AQEELA SHERRILLS IS AN ACTIVE PROPONENT of forgiveness. The charismatic head of the Watts-based Community Self-Determination Institute (CSDI), Sherrills has dedicated much of his adult life to helping gang members change theirs. But in January 2004, he had his philosophy directly tested when his son, Terrell, an 18-year-old freshman at Humboldt State University, was shot to death at a party in upscale Ladera Heights, possibly mistaken for a gangbanger.
At the boy’s wake, a grief-stricken Sherrills talked about how his son’s killer would be brought to justice. “But we’re also going to help and forgive that kid,” he said. “We’re going to hold space for the highest possibility of good to show up in him.” In fact, the shooter wasn’t caught. Sherrills says he’s identified the kid through street information, yet he holds fast to his belief in forgiveness. Terrell’s killer is a victim too, he says, “a victim of a culture that lacks compassion.”
As a young man, Sherrills was himself a Crip gang member but, after seeing too many friends die, he decided he wanted to help, not harm. In 1989, at age 19, he co-founded the Amer-I-Can life-skills program with Jim Brown. Then, in 1992, he helped negotiate the famous L.A. Blood-Crip truce. When the truce unraveled, Sherrills and his brother Daude started CSDI, which — among other things — has pioneered a school-dropout retrieval and retention program that’s been adopted by the state of California.
Sherrills’ newest passion is getting policymakers to see the need for helping inner-city kids heal the emotional damage that too often litters their childhoods. “Violence isn’t between gangs, it’s between people with wounds,” he says. “But I’ve come to believe that where the wounds are, the gift lies.”