This post was originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal.
Not too long ago, I accepted an award on behalf of United Way from the Gephardt institute at Washington University. After the award ceremony I had the honor of dining with former Congressman Dick Gephardt. I asked him a question I ask most people I meet for the first time: “Are you doing what you thought you would be doing when you were a kid?” In his case, I was referring to his long stint in public service. I have asked this question of bishops, rabbis, engineers, teachers, and CEOs. The answers have been wide ranging. I’ve heard, “What I am doing now didn’t exist when I was a kid” and, “What I am doing now wouldn’t have been socially acceptable for my gender then.” Some people were groomed from an early age to do what they are doing, and others did a 180 in response to a sense of calling to a particular vocation.
The Congressman’s answer was not unfamiliar. He shared that, but for a five week summer program at Northwestern, he is not certain where he would have landed. Because of that experience, he eventually studied there as an undergraduate and met a young John Kennedy who inspired his pursuit of public service. This exposure changed his life. I’ve found that, regardless of whom I ask the question, there’s a common theme: exposure and mentorship can change lives and alter futures. This powerful duo is even more significant when children experience inadequate parenting, exposure to violence, disrupted families, and high poverty. This was my narrative.
Many people through the years have invested in my development. Mrs. Kennedy was my high school counselor who discretely provided me a backpack full of clothes and food, took me on my first job interview, and introduced me to African American male role models at a time when gang culture was revered. Lawson Calhoun and Louise Reeves were my heroes and believed in me enough to look past my ACT score of 15. They took a risk and marshaled resources from Emergency Children’s Home and the Scholarship Foundation to help me go to college. As a young professional, Rev. Jerry Paul helped me see that my checkered background didn’t preclude me from doing something great. Our conversations led me to United Way, and he helped me understand that great organizations are a function of great leaders. He taught me that, to be a great leader, you can never lose the fire for learning and listening. My life is a testament to the fact that exposure and mentoring can change a person’s course for the better.
As our region grapples with how to change the trajectory of a generation of youth, I implore business and community leaders to have a long-term vision, to focus proactively on mentorship and exposure with law enforcement as a last resort. We know that once young people enter the prison system they tend to stay in the system. According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, up to one-third of incarcerated youth return to jail or prison within a few years after release. Youth in prison lose their most formative years. They miss meeting people and discovering career paths that can help them change their future. I have personally experienced the power of early exposure to positive people and productive opportunities. Such exposure can bring to its knees the negativity that threatens the development of a generation of young people. People with seemingly limited options need broader exposure—it can change everything. Let’s work together to make this vision a reality. In the long run it’s a better return on investment for our region—I am living proof.
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