Taking Dr. King's message to the street
I am the second oldest of 16 children so I learned early how to lead: I spent a lot of my childhood giving my younger siblings baths, cooking them meals and helping them get their homework done.
Because my parents were crack-cocaine addicts, I grew up as a ward of the state in Washington D.C., living in six foster homes and six group homes through child and family services. I ended up making some bad choices. I spent time selling drugs. I sustained a gunshot wound and ultimately spent six weeks time in prison in Washington D.C.
With the help of God and the D.C.-based non-profit Peaceholics, I was able to turn my life around. For me, though, learning my own lessons has not been enough. My goal is to lead other young men off the streets and out of trouble. It's not an easy battle, but it's one that I know about first hand.
When I was released from prison in 2001, I moved into an independent-living "halfway-house" program. It was there I met Jauhar Abraham, the Peaceaholics co-founder who was working as a counselor there. Jauhar, who was first incarcerated at age nine before he changed his own life, has a background in music, and because I love making music, we were able to build a friendship that has lasted 10 years.
Jauhar helped me get enrolled in the Village Learning High School, where I earned my diploma (I had dropped out of high school in 2000.) He also moved me with in with his own family so I had a safe place to live. Jauhar introduced me to the music business, and soon I was writing songs for go-go bands and a D.C. rap group called The Young Bucs. My experience being in jail had made me realize that I wanted more out of life.
Jauhar also introduced me to the late Rev. James Bevel, a civil rights activist who was there when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Rev. Bevel told us real-life stories about being friends with Dr. King, like one day when a group of them were going out to get burgers and shakes. A group of white men threatened to smash their car, and Bevel and others were ready to fight. But Dr. King held them back and said they shouldn't stoop to that level of violence.
That story affected me because it reminded me we have more choices than we realize. They could have got in a fight that day, but Dr. King stood for something more. He was teaching people to be disciplined in the face of adversity.
That is the kind of lesson I try to share with young men and women who are growing up in situations as bad -- or worse -- than my own. I volunteer as a mentor through Peaceaholics, and I want these kids to know they also have choices.
My targets are the young men ages 16 to 24 who are either incarcerated or struggling in the community. My job is to be there for them, and I let my actions do the leading. Like a lot of these young men, I am a father -- one who has struggled to keep custody of my two daughters. For the young guys who are dads, I take them with me to my Financial Reviews and Custodial Cases with my ex-wife so they can have a visual on what it means to be responsible and have a relationship with their children.
I hang out with these guys where they stay -- on the street, in their apartments -- and I just soak up the atmosphere there. I try to never come at them in a preachy way. When I do give advice, I try to give it with respect and genuine love. It is never easy to get people to change their ways so I just try to stay consistent and persistent in how I reach out.
My biggest victory is that all the guys I have mentored have walked away from the streets and are now living straight. A couple have even reached higher, finishing high school, finding a job and paying their child support.
But it's not all successful. I have a young friend, Rodney White, who I met eight years ago. I worked with him and helped him release locally release a CD in 2002. When I got back in touch with his family recently, though, I found out he serving time in prison on serious charges. I plan to write him twice a month and put money on his books once a month. He does not know about this yet, and I have not spoke to him in six years but I know he needs all the support he can get from the outside so he can rehabilitate himself on the inside.
It is easy to write a check and even though it helps a great deal, giving your time and physically investing yourself gives young people a feeling that they belong and are cared for. Whether than means showing up at a sports event, coming to their school, bailing them out of jail, or taking them on outings to discover the city, being there is important. To me, that's what leadership is about: humility, heart and honesty.
January 14, 2010; 1:19 PM ET |
Personal Leadership Journey
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