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When Boston Latin School Students Wore White Sheets In Protest…Against Me

I entered my senior year at Boston Latin School (BLS) with a spirit of triumph. I felt like I finally made it. In earnest, I was on the extended plan, having repeated my seventh grade year. BLS was every bit the challenge I was told it would be by then Headmaster Michael Contompasis who said on our first day of school: “Look to your left, look to your right. By graduation time, many of you won’t be here.” I spent most of my years at BLS barely passing most classes. In fact, the end of my sophomore year was the first summer that I did not have to attend summer school. I came back my junior and senior year focused and ready to be a leader at BLS…and that’s when my real education started.

Junior year was when I really began to question my role and experiences being black at BLS. I realized how the complexion of my classes got lighter the more advanced courses I enrolled in such as English Honors. I recalled times where I was disciplined more harshly than white students for the same offenses—an issue plaguing many school districts today. I started to realize that in my entire 7-year experience at BLS, I read one book by a black author—ironically Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I remembered how I would only see pictures of black leaders on the wall during Black History Month. The more frustrated I became with my experiences, the more opportunities I sought to be a leader. By my senior year, I was president of the Afrikan Kulture Society, and I ran for senior class president and student council president. My experience running for senior class president was my final wake up call.

On election day, I entered school and found a great deal of frustration on the part of many black students. I was told that several white students wore white sheets on their heads to protest my candidacy. Many students skipped class that morning to go to the office in protest. I, maybe out of fearlessness or stupidity, went about my day. I had not experienced physical bullying at BLS since the 7th grade and by my senior year, I felt very comfortable defending myself if I needed to. What I remember more about that day than seeing students crying was the inaction on the part of my teachers and administration. As Dr. King said, at the end of the day, we’ll remember the silences of our friends than the words of our enemies. In fact, it was not until maybe second period where one of our European teachers, Mr. Berger, told students to take their hoods off when we they showed up for our French class. I remember asking myself how these students made it through part of the day with those sheets on and today, I ask myself why they were never disciplined and this is at the heart of what I see with the #blackatbls controversy today.

My experiences at BLS are why I have become a diversity educator today, working with schools nationwide including Boston Public Schools on how to create more culturally competent schools. While I am not directly involved in the current issue at BLS, I know what it feels like to be marginalized there. But even with my challenges at BLS, my time there was not all doom and gloom. I lost the senior class president race but won the student council presidency. The senior class presidential team was multiracial, and I definitely graduated BLS college-ready so I can speak to BLS’ great potential to create strong students. I also had some great teachers who were instrumental to my development. I just can’t help but think, however, of all of the other students like me who never felt truly welcomed at BLS and either left the school or just became less engaged.

In full disclosure, I have not stepped foot in BLS in several years and I do not know the current headmaster Dr. Lynne Mooney Teta so I cannot comment on what the school has or has not done recently to promote respect for diversity. What I do know is that I represent many black alumni who, rightly or wrongly, have not fully engaged BLS at the level we should have beyond graduation because we felt as though the school did not care much for us, so like many graduates of color from many majority white high schools, colleges and universities, we left and never looked back. My hope is that the #blackatbls moment can serve as an opportunity for all of us in the BLS community past and present to deepen our commitment to respecting diverse cultures and having courageous conversations so that there will never be a need for a #blackatbls moment in the first place.

 

 

Reflect positively on the end of another year

The end of the year is upon us and what do you know? You’re still here. Despite all of the many tragedies we see in the world today, you still woke up today, blessed to breathe a new day. Have you ever stopped to really ponder what that means? What better time than now to do just that. Even though your day may not be going great, are you still grate-ful?

I am learning more and more how to appreciate each day, each moment with my family, and each moment with you. This holiday season, I really suggest you make an effort to do the same because each year that passes is one you will never see again. Oprah once said that when her time is done on earth she wants to look down and say “I knocked that earth thing out!” You can’t accomplish that if you do not focus on being present and enjoying each moment while you have it to enjoy. Don’t let anyone take your peace and potential happiness away…not even YOU! Happy holidays to you and yours!

How student leaders can respond to controversial topics in the news

It is beyond an understatement to say that we are living in very dangerous times. It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there is another story on some hot button issue from mass shootings to police/civilian interactions. From racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia, to immigration, education, and terrorism, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face today. In my work as a youth speaker and an UPstander, I encounter leaders like you every single day who may not be sure on how to respond to these challenges from a leadership perspective.

It is easy for any of your peers who are not leaders to say whatever is on their mind with no concern for the ramifications but as a leader, you took an oath to work towards bringing people together, be it in your school community or beyond, depending on the issue. But how can you honestly speak about an issue like #blacklivesmatter or a tragic mass shooting if it is far removed from your daily experience? Here are 3 steps you can take to become a more effective leader on hot button issues.

  1. Educate yourself on the issue

We live in the information age. There is simply no excuse to not be able to educate yourself on an issue. The challenge, however is whether you will diversify your sources of information. For example, if you are reading about the tragic shootings in San Bernardino or the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, you should not only consult one media source, as most people do. Remember, you are a leader! Don’t only watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX for example. Watch all three plus additional sources like NPR and other reputable websites and journals that can educate you. Require that your team do the same thing and then make an informed decision on how to move forward.

  1. Survey your community

It is very easy to not address an issue because you do not believe it affects you directly but chances are that there is someone in your community that is affected. Is the Muslim student in your school being looked at differently after the San Bernardino killings? Is the police officer in your school or neighborhood being looked at more suspiciously after videos that surface showing police officers on the other side of the country shooting unarmed individuals? Is the Spanish speaking student more on edge over the immigration debate? You have to survey your community to find out who is feeling isolated and engage them. One of the mistakes I made as a high school student council leader was not listening as often as I should have to the people who did not speak up. Remember, silence can speak just as loudly as the loudest megaphone.

  1. Actively reach out to the affected community

The word “active” is extremely important here. Your entire school community needs to see that you are making efforts to be an inclusive community. Yes it’s cliché but you have to lead by example. Be the person to sit at a different table in the cafeteria, which is still one of the most segregated area in many schools today. Create speakout events where opinions can be expressed or have a unity rally. There is no shortage of things you can do once you are committed to be an UPstander and not a bystander. Once people know that they are still accepted in the community they share with you, they may be more likely to open up to you and also less likely to resort to some form of negative behavior due to the isolation or mistrust they may be experiencing.

Leadership is an easy job if you only preach to your choir but here is the problem, preaching to the choir is not leadership. It’s preaching. You ran for office and though you were not elected by everyone, you noe represent everyone. Take that responsibility seriously. Get educated on the issues of the day and use your knowledge to build your community, not keep it divided. That is the sign of a true leader!

Daddy, why did you record the police?

Weekend mornings in my house are family time. Our 2 daughters, ages 9 & 7, run around making breakfast themselves or helping my wife and I with meal preparation, while my 1-year old son looks for new ways to climb up on (or eat) anything in sight. Though our morning engagements can sometimes be brief, I always look forward to talking about our week or what’s coming up for all of us. The comfort of one Sunday morning was shaken, however, when my 7-year old walked up to me and said “Daddy, why did you record the police?” Everyone else continued like it was business as usual but my heart sank as I tried not to look like my brief moment of bliss had not just been shattered by my daughter who just happened to see video on our iPhone Photo Stream that I forgot to delete.

Rewind. It was a hot Monday afternoon. I went down to Virginia Beach to meet with a Grammy Award-winning music producer about possible collaborations. In addition to my work as an educator, I am also a musician with seven albums to go along with my seven books. I love making music and so I was looking forward to this meeting. The session was fabulous and since I live in Washington, DC, I wanted to leave as soon as our meeting finished so I could avoid as much traffic as possible on this three hour drive to get home in time to tuck my kids in to bed and tell them one of my legendary freestyle bedtime stories. I filled up on gas and hit the road and though my tank was full, the air in my lungs was punctured when a police officer appeared on the right rear side of my vehicle. I told myself what I always tell myself as a coping mechanism when police are near me: “It’s all good O. They’re not gonna pull you over. Just relax man and stop being so paranoid. You’ve done nothing wrong and you have nothing to worry about.” I repeated it a second time as he pulled behind me. I said it a third time as his sirens illuminated, and a fourth time when I was pulled over.

As the officer went into his routine before he emerged from his vehicle, I went through my black routine. This could be a routine for all races, I don’t know. I just know that in “the hood”, learning what to do when we encounter the police is probably a more comfortable conversation for parents to have with their children than the birds & the bees. Sing along if you know the song:

1. Windows down
2. Pull out license and registration
3. Place all items on the dashboard
4. Hands on the steering wheel
5. SMILE!!!

Recent events of encounters gone tragically wrong with the police have led many in my community to add another verse to the song:

6. Pull out your phone (always keep it charging in the car for situations like this)
7. Send a message to someone to let him or her know that you are recording so that if your phone is retrieved after you’re killed and there is no video there, something shady happened to it
8. Repeat step #5

Why was it necessary for me to record my interaction with the police? The answer is simple: I can’t trust American society to paint a balanced picture of who I was in case the officer kills me. If I was a violent individual who shot and killed the officer, the media would be ripe with stories of the heroics of the officer…and that’s how it should be. I look at anyone who goes into law enforcement as a hero first and foremost. If however, I was the one killed and the story happened to make the news, I have learned that some in the media would attempt to cover what objectively happened while most will pontificate over why I deserved to be killed. Someone will tell viewers to just look at my size and how the officer should have been afraid. I’m 5’10” and weigh less than 190 pounds. Someone else will find out that I took some martial arts classes at some point and remind them that the officer had to defend himself (as if the officer would have known that). Someone else would find out that I’m also a rapper and blame hip-hop without actually listening to my own curse-free motivational lyrics such as “Only you have your dreams they were given to you/to bring it out to the world don’t let them die with you.” Someone else will post a picture of me with my locks and turn me into some weed-smoking addict who was aggressive though I’ve never smoked a day in my life. Someone else will blame the absence of black fathers for my death, without researching the fact that I was raised by both my parents who have 9 academic degrees including 2 PhDs from Harvard. It must be my dad’s fault I was shot because (say it with me now) “72% of black families don’t have a father in the home” (though the CDC reports that black men actually spend more time with their children than other groups).

Am I being paranoid here? I don’t know. What I do know is that Trayvon Martin was criminalized and murdered while walking in his own neighborhood and some in the media posted photos of someone twice his age and tattooed (rapper, The Game) to help justify why he posed a threat to the man who chased him down and shot him. What if he turned on his video camera instead of talking on the phone before he encountered George Zimmerman? What if Danroy Henry had his own dashcam when a police officer jumped on to his car and fired incessantly into his vehicle? What if Sean Bell or his friends had hit record the night they left his bachelor party? What if? Well, the fact is that in the eyes of mainstream America, it would not have made much of a difference. We have video of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ezekiel Ford, Walter Scott, and others being killed unnecessarily by police and they are still blamed for their own murders. If Eric Garner was not overweight he would have survived right? If 12-year old Tamir Rice never had a toy gun he would not have been shot less than three seconds upon arrival of the police right? If John Crawford didn’t pick up a gun that was not real in a Walmart he would still be here right? If Walter Scott did not run from the police (or owe child support) he would not have been shot at 8 times in the back right? And even though Sandra Bland was not killed in the dashcam video in Texas, if she would have just kept her mouth shut she would still be alive right? I have learned my lesson. Read more

Finishing what you start

Today I want to talk about completion. Les Brown said that in order to become someone you have never been, you have to be willing to do things you have never done. Completing my dissertation was a challenge unlike nothing else I have ever done and I have emerged from it a stronger person. The question is: what have YOU not completed? What vision are you allowing to wither away because of fear of failure, fear of success, lack of financial or emotional support, etc.?

It took me 10 years to complete my PhD. I had no children when I started and now I have 3. I could have used each child as an excuse to not continue but I let them inspire me to push on. Too many times, I hear people say “Life happened” as a reason that they did not pursue a dream. Don’t let that be you. Just because you have to go a different path than others does not mean you should stop driving. No. Find detours in the road, stop for gas, sleep at the hotel. Do whatever you have to do but don’t stop driving until you reach your destination and when you get there, find somewhere else to go! You’re not dust. You weren’t put on this earth to settle. You are here to find your calling and pursue it all costs and let no one stop you, especially YOU!

 

Reflections on working with Bahamian youth upstanders

Last week I had the incredible pleasure of working with 50 high school students in The Bahamas at C.R. Walker high school on how to use the arts, specifically poetry, for effective expression. The poet-in-residence (PIR) project was organized by the United States Embassy in Nassau. The goal of the PIR program is to build cultural and community pride through the use of poetry and the spoken word. While most people know The Bahamas as a top vacation destination, there are serious challenges facing the Bahamian community from crime and drug abuse to xenophobia towards Haitians and alarming rates of breast cancer. The PIR project was brought to The Bahamas to not only provide an outlet for these students to speak on these issues, but also to speak about what makes them proud—their culture.

The youth in this program really taught me a great deal more than I could have ever taught them. The most important lesson I learned is that there are youth who in the most challenging circumstances, still manage to keep their priorities in order. Whereas some people (youth included) I have met across the globe have an obsession with obtaining material items as proof that they have “made it” in life, the youth in this program had their priorities in order. Their goals were to keep their faith, get an education, and have a family. It was after they attained these things that the talk turned towards fancy cars and huge houses.

The students of the Bahamas are as passionate about creating a better future for their island and planet as any youth I have encountered in the 21 countries I have visited to date as a youth speaker and UPstander. On the night of the final performance, these teenagers shared powerful songs, raps, and poems that spoke to Bahamian multicultural unity, a passion for faith, women’s rights, animal rights, and so much more. While I know that most of us will only think of The Bahamas as a tropical vacation island (as I did when I first visited it over a decade ago), I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone while you are there or anywhere you vacation, and step into the heart of the city, which is the heart of the youth. You will indeed learn a valuable lesson.

So you call yourself a leader?

The chosen few are the few who chose

To step up to open doors tightly closed

So you call yourself a leader, but what does that mean?

Getting green, turning green, badly running your team?

Sadly killing the dream of hopeful teen?

Madly willing your ideas not even listening?

Does it mean you celebrate on election day

Cause you can add your new position to your resume?

Can you handle criticism when your peers dis’ you?

Cause you don’t care about theirs but only your issue?

Pass the tissue, makes me sad how some leaders let

Power get to their heads, constituents they forget

You’re just a leader in name if you’re just searchin for fame

For acclaim, it’s a shame why some get in the game

Leadership ain’t for the lame, don’t take it in vein

Time to rethink your position understand why you came

See a leader is someone who listens first then speaks

Someone focused on being the change we seek

Someone who understands they represent all people

Don’t get that your leadership will never have a sequel

Do you seek to understand before being understood?

Do you take time to visit other neighborhoods?

A leader builds coalitions, builds community

Builds unity, ain’t subject to impunity

We need real leaders to step up to the plate

To take a swing at racism, other types of hate

To stomp out bullying, help end genocide

Do your best to help others hold their heads with pride

A leader builds a team, can’t do it all by yourself

A leader remembers to practice good health

Cause you’re no good to no one if you’re not good to you

So let me ask you again, is leadership in you?

Before you commit suicide, read this…

…I’ve been there. I’ve been suicidal and I can tell you without a doubt that it gets better if you just hold on. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was growing up in inner city Boston at the height of what was called the “Crack Epidemic.” Across America, inner city neighborhoods in particular were being ravaged by crack cocaine. As a teenager, so many young black men were dying or being incarcerated, that some of us took to wearing shirts saying “Young Black Men: endangered species.” There was not an expectation that I would even make it to my 18th birthday so part of me thought: “Why try?” Those circumstances alone were enough to make me feel like I had no reason to live but in the case of anyone thinking of taking their lives, there’s always more going on.

In addition to living in a crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhood and being bullied at school, I also did not grow up in the best economic situation. My self-esteem took a hit in middle and high school because I did not have the nicest clothes. We also fell on tough times at home, often having to go without electricity, heat, or even hot water. So outside of my home I felt like I could just be killed at any moment and at home, I didn’t always feel comfortable given that a rat could run by my cold feet at any given moment. These two issues would be more than enough to make me feel worthless but of course, there’s always more.

In retrospect, the biggest challenge I faced that drove me close to suicide was the absence of my father during my seventh grade year. My parents have spent their entire lives fighting for the liberation of oppressed people, especially in the Congo, their place of birth. In the late 1980s, my dad was attacked in a central African country and left for dead after his head was bashed in with a crowbar. He spent much of my 7th grade year overseas in a coma. My hero was gone and now I was ready to be too. I just got tired of being broke, fatherless, and having to fear for my life everyday. I looked at the knives in my kitchen on a daily basis and knew I could just end it all right there. Two things happened during this time that changed my thinking and life forever.

The first life-saving event occurred at a youth conference I attended. A speaker said: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” What? Are you kidding me? It’s not going to be like THIS forever? I don’t know if I truly believed her words then, but the seeds had already been planted subconsciously by her words. The second event occurred when my sister actually confronted me about my suicidal thoughts. I had mentioned my thoughts to a youth counselor and he told my sister. She tearfully told me how much I would be missed by our family if I took my own life. Being that I never wanted to be one to disappoint anybody (especially my family), I decided to stick around a little longer. Prolonging my life was the best decision I ever made in my life. If you are thinking of committing suicide, I need you to please finish reading this blog post in hopes of changing your mind.

Let me tell you about my life now. I am writing this post from a hotel in upstate New York where I am getting ready to provide a motivational talk to 400 students at a high school. Motivational speaking is my passion. I am actually even getting paid nowadays to share my passion. When I finish speaking, I will get in my car and drive back to my house in Washington, DC where I will then kiss my wife who has been with me since we were junior prom dates 20 years ago, and then I will hug and kiss my two beautiful daughters and talk to them about their day. After that I’ll take another look in shock at the article I had published in O Magazine, the picture of myself on the cover of a national magazine, and think about how I am going organize my 8th album before I do some reading for my doctoral studies. Am I saying these things to impress you? Absolutely not. I am saying these things to impress upon you that if you give yourself a chance; if you just hold on for a little longer, your life will turn around.

If anyone told me as a teen that I would be living the life I’m living now, I would have told them to go do something not too nice to themselves. The fact of the matter is that someone believed in me. Someone right now believes in you and, as Les Brown said, sometimes you have to let someone else’s belief in you hold you together until you develop the ability to believe in yourself. If someone is telling you to hold on or to wait another day, do them a favor and play along with them. You will eventually outlast your bully. You will outlast the teasing. You will outlast the racist, homophobic, classist, and sexist slurs as well as the ignorance directed towards you because of your religion. It does get better and if no one told you they believe in you then let me be the first. The only reason I am writing this blog is because I believe in you.

You may be the next president of something or the next Superbowl halftime star. You might invent a phone that makes the iPhone look like a Lego set with earphones. More important than all of that, you may just have a normal life that you cannot imagine because you live in so much turmoil now. Trust me, it gets better. Life can be good to you if you let it be good to you. Let the people in who care for you. I let my family in and they saved my life. You may not have a strong family that has your back like I did but there has to be someone: a teacher, mailman, store clerk, or a friend in class who believes and sees good in you. Someone you know and maybe someone you do not know, believes in you and if you think hard enough about it, you can identify that person. As it has been said, we can find a thousand reasons why we cannot accomplish our goals when all we need is one reason why we can. Find that one reason and hold on to it for dear life. Brown says you were picked out to be picked on, which basically means you are not given anything that you cannot handle. Your work here is simply not done.

Don’t short change yourself by taking your life. Don’t let the bullies win. They may be working for you one day since they spend no time building their own dream, just trying to destroy yours. Don’t short change the world of the good that you may do for humanity. Let the good in. Let the bad out. Find that one person who believes in you. Find that one reason to keep going. Get counseling at school or elsewhere. Maybe you have a sibling who needs you and you hold on for that sibling until you can do it for yourself. Use your survival as an example for others to follow. I’ve spoken to almost 100,000 youth across the globe. Some have said that they stopped thinking of suicide after they heard me. Imagine that. You can actually go from wanting to take your own life to saving the lives of other people. How’s that for a turn around? You have a lot of life to live so get busy living! You were not born to die. You were born to thrive. If you just stay the course, it will get better. Don’t kill yourself. Just give yourself a chance by deciding to live.

The Future of Youth: hanging out with A-State UPstanders!

 

As a youth motivational speaker, I get to meet some of the best and brightest students on the planet.I had the truest honor to speak about the importance of being an UPstander and not a bystander at Arkansas State University. I was welcomed by the incredible students of the Student Activities Board before speaking to over 400 students. I even learned how to throw up the Red Wolves sign!

We covered a wide range of topics from standing up and being a designated driver to speaking up on issues of bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more. This was my first time visiting Arkansas and I hope it won’t be my last time. Arkansas State University is a special place with very special students doing great things. I immediately felt like a part of the ASU community. Anyone who believes that young people are not doing positive things needs to visit the home of the A-State Red Wolves!

Standing UP Against Human Sex Trafficking, a CSPAN Event

As a youth speaker, I am proud to have taken part in this wonderful event that is affecting so many people around the world but especially youth. Maya Soetoro-Ng, peace advocate and Pres. Obama’s half-sister, addresses the Center for American Progress on ending the exploitation of women and children. She highlights the challenges and strategies utilized to combat human trafficking.

You can watch the entire event here.