Born in Liberia to a single mother during the country’s first civil war, Ambrose R. Russell’s life is no stranger to struggle and conflict. As the founder and executive director of Inner Hero, an organization dedicated to mentoring young men and women in the Twin Cities, Russell saw his life circumstances and achievements as testimony to hard work and dedication.
Giving birth to her son at a young age, Russell’s mother was unable to support him, compelling his grandparents to raise him. Not long after the two passed away, Russell left to seek refuge in Ghana from the ongoing war, where he was adopted by a Christian family.
In 2004 he arrived in the United States and completed his studies in engineering at Hennepin Technical College. Although Russell found work in his field, he did not feel it was the work he had been meant for.
Russell credits his wife Elshaddai for being the inspiration behind his organization. “I always say she’s a true inner hero. Had it not been for her, I would not have discovered my true calling,” Russell said.
At the time she met Russell, Elshaddai was a mother of five boys whose father passed away from gun violence in 1997. She worked four jobs to provide for her sons.
Seeing that her sons needed a father figure and guidance, Russell stepped in, helping Elshaddai raise her boys and eventually fathering a boy and a girl with her. Russell’s first five sons all have graduated high school with two attending college and one having served in the Navy.
Taking Elshaddai as his inspiration, Russell worked towards establishing an organization that could bring that potential out of others. “When destiny crosses purpose, dreams become a reality,” Russell said. This was the beginning of what would become Inner Hero.
Inner Hero, as Russell describes it, is the idea that each individual has the innate ability to inspire themselves, and those around them, to reach their potential. Russell began his mentoring program with his sons, and soon after he began mentoring their friends and classmates.
He recalls the story of Jakai Self, a young man he led out of a gang he’d found himself in. Russell took it upon himself to help Self get home at midnight from work where he biked himself from school.
Russell then helped him open a bank account, get a Social Security card and his driver’s permit, some of the basic items Russell helps participants of Inner Hero obtain when they first join. After six months of driving Self home from his late shift at Burger King, Self bought his first car. Now a father, Self works at a landscaping company job that he obtained through Russell.
Russell has dozens of stories about the young men and women his organization has been able to help over the years. He’s now able to mentor youth who may be dealing with issues at schools, juvenile detention centers, and the county home school. Inner Hero has been operating since 2011 with a focus around creating a sense of community and leadership for its participants through engagement with public servants.
Russell has developed relationships with 17 police departments in Minnesota and has recently partnered with the U.S. Army and Minneapolis Fire Department to engage with youth from the Twin Cities. He hopes to one day see the youth he mentors take positions within law enforcement and other areas of public service, thereby taking ownership of their community.
“If you want to see your community protected, you have to become the protector too. The police officers, firemen, army members we see today will retire,” Russell said. “So what happens when they retire and we still need to be protected?”
Seeing the division between law enforcement and the community, Russell took to the streets one day and introduced himself to each officer he came across. He soon connected with the Crystal Police Department in 2015 and was invited by the chief to speak to the entire department about his goal to bridge the divide officers have with their communities, especially communities of color.
Most of Russell’s engagement consists of sit-down meetings between community leaders, youth and law enforcement leadership. There are discussion prompts and panels around issues both youth and law enforcement face, and the events do pose some tough questions.
Russell said that some youth have raised questions like, “Why is it that police always pull a gun when they’re coming towards young black men?” And, “Why is it that it’s usually black men who are getting shot?” These events not only allow for honest dialogue, but also serve a purpose of just familiarizing officers with their local community.
Douglas E. Nepp is an attorney at Nepp & Hackert and sits on the board of directors for Inner Hero. When speaking on the aim of Inner Hero, Nepp points to the power that familiarity between law enforcement and the youth who they protect could help to de-escalate future encounters.
“One of our main programs is to get the police and the youth to get to know each other and trust one another,” said Nepp. Hopefully, if they know each other, that three o’clock in the morning encounter will deescalate quickly and we’ll be saving lives in the future.”
Nepp also credits Chief Medaria Arradondo of Minneapolis for being attentive to the needs of the community when they reach out. Chief Arradondo received an award from Inner Hero for community engagement this summer at their third annual basketball tournament held at the YMCA in North Minneapolis.
Nepp sees their next steps forward being more direct community engagement. “The issue has been that we have to get beyond the community leaders and into the actual community. Ambrose made headway when he had a big event in Brooklyn Park and the community came out.”
The organization plans to hold other community events in the coming weeks to continue a dialogue between community members and their public servants.