My path out of poverty| Lashon Amado | TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue

My path out of poverty| Lashon Amado | TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue


Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Steven Li When I was seven or eight years old, I was awaken at 5 am one morning
to a loud bang. That loud bang was federal agents
kicking down my door, looking for a family member of mine who was a big-time drug dealer
at the time. He wasn’t there. It was just me,
my Mom and my sister. I can still remember the fear,
the confusion, and the traumatic impact
that that event had on me. That event stole my sister’s security. I didn’t feel safe in my own home. They threatened to come to my school
and take me away from my parents, so I didn’t feel safe there. And lastly, it shaped my perception
of police and law enforcement. I now looked at them as the enemy. Like in many other low-income communities,
growing up in the city of Boston you had more liquor stores
than grocery stores, more drug dealers than college graduates, and more funerals than weddings. Most will believe
that behavior is learned, and I can honestly say
that was the case for me. I became what I saw every day.
I became a product of my environment. If you were to walk
through a low-income community and take a poll and ask individuals,
or even go inside prisons and ask them, “When your were younger,
what did you want to grow up and be?” I could guarantee you
almost none of them would say, “I wanted to grow up and be a gangbanger,” or “a drug dealer,” or “a robber.” It used to be, “I want to be a superhero,” or “a police officer,” or “a firefighter.” So, when did that shift happen? I believe the conditions of poverty
helped create that shift. Aristotle offers a quote and says, “Poverty is the parent
of revolution and crime.” And I believe that to be true. Being a student in middle school
in Boston public school system was pretty rough. The school looked more
like a prison than a school. We had forty students in one class. We had one book for every three students. I remember spending
most of my times in the hallways, running around, not engaged
in any type of material. And then, I remember being at my
middle school graduation and thinking, “How did I even get here? I don’t
deserve this. I didn’t work for it.” And at that moment, I realized, “They don’t care about me.
They’re pushing me out.” So, as if matters couldn’t get even worse, it was in eighth grade when I lost
my first friend to street violence. Da-Keem Galloway, seventh grade, shot in his head because he didn’t
want to give up his hat to some of the local gangbangers
in the neighborhood. This happened just blocks away
from my school. So now, I wasn’t being engaged,
I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel like anyone cared. So I said, “To hell with it.” That led me on to getting suspended,
missing days of school, and eventually getting introduced
to the juvenile justice system for truancy. That apathetic attitude
poured over into high school, and I eventually got kicked out
of three different high schools, and written off by society. And I remember
I was on my last trial thinking, “How did they kick me out? They’re the ones that failed me. They failed to provide a safe space. They failed to provide caring adults
to make me feel like a student, and not a number, and they failed to provide
a childhood curriculum to keep me engaged. But yet, I’m the bad guy.” So, as a direct result of being disengaged
for roughly two or three years, I caught myself in a vicious cycle. I turned to the streets. I felt like I had
no other option at the time. I didn’t consider myself a criminal.
I considered myself a survivor. In that two-year period,
I couldn’t find a job, so I started selling drugs, got arrested, started getting into fights,
getting jumped, watching my friends
get gunned down in the streets, and I myself came face to face with death
on three different occasions. I was “knee-deep in the game”. Within one day, there was
a huge sweep in Brockton. They arrested over twenty individuals
for drugs in the city. They were all my friends, and I thought,
“Shon, you’re next.” On that very same day,
I turned the corner of my street, and there was a police cruiser right
in front of my house with their lights on. When I saw that, I immediately
went back to being eight years old and remembering those federal agents
kicking down my door. It was then that I said to myself,
“This is not about you anymore. This is about your family.” I couldn’t put my sister
and my mother through that again. So, at that point, I said,
“You’ve got to make a change.” So, I went on
to look for a second chance. It wasn’t easy. I found my second chance
at an organization called YouthBuild. YouthBuild is a comprehensive program for youth who have dropped out
of high school and are unemployed. And while they’re in the program, they spend half of their time working
towards their GED or high school diploma, and the other half
getting marketable job skills, for their low-income homes,
for low-income families. There are social and emotional
components of the model, and also chances
to develop leadership skills, which has helped lead me
to this stage today, to represent thousands and thousands
of YouthBuild students and local communities across the US, and now in fifteen countries
across the globe. When the education system failed me,
when the job market failed me, when the justice system failed me, YouthBuild was there
to welcome me with open arms. I first heard about the program
from a cousin of mine who graduated. My initial intentions on the program
were to join the program, get my GED, pick up a certificate
and a trade, and be on my way. But boy, their staff did have plans for me. They said, “Lashon,
we respect your decision, but why don’t you give college a shot? Don’t say it’s not for you,
unless you give it a shot. Hey, we’ll pay for it, we’ll bring you
to the class, you know. If it doesn’t work,
what’s the loss to you?” So I took them up on their offer. So immediately
after completing the program, I enrolled in the Bridge program, which was a partnership
between my local YouthBuild program, and the local community college, and that was my first college class,
and I passed it with an A. Receiving that grade
motivated me to want to go on immediately in full time
in the next semester. And so, I did so. And I kept up the pace, and eventually, ended up completing
my associates in criminal justice, with high honors, and ducked in to three honor societies, and made Dean’s list
every single semester. (Applause) Thank you. Now, this picture is significant to me because this is me and my father
at my graduation. Now, this would be the last time
I’d see my father because he was murdered
three weeks after that. That was one of the most
trying and darkest times of my life. I wanted to give up on everything,
education, you name it. I wasn’t for it. Even though I was
two years out of the program, the YouthBuld staff
was still there for me. They served as my counselors, they came to my house unannounced
to make sure I was OK. And lastly and most importantly, they reminded me that the last thing
my father would want was for me to give up my education. So, I internalized that
and kept up the pace, and this May, I just completed
my bachelor’s at UMass Boston. And now, I am on my way
to Northeastern University for my master’s in nonprofit management. (Applause) Now, while I appreciate
all the accomplishments every time I come to DC
or go to any other city and I go back to my community,
it’s a smack in the face. My people are still under struggle. There are over 6.7 million
opportunity youth who are unemployed and have no education. In addition, there are over 2.3 million
individuals in our prison systems. What if they had a second chance? Would the world be a better place? My answer is yes, and it’s not too late. But we all have to work collectively
to help change their conditions and help provide more opportunity
for the millions of youth in America. So the question is, how?
How can we do that? I have three solutions for you. My first solution is,
instead of making decisions for them, give youth and members
of the community a voice. They’re the experts, they’re the ones
living in these situations. A perfect example would be
the National Council of Young Leaders, Opportunity Youth United, in which I represent youth for USA. We’ve put together a set
of recommendations to increase opportunity and decrease poverty in America. Some of our priorities are to increase
comprehensive programs like YouthBuild, and reform the criminal justice system,
and many more. But again, these recommendations
were all produced by former opportunity youth themselves. Secondly, instead of investing more
in jails and in building more jails, let’s invest in more YouthBuild programs, so that every youth
who wants a second chance can have the opportunity
and take seize of it, where they could earn
their high school diploma and GED with a relevant curriculum
and opportunity for service learning; where they can gain job training
and become community assets, instead of liabilities; where they have access to caring adults
to help them work through life challenges and build the resilience
to transform their lives; where they can engage
in community service for communities that they
may have damaged before, but now they can then go back
and build a connection. And lastly, give them leadership skills and the tools to take responsibility
and advocate for change in their community, in their lives,
in this nation, and in the world. Lastly, let’s look at some of the policies that are preventing these men and women
from reaching their full potentials, such as the regulations
around criminal records and the school discipline policies, so that we can have less of these, and more of these. Now, that is a simple formula, and I believe that that formula
will change lives and open many doors. Ladies and gentlemen, that was my story. I thank you for listening. (Applause)