Twelve years – that’s a long time to be away. But that’s how much time my cousin Rick received for making one terrible choice that he couldn’t come back from. He was eighteen-years-old when he entered prison for armed robbery in the late 1990s. Unfortunately his story is not uncommon. According to the NAACP, these days, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in America. In addition, African Americans represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests and 58 percent of youth admitted to state prisons.
Undoubtedly, in addition to the outside factors Rick faced, the choice he made that day and the series of choices that led to his incarceration will define the rest of his life. It’s a subject that he and I often talk about over holiday dinners – the lost generation of boys who have been seduced into believing that street life and its end destination of early death, prison and a hand-to-mouth existence is a noble aim to strive for. Often combined with extraordinary life circumstances, African American boys have been tricked into believing that they have no need to hope for anything more because of the environment they have been raised in.
To the boys and men who entered the prison and corrections pipeline and have emerged whole, you have a story to tell. You have a purpose that doesn’t have to be defined by your sentence. Instead, your life from this point forward can be defined by your sentences, your words and actions that will help other young men make better choices. I learned a long time ago that there is power in our testimonies. We need an army of men and women to plug into the lives of our youth delivering one message: God loves you, and you have a future and a purpose.
We need to encourage our youth to graduate from high school, and choose two-or four-year degrees, trade or military careers, learning skills that will position them to compete for the jobs of the 21st century. They must know that we are here to help them accomplish this goal and to become better men.
I respect and admire cousin Rick for the father he is and for the leader in his local community that he aspires to become. Being a leader in this army starts with your testimony. Folks, we can win if we work together. Next Thursday, join St. Louis thought leaders to discuss what we can and must do collectively to create conditions that transform lives and our region.
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