Boots on the Ground: How two community activists mentor Memphis youth with the power of presence

Editor’s Note: The two youth programs mentioned are no longer active since the article was published but the community impact remains and both mentors are hopeful to bring the programs back in the near future. 
“How was your week at school?” Casio Montez asked the group of children who attended his ‘We Stand On Business’ coaching session. “What about home?” Each child, ages 7-13, navigates with Montez through a series of responses that include sharing about their home lives, school challenges, and de-escalating bullying. 

As we explore the More for Memphis strategic plan, the key goals outlined focus on Justice & Safety alongside Education & Youth. This plan highlights implementing programming with community service centers, expanding mentorship, incentivizing credible messengers, and providing support for people most at risk for gun violence. It also aims to build a more equitable Memphis, reduce poverty, and move the city forward. 

Community activists and longtime friends Montez and Frank Gottie both created the mentoring and life coaching programs ‘We Stand On Business’ life coaching services and the Frank Gottie Foundation, respectively. Collectively, they build a sense of community for the youth of the Greenlaw Community Center. 

The 38105 zip code includes a working-class population as 58.9% work in the area, but most are paid wages below the poverty threshold under $27,000 a year according to Census 2020. 

The More for Memphis plan hopes to invest millions of dollars into cradle-to-career strategies to impact neighborhoods and aspires to place an additional 10,000 young people on a path to economic mobility. High Ground News met with Montez and Gottie to understand how their programs impact young people and their families. 

Memphis native and community mentor Casio Montez checks in with a group of children during lunch.
High Ground News: What inspired you to build your mentoring program? And why is it important to you?

Casio Montez: “I have done this for 9-10 years, people contact me and ask me to come talk to their child because they see their child going down a road they know is not gonna turn out right. After the Tyre Nichols situation, I’ve been doing this and I haven’t tried to get funding; doing it out of my pocket because I genuinely care. A lot more people saw what I stood for around [my activism for] Tyre so they got in touch with me and it went up a notch. I’m working on getting funding for my non-profit. I’ve had meetings with the mayor and other people in high places that understand I am out there doing the work so it’s time to put something behind it so I can make the vision work. 

The main reason I do it is because I love the kids. I got this community center opened twice. First, it was Memphis Athletics Ministries and when they closed it down, I had a press conference and it was kids playing on the basketball court in a 115-degree heat index, and the water fountain was broken so I had a press conference and pointed it out. That Tuesday, I went to the City Council and I let them know it’s people out in the community with non-profits; give it to me. I’ll work for free just to see these kids have a place to go because this community center saved my life when I was little. 

The second time was when they tried to make it into a detention center. It’s been a substation for 20+ years. I got the police to move out of the community center and gave it back to the parks. I also had the City Council give $100,000 to wrap around services for Greenlaw Community Center. I put a committee together to fight against the curfew detention center not to be here with another mentor, Vincent Spriggs. We fought for it. They didn’t make it into a detention center. We don’t need an extra set of handcuffs in our community.”

Frank Gottie: “Back in my days, we had people at the gym that were mentors to us and they were there for us when we needed them. When I was going through things with my family, the people at the gym were like my second family and that’s who I was really able to open up to. So, I just took those techniques that I learned from back in the day. What they put in me, I’m just putting it back out.”

Casio Montez.
HGN: Why was it important to you that the community center not become a detention center?

Casio Montez: “Doing the things I do, I had to understand by addressing issues with the kids hands-on. Every child is not a criminal. Everybody has done something they didn’t mean to do, or regret doing, that doesn’t make you a criminal. You made a messed-up decision, but that doesn’t make you a criminal. If there were more things to teach them how to be successful in society, half of the things wouldn't be going on now. That’s what I am working on now. It was very important for me to do because I saw what they were trying to do and I won’t allow that on my watch.”

HGN: Did you have a mentor growing up? 

Casio Montez: “Ms. Roxie’s son from Roxie’s Grocery, Reggie Miller. His nickname is Red Devil. He was a coach for younger kids so we came into the gym and we played basketball. He had a summer league going, and if it was an altercation with the kids, he would let them get it out of their system with boxing gloves.”

Frank Gottie: “Joe Hunter. Yes, Uncle Joe. Joe Hunter came and got me, invited me to dinner, he was always there. He taught me about morals, respect, and being humble. He taught me everything.”

Casio Montez checks in with a group of children during lunch.
HGN: Has your activism motivated the way you work with young people? 

Casio Montez: “Being from the streets, I have never been a follower. I kicked it with older men. If they saw me screwing up, they would tell me I wasn’t gonna do that. My wisdom and knowledge came from a different perspective. And basically, when I see things going on in the community, I have to analyze and check myself to understand. These are the same kids that were looking up to me when I was out there. It’s children 14-15 with adult priorities. I know kids are doing grown-up things from a grown-up aspect and that’s all they know. But if we show them another way, the whole outcome would be different. Some judge a child, but what did you do to help that child?”

Frank Gottie: “I’m involved in a [street organization]. People don’t realize what gangs were really put here for. Gangs were really put here to protect the neighborhood, to keep you from stealing out your neighborhood but when they gave people guns and drugs, it split up the rules. But that was what street organizations were really made for. I saw Tookie Williams doing the same thing I was doing but he did it right before he got executed. I felt, ‘Why can’t I do it while I am here?’ I don’t have to be behind bars to push a movement, I can stand up for my people now.”

Greenlaw Community Center, located at 190 Mill Ave in Memphis.
HGN: Why is this work so important to you? 

Frank Gottie: “Because of God at the end of the day. The Creator is gonna have to judge everyone. I am gonna make sure my good outweighs my bad.”

HGN: What’s the format of your sessions?

Casio Montez: “Kids sometimes have a problem with staying focused. First, you have to sit the children down. I don’t use aggression because that gets you nowhere. I talk to them, not at them. I see what their week has consisted of. I let them go one by one. A lot of the kids have issues with bullying and would want to make moves. I ask, ‘Does that help? Would that help or hurt you? How would your parents feel about it? You get suspended and your mom has to take off work.’ I let them know, every action has a reaction. One of the first classes I taught was about respect and disrespect. If you teach a child something, I know that 20 years later, they will still remember that’s the man who fed us and talked to us every day. If I told him I had a problem, he would come to the school and correct it.”

Frank Gottie: “We do the check-in. My partner, Keedran Franklin, has a thing called the check-in. I use that technique. They have to check in and tell me how they’re feeling. I may check them and make them laugh. I do things like a big brother would do so they can feel like they can come to Mr. G about anything. We learn important words. This is their peace. Whether they know it or not, we’re building a village. So, down the line later in life, they may see each other and say, ‘I can’t mess with him. I went to the mentorship with him. That’s Andreis or that’s Champ.’ That might save their life. All of them from different hoods so when they grow up, they’re still gonna be friends.”

Greenlaw Community Center, located at 190 Mill Ave in Memphis.
HGN: Is there anything else the community should know?

Casio Montez: “When it comes down to people, no matter what side of Memphis you are from, get involved in your community without having a judgmental mindset. Your mindset should not be on judging. Your mindset should be on putting them in the same position you are in.”

Frank Gottie: “More fathers need to start mentoring these kids and bring their kids out. It’s very important for fathers to bring their kids out so that their kids can meet other kids and adapt.”

The Impact: Voices of the young people 

Montez and Gottie have a passion for community, activism, and our youth. They use their own lives as an open book to connect from a place of authenticity with the children they mentor. Oftentimes, youth’s voices are not at the center of these conversations. When asking some of the young people at Greenlaw Community Center how they felt about their experience, this is what they had to say:

“Casio teaches us how to say positive things,” says Carla Richardson, age 10. Cameron Jefferson, 13, adds “Casio teaches us different words like 'respect' because if somebody comes [to] you and says something positive, that’s a situation of using respect.” Arayelle Wilkerson, 9, laughs and shares she simply loves the food. She adds that Montez teaches them not to fight. 

In reference to Gottie, whom most of the children affectionately call Mr. G, Xavier Hawkins, 12, shares “What I like about Mr. G’s program is that I get to meet new people. I learn how to respect grown-ups. I love coming here because I get to hang out with kids who know how to treat another person.” Andreis Smith, 11, says, “He teaches me about respect, and hate and disrespect. And I just love him.”
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