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Yesterday I went uptown to 125th street and Harlem. I ventured up to meet and share my story with some young folks who are participants of this transitional program. The establishment that I was working with is called Exodus Transitional Community.
When walking over on Third Avenue, you pass by a firehouse. Let me tell you, you haven’t seen anything until you watch a fireman backing one of those huge engines into the house. A brief walk later and you are greeted by a banner that lets you know you are there.
Upon entering you encounter a bunch of artistic messages written on the wall. The most prevalent one that stood out to me stated, “Welcome home.” I think that is pretty cool, and gives you a feeling of belonging. This is something that you really need when transitioning back into civilian life.
As you continue in, you enter a door on the lower level and come to a welcome desk, across from that you see laptops at some workstations. One of the mentors, and program coordinator, Clare Strange was at the desk, we spoke for a few minutes, and then I went up to meet the group.
When I went up, I spoke with one of the guys whom I met at a mentor training program that I attended with my own former mentor, Freddy Baez. Raul told me that this was a place where folks are transitioned back into society after spending time detained. They provide the people that come here with mentoring, career advice, and job placement.
This is the kind of place that many people talk about, but few care to create or participate in.
My reason for getting involved is to help guide these young individuals on the right path. This is about intercepting them at these critical points in their lives, and helping them out. Some of these guys and girls are not much older than my son. They are not a lot older than I was when I hit the crossroads during my own teenage years! Look at me now! I got out; I made it, and so can they! As a society, we should be helping these guys go the right path! It benefits them; it benefits us, and it benefits society as a whole. Everybody wins! We have a safer society; they have a better future!
So as I mentioned, upon my arrival, I met with one of the program coordinators, Clare Strange. I met Clare some weeks ago, during a presentation/reunion with my own teenage year’s social worker, Freddy Baez. I credit this great man with being instrumental in my return from a very dark place and period. His was the first pair of ears to listen to my written words. Twenty years later, I have fifteen-year-old men and women listening to my poetry as a direct result of my reconnecting with him. How about that for coming full circle in life!
Anyone who has ever seen me perform poetry or music knows that I become pretty animated when spitting. One of the fellas said, “You make hip hop music? Let’s hear what you got.” Once I mentioned hip hop, I knew I would have to bring it, and bring it hard. Otherwise, well, I’d look not too good. LOL. This is Harlem after all, you can’t come here, claim hip hop, and not bring some fire.
So I started sitting down, because I was nervous. I won’t lie, but as I continued, the power of my words drove me to stand up and really express what I was saying. Some of the eyes remained intently on me. Some of them turned in an attempt to hide their laughter at the old guy trying to rhyme, while some were totally indifferent towards me.
So yes, some of them laughed at me. I tell you what, it didn’t phase me though. Put yourself in their shoes! Here is this thirty something year old man, a man whom none of them know. A person that hasn’t earned their respect, someone they didn’t even ask to speak to. Who came out of nowhere, and is up in the middle of their intimate circle? Screaming something about slapping the devil in the face while flaring his arms and making intense faces? I’d probably giggle too at fifteen years old. Can you blame them? I know that I can’t.
The key takeaway for me, when I finished my verse, the highlight so to speak. One young man said, “Man, that’s real-life rap right there. That’s real rap.” Then another young man said, “Dude has rhythm, that was tight. Facts.” That’s good right there, I reached some of them. That’s the whole point in doing this! Teens are tough, and you have to expect some resistance. I was glad I touched someone at all.
During my time with them, I tried to share as much as I could about myself, without being boring or preaching. I was a teenager; I have a teenage son, and I know how difficult it is to keep their attention. The fact that I could talk to them for sometime, without totally losing them, is a win.
These are young folks going through a rough spell, but as we spoke, joked around and shared about our days, I could tell that these guys are just a short step away from being where I am! Even five times better off than I am. So what is the key to their success? I don’t have a solid answer for that, but I can’t help but think that part of the key is people like me, and you giving a crap! Taking the time out of our own lives to sit and talk to these guys.
I told them about my music, my time in the military, my television appearances, my writing, mixed martial arts fighting, the gang brawls, school and all that fun stuff. I tried my best not to appear as though I was boasting, but I also wanted them to see that someone just like them is doing some pretty cool things. Things that they also can do, and even more with the time and resources that they have today. I wanted to show them that they are not a loss cause.
One of the guys asked me “What if we are not good at school? What can we do?” My response to that young man was that we are all good at something! The trick is to find what that something is and then to exploit it! I used Eminem as one of my examples. Eminem says himself that if not for music, he doesn’t know what he would be doing. However, with no real education, this man is one of the smartest and wealthiest artists out there today.
Not only did he get rich, but unlike MC Hammer, DMX, and many other artists out there, Eminem still has his money! He also has achieved a huge level of fame, industry respect, and he remains relevant. Eminem found what he is good at, and he zoned in on it and exploited it! Even so, he is far from perfect. Those of you that follow his music career have seen his ups and downs. Though far from flawless, he is constantly working towards his goals, small ones and big ones! I’d say he’s doing pretty damn well.
If you are not good at school, find your personal Eminem story! Find your own Angel Rodriguez story! There is not much difference between me and any of these guys. The main difference is that growing up, I never got caught doing any real dirt. The few times I was caught, I received a summons, and nothing permanent on my record. These kids are just like I was back then. And as you can see, I was saved and recovered my way. Now it is their turn.
Before leaving I went around and gave my card to each one of them. I hope that they take the time to listen to the words in my music. I also hope they take the time to read some of my work. If they make contact, I will do my best to work and aid them in becoming the next Angel, or even the following Eminem.
I know we all lead very busy lives, and we have our own children, but if you can find the time, help out the community. Remember, everyone wins.
I spoke with Clare today. I pitched some ideas and observations that she may be able to apply to give the guys a sense of accomplishment. Small victories lead to large victories. Here’s to the success of our youth!
If you’d like to get involved, or donate, you can read more at the Exodus Transitional Community official website.
All photographs are courtesy of ETCNY.org
Growing Up Bronx