What the Streets Taught Him
by La Risa Lynch
Teaching graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a far cry from the St. Louis streets Von E. Nebbitt once roamed as a drug dealer.
Nebbitt cycled in and out of prison for years on a weapons and drug charges, before he turned his life around, eventually earning a master’s and a doctorate degree in social work.
Nowadays, Nebbitt, an associate professor at UIC’s Jane Addams School of Social Work, says his life experience gives him unique insight on how inner city youth can be lured into gangs and violence.
“If I hadn’t had that personal experience in the streets, I would probably teach it [social work] from an academic and maybe from a practice perspective,” said Nebbitt, also an accomplished painter whose works have been exhibited in St. Louis art galleries.
His life is an affirmation for those who want to change the judicial system that warehouses thousand of young black men. And it is a reminder that some can rise back up no matter what.
Growing up in a tough West St. Louis neighborhood, Nebbitt was like most teens in his community. He thought he would be either dead or in jail. And it looked like he was headed in that direction until his proverbial second chance came when he stood in front of a judge in 1993.
After years of hustling on the streets, Nebbitt was spent.
Caught on another possession charge, Nebbitt was prepared to do another stint in jail when the justice system decided to work in his favor.
“All I wanted to do is not get double digits,” Nebbitt recalled. “My objective was to hopefully keep it under ten years. Anything under that, I would have took and went on back to prison.”
But the stars aligned.
Nebbitt got a public defender, who decided to buck the system. She asked for probation for a career offender who previously had six felony convictions and had been incarcerated three times before. The public defender argued that a punitive approach hadn’t work and maybe a restorative one would. It was a concept years ahead of alternative sentencing and drug court.
The judge agreed and sentenced Nebbitt to five years probation, a sentence linked with drug treatment and school. At 31-years old Nebbitt took his second chance and ran with it. He was already a few months clean and in a drug treatment program. He even earned an associate’s degree with a 3.8 GPA while serving a previous jail term.
“I think I was just done with the streets,” Nebbitt said. “I just didn’t see where else to go from there except prison, the graveyard or some serious addiction.”
As a social worker, Nebbitt understands how the streets can become a haven for wayward teens. His life is a textbook example.
Nebbitt’s father was a functioning alcoholic, whose drinking progressed into physical abuse. Escaping the domestic violence, Nebbitt’s family moved into his grandmother’s cramped four-room apartment with 10 other family members. Soon his mother began drinking. Wanting to escape the drama at home, Nebbitt turned to the streets.
“A lot of it comes from disruptions or dysfunctions within the family,” Nebbitt said. “I think that kids who live in rough neighborhoods want to get away so they go out into the neighborhoods where they are accepted and welcomed. But the things that they are being welcomed into will probably get them into a lot of trouble.”
Nebbitt’s trouble started with smoking pot, then selling it. He dropped out of high school, but graduated to selling pills, heroin and eventually cocaine. Then he began using it. Nebbitt’s addiction escalated. But he was in denial about it until he was in a car accident with his young daughter in 1993.
“I think the night that it happened I didn’t even realize the severity of it. I just parked the car and went into the house and fell asleep,” he said.
The next day, when Nebbitt saw the car, he knew something had to give.
“That whole entire year was just a series of misadventures and mishaps and crazy stuff that I really thought was going to lead to my death to be honest,” he said.
With the inevitability of death looming, this time, Nebbitt took drug rehab seriously. He enrolled into a Black male-oriented treatment center where he rekindled his passion for painting.
Painting was therapeutic, but he didn’t know how transformative it was until he organized an art workshop for troubled teens. That was his a-ha moment. He switched his major from art in college to social work because he felt he could do the most good.
“I just saw these kids who were pretty withdrawn and really not engaged become engaged through this medium, and I think that kind of spoke to me,” Nebbitt said.
In 1997, Nebbitt earned his bachelors in sociology from St. Louis University, followed by his masters of social work in 1999 and his doctorate in 2005 both from Washington University in St. Louis.
He held several positions in youth social services with the Missouri Division of Youth Service and then St. Louis Housing Authority before embarking on his academic career. He worked as an assistant professor at Howard University for nearly five years before joining UIC in 2010.
Second chances in life are rare and even rarer in the criminal justice system.
Luck was on his side when he stood in front of the judge, who Nebbitt said was way of head of his time “in actually looking at cases and considering the alternative.” Mandatory minimums and three-strike laws have closed down many chances of saving lives.
Hope is not all lost, however.
A restorative approach to sentencing may be difficult, but not impossible, Nebbitt says. The judicial system, he said, must be willing and be able to recognize when an offender wants to change.
But, as he noted, there should be efforts at prevention instead of using incarceration as a cure-all on the back end. Offenders, specifically those returning from jail, need help linking with education, jobs and social services.
Locking people up, he added, is not the solution.
“It’s a solution insomuch you don’t have to worry about that particular offender,” Nebbitt said. “But if we don’t do anything on the prevention end, the conditions still exist to produce three or four more, once you lock that one up.”
His life is proof of what he says.
This story was written for the We Are Not Alone/ No Estamos Solos anti-violence project. Nebbitt is the keynote speaker for our workshop on covering violence, Thursday, June 28th