Reprinted from the "Washington Post"
'Gang whisperer' interprets for those wanting to help
By Petula Dvorak
March 16, 2010; B01
The teens lean all the way back in their chairs, so low they're like tables. Hats are down tight; they
won't take them off no matter how many times you ask.
Arms are crossed. They never look right at you. They're mean muggin'. Hoodies go up. You don't exist.
You can call them street kids, at-risk youths, gang members, crew members, juvenile delinquents,
abused children, thugs, rebels, whatever.
When you're one of those people who are there to throw them a lifeline, to show them someone cares,
to give them a chance, to try to make a tiny opening in that closed-off, scary world they are sealed
shut in, sometimes all you can call them is frustrating.
And that's when you call Thandor Miller, the gang whisperer.
Miller is your interpreter, an anthropologist who can translate their impossible-to-fathom culture,
habits and language.
"That right there, the arms crossed thing," he says as he pulls out a metal chair and perfectly splays his
58-year-old body into that posture that drives so many teachers, counselors, probation officers,
volunteers and mentors mad.
"That's 'cool pose,' " Miller explains to about a dozen adults who work with these kids and came to
Miller's workshop to learn better ways to break through. "And cool pose is not for adults. It's not for
you or about you. It's for the other guys. It's for the girls. It's a survival technique, a coping
mechanism to hide self-doubt. A ritual."
The grown-ups take notes. They are filling up their field guides, understanding the ways of these
strange creatures they want to help but don't always understand.
They flip through their workbook, "Navigating Youth Culture and Street Code."
The old-school approach to these kids was simple: The adult needed to establish dominance, respect
and rules, Miller explains. Sit up. Take your hat off. Listen.
That's what we heard when were young, right?
"But we grew up under a lot of fear that we rationalized as respect," he said. Let them sit back, keep
their hats on, slouch and be as cool as they want.
Because the moment you make their cool, indifferent pose your first issue, you can be sure they've
stopped listening, Miller tells them.
At his workshop last week was a court officer, a classical musician who volunteers with a program for
at-risk kids, two women from a culinary-skills program, a boxer who runs a youth sports camp, a
counselor at a shelter for homeless kids and so forth.
They were a diverse group, with good hearts and good intentions but often vexed by kids who seem
These are the kids who can be reached. In the District, juvenile arrests for serious crimes such as
homicide and aggravated assault have decreased during the past year, according to D.C. police
But arrests of kids for less grave crimes -- car theft, robbery, vandalism and misdemeanors -- have
soared, even doubling in the past year. And this is the point in their lives when a helping hand can
break through those layers of street code and grab those kids, save them.
Miller's workshops are informed by his 40 years of mentoring the District's youth and are part of his
work with the DC Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation.
He is a dynamic speaker, switching from educator in a sweater vest and fancy leather shoes to street
boy mugging and thugging in a flash.
He explains how to get kids to dress up for court.
"They tell me they don't want to dress up because they want to keep it real. So I tell them they also
have to keep it real for the environment they're dealing with. I call it 'code switching,' and that is their
language. They understand it when you put it that way," he says.
He knows the kids and enjoys digging deep to find the reasons for their behavior.
Recently, he and his wife, who runs the teen mentoring program Washington Enrichment and Cultural
Arts Network, or WE CAN, set up job interviews for a bunch of the kids they're working with. They
prepped them for the interview, gave them transportation money, directions and even a little cash for
None of them showed up.
Turns out, after a week of asking and investigating and wondering whether they're all just hopeless,
Miller learned that the interviews were on a rival group's turf, and all of the kids were literally scared
to death to set foot in that part of town.
It's about learning their language before yelling at them. And that part of Miller's message is a
straight-up challenge to the classic tough-love figure -- the yelling coach.
"For me, my old coaches would just holler and holler and holler," said the boxer who runs a sports
He admits that he isn't having an easy time challenging the old-school way of coaching and mentoring
kids. It's a hot topic even today, as folks wonder whether Gary Williams, the University of Maryland's
basketball coach who was just voted ACC Coach of the Year, has success on the court because of his
frenzied, yelling style or in spite of it.
"But that's what a lot of guys still want to do -- the hollering coach thing," the boxing coach told
And that's why Miller is there to teach us how to whisper.