A new business is giving gang members a second chance.
Ashlea Kosikowski detailed the plans for TRU Colors Brewing Company in a WECT News special report that aired Sunday.
Stephen Barnett, 31, is part of the TRU Colors team.
He joined a gang at the age of 15.
“We started our own gang before we became Bloods,” he said. “It was called Portland.”
Barnett always loved football and said he was being recruited by some ACC schools when he was in high school. But his plans to play in college – or even go to college – didn’t pan out.
“I was one foot in the streets and one foot in football,” Barnett said. “I had a child on the way at 17 years old. The streets overcame me.”
A few violent nights changed his life.
“2005 through 2007, I was incarcerated in New Hanover County Jail,” he said.
Barnett confessed to voluntary manslaughter for the shooting death of 21-year-old George Murray in 2005 in Wilmington.
The first time they clashed, Barnett said Murray stabbed him.
“I decided this time I would protect myself,” Barnett said of their second and final meeting.
Barnett took a plea deal in 2007 which meant he got out of jail after the two years he spent in lock-up waiting for trial.
“It made me make a decision about what I wanted in life,” he said. “I really had time to sit there and think and evaluate and say, ‘Look, man, you're headed in this direction. Where has it gotten you? For you to get out of this situation, what are you going to do differently?’ I made a conscious decision then that I would be pro life.”
Barnett said his father was not in his life when he was growing up.
The two only began a relationship when Barnett was behind bars.
“My dad was doing prison time as well,” he said. “We were writing each other back and forth as pen pals. My whole life I had this thing going on with me of how much I don't want to be like him. The older I got, the more I realized I am this guy, to a certain extent.”
Barnett is now the father of four children and he’s active in their lives, but he said since his release, he’s been bouncing from one dead-end job to another.
With a felony on his record, it’s been tough to find a good-paying job. Most recently, he was flipping burgers.
“I was working at McDonald's third shift from 7 to 11, with four kids, $8 an hour,” he said. “That just wasn't getting it done for me, but I did it. I stuck it out because I knew that was all I had and I wasn't gonna go back to the streets.”
Then, a year ago, Barnett met entrepreneur George Taylor (National Speed, Untappd, JOMO).
“Steve's awesome,” Taylor said. “But Steve has a violent crime on his record, a very violent crime. I met his kids and his kids are amazing and I was like, he can’t be that bad if his kids are this great. I said, ‘I'll get you a job for 15 bucks an hour.’ That's all he's looking for because he's making seven dollars an hour flipping burgers and you can't do anything with that. I said, ‘No worries; I'll get your job. I know every CEO in this town. I can definitely get your job.’ So I called all my friends who have big companies and said, ‘Hey, man, I got this guy. He's awesome. I really like him. I got to tell you this one thing. He did this a few years ago.’ They said, ‘I'm not sure that I can do that’ and I totally get that. I'm not ragging on those guys at all. I get the issue. But the point was, if I can't get him a job for $15 an hour, he is certainly not going to get one himself.”
So Taylor hired Barnett at Untappd, a popular craft beer app, where Taylor’s son is the CEO.
“I started out at Untappd working in shipping and receiving; I was stuffing envelopes for eight to 10 hours a day,” Barnett said. “He was willing to give me a chance. I got into sales, wasn't the best salesman ever. He was testing me to see if I was going to stick it out.”
He stuck it out and now, he’s part of the TRU Colors Brewing Company, which Taylor started this year.
It began with the gang-related murder of 16-year-old Shane Simpson in 2015.
Taylor wanted to do something to stop the violence. He’s spent a lot of time over the past few years with gang members, learning about what drives them and crime.
“I began to believe that it was much more of an economic issue than it was racial or social,” Taylor said. “That's where we had the idea of, what if we could create a business in higher gang members, as absurd as that might sound.”
Barnett is one of nine active gang members who are the first hires at TRU Colors Brewing.
They represent the Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples.
“The fact that we are building a brewery of all things from the ground up is just astonishing to me,” Barnett said. “To me, it's a surreal feeling. I'm walking into an office that I'm a salaried employee now. That we brought a group of guys together which under no circumstance will be united with each other, that's part of my motivation, doing something so new and so different and so challenging, but it feels so good.”
TRU Colors plans to open its brewery in the first quarter of next year. The location has not been announced.
The plan is to recruit up to 100 gang members for the brewery and restaurant.
If it works in Wilmington, the TRU Colors concept could expand to other cities.
TRU Colors is also working on a construction company to give even more gang members jobs.
When he reflects on his past and his future, Barnett said he hopes his work with TRU Colors can prevent others from going down the road he did.
“I'm human,” he said. “I've made some mistakes. We're trying to make amends with the situation. We don't want there to be another situation where there is a Steve Barnett and a George Murray.”
In addition to TRU Colors, Barnett also coaches the Eagles, a Pop Warner football team made up of 5-to-7-year-olds.
He hopes to pass his love for the game onto the younger generation and help keep the children on the right path.
Barnett said he would love to coach high school football one day, but he's not sure if that's a possibility with his record. He hopes through TRU Colors, he'll eventually get a chance.
Taylor will talk more about the plans for the brewery as part of the Cucalorus Film Festival. His keynote address is Thursday, Nov. 9 at 4:15 p.m. at Cape Fear Community College.
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