After seeing countless children lose their lives to senseless violence in his southeast community, Ira “Spanky” Mathis had seen enough and decided that he had to get involved and do something to save lives.
He had been thinking about assuming an active role in the fight against violence since 1994, but it was not until the deaths of his beloved sister, Hannah Mathis, due to a health crisis and the fatal stabbing of his best friend, Shawn Posey, that really spurred him to create the nonprofit organization called No More Graves.
“It was founded because of all the death and imprisonment happening in our neighborhood. There are too many guns on the streets and especially where we live. I dislike violence of any sort but really hate guns. If I could have my wish, there would be no more guns at all,” said Mathis, 45, the president and founder of No More Graves, In addition to his work on No More Graves, Mathis is the Lead HVAC Mechanic for Thompson Hospitality. Mathis’ branch is located at Howard University’s campus and does all the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning for the prestigious historical learning institution.
Reason for No More (Senseless) Graves
The non-profit organization was born because of an urgent need that arose from a community desperate for advocacy and answers. Mathis works with eight other active members including Vice President Daniel Flowers, Communications Specialist Tiffany Green, Community Liaison Michael Taylor, Yolanda Fields, Demetrius McDuffie, Alisa Steele, and Malcolm Pryor. A ninth member, who is also part of a clergy, requested to remain unidentified for this article.
Simply put, there have been too many homicides in DC for far too long. By 1989 the annual homicide rate had risen above four hundred and the nation’s capital had the notorious moniker of being the “murder capital” of the United States with the city showing the highest number of slayings. The record climbed to 479 homicides in 1991 which remains the record.
Homicides allegedly stemmed from the drug culture that was prevalent at the time. Drug dealers were present in the District of Columbia, like every major urban city in the country, since the 1970s. However, it was only when crack cocaine became easily accessible in the mid-1980s that the deaths and drug-related violence escalated.
Although drugs were rampant everywhere, city residents and long-time Washingtonians might swear and testify that it was ten times worse East of the River in the Ward 7 and, especially, Ward 8 quadrants.
Members of No More Graves attempt to motivate and empower children and youth by engaging with them “where they are.” They accomplish this by being daily positive role models, taking them out of their neighborhoods and visiting other regional locales. No More Graves regularly supply job information for those interested in legitimate work.
Annual activities and events sponsored by the nonprofit group include school supply drives, movie excursions, and cookouts. A mentoring program was also established.
DC’s Woodland Neighborhood
The concept of “No More Graves” was started in the Woodland Terrance Public Housing which is in the Woodland neighborhood in Ward 8 where Mathis grew up. The 234-unit development, located at 2311 Ainger Place, SE, opened in the 1960s. The small community is bounded by Ainger Place, Alabama Ave to the east, Hartford Street to the south and Langston Pl., Raynolds Pl. and Erie to the southwest.
In recent times, according to The Washington Post, the neighborhood, which has a mostly African American population, is a persistent pocket of crime where shootings, armed robberies, and assaults are common. The Post also reported that open-air drug markets operate on a nightly basis.
The Director of Entertainment
Besides being the Community Liaison for No More Graves, Michael Taylor is also the organization’s entertainment director. Taylor (or Big Nut as he is known) may be the most visible member of the nonprofit who regularly interfaces with teenagers and twenty-somethings involved in illicit or criminal behavior.
“I preach about being consistent. We hold most of our meetings right there in the court yards of Woodland Terrace. I talk to the youth all the time and give them job leads for themselves or family members. If I can get one or two out of five off the streets, it’s a win,” said Taylor, who no longer resides in Woodland Terrace but frequents the area.
The 57-year-old works as a Case Manager for the Department of Behavioral Health (dbh.dc.gov) where he carries a current caseload of approximately thirty-six people. He sometimes acts as a character witness and provides positive testimony in a courtroom. Taylor is also a huge fan of the movie, The Godfather, and the intricacies that the trilogy lays out about certain ills in society and specifically the conveyance of drugs to minority communities.
“We lost (our collective) family with the drugs brought to our community and things like (the over dependence of) welfare. Things need to change. We need more leaders,” he said.
Taylor, like his friend and fellow nonprofit member, Mathis, served jail time at least once in life. They have rehabilitated themselves while trying to inspire the next generation.
Mathis, who is interested in collaborating with other community stakeholders like Violence Interrupters, says that an attitude in today’s youth has shifted from previous generations.
“We did have a sense of respect even when I was out there hurting people by selling drugs. But now the kids seem to take, take, take all the time. We’re all competing. We’re our own lottery ticket if we wake up. We keep competing for the unseen [almighty dollar]. The only person you should compete with is the person you were yesterday.”
Tiffany Green is one of three women in No More Graves. Her motivation to join the nonprofit came when Davon McNeal, a 11-year-old boy and innocent bystander, was fatally shot on Independence Day in 2020 during a violent dispute between two other individuals. Green now serves as the team’s secretary and communications specialist which includes monitoring and overseeing the website.
The mother of two, who resides on Jasper Street in southeast, has one daughter who graduated from North Carolina Central University and the youngest one is currently a junior at George Washington University.
“I think people and the youth need mental health resources, better things to do, and more positive role models,” said Green, 45, who works as a Customer Relations Specialist with the nonprofit National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. “We want people to learn to express themselves other than through violence.”
For more information on No More Graves, or to volunteer go to www.nomoregraves.org.