the household to really sort of steer him in a certain way, but here’s this guy on the corner saying, “Look, join us. We got this little thing here, you can make a little money.”

He’s getting ridiculed at school for the little sweat suit that he would wear every day and it’s shameful to him, and he’s like, yeah, why can’t I make just a little bit of money? What’s wrong with that?

So you start with one step, two steps, three steps – sooner or later he’s a fairly big-time drug dealer by the time he’s 14, 15 years old. He started when he was 12. His best friend got his face shot off right in front of Michael. Just soul-destroying things that happened to him that sort of numbed him enough to make these choices.

Tavis: He’s married now with family. I know that because one of the things I love about the book is that you all right this book together. It’s written in alternate voices in first person. But he’s married now with family – fast-forward to the end here – which raises the question of how he got out of the drug game, because so many folk who get ensnared in that never get out, and when they do come out, they come out in a body bag.

Prendergast: Yeah. He had choices. He saw them all the time, and he was afraid – precisely what you say – that he was going to end up coming out of this whole situation in a body bag or life in prison, like so many of his buddies are now, who he visits all the time.

So he had some choices to make and he met his present wife, and she was a stabilizing influence on him, a tremendously positive influence. Some steel will just saying, “You can do it, Michael.” He had already had a son or two; now he has five boys living with his wife and kids now, but at that time he had two boys.

We started talking again, and he makes the decision I think I can get out of this, and he did it. He just took some menial job, some hospital sweeping floors, humiliating to him to start, but eventually he sort of picks his step up a little bit, works his way up.

Now he’s a bus driver, he’s got his commercial driver’s license, he’s got dreams of owning his own company. He’s on his way.

Tavis: I pressed you initially about this relationship and this superhero complex that some white folks seem to have. The flipside of that is that what you have really done is to revel in, to celebrate, to authenticate his humanity, and what do you take away from that? What’s the lesson for all the rest of us in celebrating the humanity in others?

Prendergast: Yeah, I think when you reach out to someone regardless of what the situation – if you’re a teacher, if you’re a parent, if you’re a big brother if you’re a mentor, a tutor, anything like that, and you validate that person through loving them and caring about them, especially when they’re in a difficult situation and they don’t know if anyone values them as a human being, you build that self-esteem – we talk about that all the time.

The effect that has on a kid at six, seven, eight, nine years old, where their self-esteem is validated, that they’re a person whose life is worth living, the impact on that is immeasurable, and I just think that anybody can do it.

We all fear we’re not going to – we’re going to let the kid down, we don’t have enough time, all that kind of stuff. Turns out if you just put a little bit of time in investing in that kind of relationship, it can have profound impacts.

Tavis: I have a dear friend who says all the time that we are who we are because somebody loved us.

Prendergast: Yes.

Tavis: Every one of us.

Prendergast: That’s huge.

Tavis: We are who we are because somebody loved us, and I’m glad you love Michael, and I can tell Michael loves you back.

Prendergast: Oh, it’s very mutual.

Tavis: It’s a wonderful book. It’s called “Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss and Redemption,” written by John Prendergast and Michael Mattocks. John, thanks for coming on the show.

Prendergast: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you.

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Last modified: August 1, 2011 at 1:30 pm