David R. Pokross is remembered for his work with a prominent Boston law firm and for serving on the boards of Boston’s leading institutions, but these connections were not his birthright. He was born in 1906 in Fall River among people of modest means who worked in the mills.
He went on to attend Harvard Law School but, in spite of his magna cum laude record, he encountered a seemingly impenetrable wall of anti-Semitism when he applied to law firms. Finally, he was hired by Peabody & Brown—now Nixon Peabody—where eventually he became a partner.
Over the years, he gave countless hours to Boston’s nonprofits and served on the Boston Foundation’s board for 12 years. In 1997, the Foundation announced the David R. Pokross Fund for Children in Need, which has been contributed to by numerous friends and admirers. Today, 10 years after his death in 2003, he is helping Antwann Johnson transform his life.
Antwann Johnson was walking down the street in Roxbury with his cousin one day when he noticed a lot of Streetworkers in the area. “I think there was some recent trouble around there, so they were out,” he says. One of the Streetworkers had been a friend of Antwann’s family for years and reached out to him. “I think he saw the hunger in me,” says Antwann. “He said he could put me in a good situation. A few days later he introduced me to Conan Harris.”
Conan Harris is a Program Coordinator for StreetSafe Boston, an initiative of the Boston Foundation that is dedicated to dramatically reducing violence in the city by deploying Streetworkers to connect with underserved youth and then connect them with programs and services.
Its slogan is “A Way Out. A Way Up.” And that is exactly what StreetSafe offered Antwann. “I was never a troublemaker,” says Antwann, “not drug dealing, never stole—but I was hustling, hanging with the wrong people. I was heading for trouble.” Antwann knew he could trust Conan and the rest of the StreetSafe staff.
“They’re from the community,” explains. “That’s the key to everything. You have to have people from the community deal with the community’s issues.” Conan introduced Antwann to Rodney Dailey, Street-Safe’s Workforce Development Manager, and he helped him get a job at Boston’s Holiday Inn Express, where Antwann is earning the respect of the hotel’s manager, Dennis Callahan, who is so enthusiastic about StreetSafe that he has told managers of other hotels about it. Now Antwann is able to buy things for his two children, a four-year-old daughter and a two year-old son. And he’s starting to think about going to college.
“Conan is like a big brother to me,” he says. “I call him when I’m having a bad day and I call him when I’m having a great day,” he says. “He likes those calls. Some days you just wake up and you think ‘Thank God, I woke up and I’m feeling good’ and I look in the refrigerator and there’s food.
A lot of brothers aren’t making it.” Antwann is eloquent about the heavy load of sadness he carries with him. He lost his “strong, beautiful, humorous” mother to cancer a number of years ago, although he’s proud that she got to see him graduate from high school before she died. And recently he has lost other family members and friends to illness or violence. “This is one of the toughest summers I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “Illness, tragedy, carnage on the streets. You can’t even go to the park and enjoy family time without worrying that you’ll be dodging bullets. Just walking down the street with your kids, you have to be vigilant. I don’t know when that’s going to change.” What he does know, though, is that as long as he’s got Conan Harris and Street-Safe on his side and “the power of prayer,” he’s not walking down the streets of Boston alone.