How Marcus Duke turned an impromptu kids’ program into an institution.

The idea for Club Kids 414 arose out of a family outing at McGovern Park on Silver Spring Drive in 1991, when Marcus Duke noticed a fully powered PA system sitting unused. Plugging in some sound equipment he fetched from home, Duke emceed an impromptu talent show that drew a crowd of other people out celebrating the Fourth of July. He figured he was onto something. As a parent who’d had his own period of criminal activity as a young man, Duke worried about how to replace the shuttered bowling alleys, skating rinks and arcades that had dotted the city – places that once served as safe spaces for teens.

Duke held other events in parks and church basements, until the work became too much, and he gave it up. But kids asked him for years to resume the program, and in 2010, he did, calling it Club Kids 414. Earlier this year, Duke won a BET Shine a Light award, and he’s currently raising money to convert a vacant 10,000-square-foot building at North Avenue and 24th Street into a recreation center and performance hall for Club Kids.

Q&A with Marcus Duke

How did you get people interested in your program?

When you offer kids the opportunity to do what they want to, everything falls in place. The kids will say, “Mom, I want to go,” rather than the mom saying, “Hey, get up, and let’s go.” We gave them the opportunity to tell us what they were interested in.

How do you keep kids out of trouble?

People act like it’s rocket science to figure out what these kids need. It’s not. They need something to do with their idle time, and they need a couple of bucks. If you give them some money and something to do, you solve so many issues.

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What kind of encouragement do you give them?

They say, “I’m going to be a rapper.” And they probably can’t rap. But the thing is, OK, well, cool, if that’s what you want to do, bring me a rap. Bring me something you can get on stage with and show these people. Now, this kid is sitting around writing his lyrics, trying to figure out his beat, and working with his buddies on coming up with his hooks, instead of all the other stuff he or she can be doing.

What would a permanent home mean for Club Kids 414?

It will mean being able to help hundreds of kids a day, thousands of kids a month, to stay out of trouble and out of gangs. That’s the whole objective for us.

Have you asked the city for help?

We’ve been asking the city for years to help us. We’ve got tons of abandoned warehouses throughout the city. We were asking the city to donate or sell one to us at a decent price, and that never happened. What they don’t understand is that somebody somewhere is [becoming] a teenager every single day. You can’t get rid of them. They aren’t going anywhere.

‘After School’ appears in the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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