“When I was thirteen, I decided to run away from home and I unfortunately became lured into the crack cocaine culture of Detroit.”


I grew up in Detroit’s east side, in a neighborhood that, from the outside, looked like the model for working and middle class America during the 1970s. My father was in the Air Force since he was seventeen years old. He was a “just go to school and do the right thing” kind of father. He worked for the state during my childhood, while my mother was a homemaker. I am the fourth of six biological siblings and my parents went through a tumultuous separation, got back together, and eventually divorced.

My mother was incredibly abusive throughout my childhood, so I decided to leave and run away. I was a smart kid, but I was naïve and thought that somebody would take me in if I ran away. During the first couple of weeks, I slept in garages or in friend’s basements. But eventually, I found myself being seduced into the street culture, largely based on my need to be in an environment where I felt protected and loved and accepted. I was thirteen years old. I quickly became deeply immersed in the crack cocaine culture.


I didn’t know anything about the impact that drugs had on people and the behaviors that were a result of consuming crack cocaine. But I quickly learned that the culture wasn’t normal. I didn’t feel safe.

Four months in, I was lured out of the house where I was selling drugs. I was robbed at gunpoint. I stood on the stairs of this apartment building, looking down at a dark basement where I thought they were going to shoot me and leave my body. This wasn’t a place where a kid should be, but I didn’t know how to navigate myself back to a place where I felt safe.

My father ended up getting a new girlfriend who eventually became his wife, and while he and my stepmother were living together, he reached out to me and asked me to move back home. I was a sophomore in high school and my father attempted to establish a normal routine for me. But by that point, I was so consumed in street culture that it was hard for me to adjust to the life of a normal fifteen year old. I found myself restless in school, and I didn’t feel like I fit in with the kids who were doing what normal teenagers do.



Being brought up in the military, my father didn’t grow up with the levels of gun violence and the street culture I grew up with. He never really handled the baggage of my emotional trauma. He worked in the mental health field, but he still wasn’t able to help me in the ways I needed. I don’t know if that was because he felt inadequate as a father.

I was also stubborn and wanted to do things my own way. He was always working and I never felt like I could turn to him, because he would judge me and try to solve my problems in his own way, as opposed to accepting the fact that I didn’t feel safe as a young boy. I also felt at the time that he was complicit in my mother’s abuse, so it was difficult to trust him with my deepest feelings, since he basically allowed me to be abused.


A year later, I attempted to commit suicide, because I was grappling with the mixed emotions of not being accepted and not having a connection with my mother even though she was abusive. There was still something about me that yearned to be loved, nurtured, thought about, and cared for. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to get that, and my father couldn’t quite provide that type of love, despite his best attempts.

So I returned back to the street culture, where I felt like I had friends. They understood me because they had gone through similar experiences. The human connection was there.


I returned to selling drugs and then, by the age of seventeen, I had gotten shot multiple times. The next 16 months were the darkest stretch of my life. Constantly wrestling with not feeling safe, I was consuming a lot of alcohol and carried a gun pretty much every day.

I wasn’t able to process how I felt in a healthy way, and I didn’t feel like there was a safe space for me to go and talk about how I’d been shot and robbed at gunpoint. Instead, I had to suppress all of those emotions, the fears, the disappointments, and the anger. Later, I would learn that I was suffering from PTSD after being shot.

My support group consisted of other broken young men who looked like me and who had similar experiences. We supported each other by agreeing to always defend each other and to have each other’s back. We pledged to be loyal and to figure out ways to financially support each other through hustling. We would drown our sorrows in alcohol. They were all I had to hold onto. At the age of 19, I shot and killed a man during a drug transaction. I was arrested, charged with murder, and sentenced to 17-40 years in prison. I ended up serving 19 years.


Out of the 19 years I served, seven were in solitary confinement and at one point I served four and a half years straight in solitary. I’m not sure what the general knowledge is about solitary confinement in America, but it’s one of the most inhumane and barbaric environments you can imagine. The level of mental illness in there is unimaginable, so there weren’t many people I could turn to and express what I was thinking. It was just me in a cell and other men on the tier in their solo cells with nothing to do.

I remember reading Plato’s Republic, and in that book, Plato describes the speech of Socrates at his trial. Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Shortly after reading that, I received a letter from my oldest son in which he told me that his mother had explained to him why I was in prison. I thought to myself, “This is not the legacy I want to leave my child.” In that moment, I made a decision to live my life differently. I didn’t quite know how, but I did know that one of the steps I needed to take was to examine how I ended up in prison in the first place.



That’s when I turned to writing. I started journaling, going back and analyzing things that had transpired in my life and re-assigning the responsibility to where it rightfully belonged. I knew it was rooted in the physical and emotional abuse that I experienced at the hands of my mother. Finding the root of my trauma showed me that there was a clear path to reimagining a life for myself outside the prison walls. I had to create what life would look like once I was out, and decide what I wanted that life to be.



And so, that started my journey of writing. I was journaling and just writing about my life. I started to set goals for myself, like writing a book in thirty days. I knew that if I could accomplish that goal, it would show me that I was capable of doing something other than living my life in a prison cell. In those thirty days, I actually wrote my first book.


During my sentence I was fortunate enough to meet some of the most incredible mentors in the world. These were men who are currently dying in prison, serving life sentences. They lent me the books that changed my life. They challenged my thinking, figuring out ways to help me navigate through life. They recognized things in me I never could, and they were committed to providing the tools I needed to reimagine a life for myself.

Early on, I was very resistant to their help, but they were such skilled mentors that they found ways to help me nonetheless. They gave me numerous books to read, and the most important of them was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Not only did I relate to his story about his descent into a life of criminality, but also to his ability to recognize his talents and gifts. I saw myself and Malcolm X wanting to contribute something more meaningful to the world. I read that book and it changed the course of my life.


It was very difficult to focus on the positive initially. It wasn’t until I was down to minimum security that I was able to facilitate classes based on my own experiences, and based on a book I’d read about unpacking emotional trauma from our childhood. When I began to teach these classes, I didn’t think men would show up and be emotionally vulnerable or honest. But because I had a strong standing in the prison, I was able to convince some of the more charismatic men in the ward to come and join the group, which eventually led to younger members joining.

We would have some of the most powerful sessions examining our lives. The level of mental and sexual and psychological and physical abuse that these men had experienced was really mind-blowing and heartbreaking. Seeing them discover their ability to produce outcomes other than violence was truly inspiring to me.

And that’s when I knew…we weren’t bad people. We were people who came from circumstances that led to us making bad decisions. We were people who, with the right type of emotional support, could create very different, positive outcomes for ourselves. I opened my mind to the thought that I could someday live a different life, a life full of meaning and purpose, a life of freedom.


When I was first released from prison, I was really shocked and disappointed at how resistant society is to the idea of people turning their lives around. I was met with a lot of cynicism, skepticism, and negativity, which was disheartening. I discovered all the barriers in place for women and men returning home from prison that make it hard to find positivity beyond the bars. I struggled to find employment, so I was self-employed, mostly selling my books and doing speaking engagements. Fortunately for me, I knew my talents in connecting to people and writing were something meaningful that I could contribute to my community.



I immediately started doing work with young men and women who were growing up in an environment similar to mine, which led to my being awarded the Black Male Engagement Leadership Award by an organization that focuses on black men’s accomplishments, rather than viewing us as a problem America has to solve. At that moment, I recognized that there were people who really cared about the core of my being as opposed to my worst moments, and these people would support my endeavors to make a contribution to society.

To date, I’ve had several fellowships with leaders throughout the world. I’ve been able to utilize my writing voice to facilitate change when it comes to second chances and work in the criminal justice space. I did a couple of TEDx talks and a TED talk during my fellowships at MIT Media Lab and Kellogg.  

Those led to many more opportunities, including a teaching position at The University of Michigan, where I taught for three semesters. I co-founded a class that’s still being taught today by formerly incarcerated men.

I won the Mantissa University Innovator of the Year Award for a project I started at MIT Media Lab called The Atonement Project, where we used a cross-section of visual art and creative writing to address issues of violent offenses between violent offenders and those who have been impacted by their offense. The project was also nominated for the Ted Prize, making me one of 20 finalists globally.


June 2015, Oprah interviewed me for her SuperSoul Sunday Show. March of 2016 my memoir, Writing My Wrongs debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. June 2018, I assumed the role of Executive Director of The Anti-Recidivism Coalition where I currently oversee a staff of 54, 68% of which are system impacted. We have an office in downtown LA and Sacramento.

I continue my work as a speaker, I do a lot of work in the national criminal justice space, I’m an artist, I write for the stage, I write for television–my life is very different from the way it was when I was a child, and from when I was in prison.

I also have an incredible seven year old son who is the light of my life. I enjoy fatherhood now; I have two adult children, but I’m getting a second chance to be a full-time parent. It’s so important for me.

The challenges that I’ve overcome have shaped the way I live now. When I encounter low points, I recognize that I’ve been through worse and that with just a shift in thinking, I can produce very different outcomes. I also realize that resiliency is an important spiritual practice to develop. I personally believe that human beings by nature are redeemable and that we aren’t defined by our worst moment. We’re fully capable of overcoming adversity.

Our past does not define us if we choose to examine it. Examining my life and learning from my experiences has set in motion the establishment of building a new legacy for my child to follow. My purpose is to communicate that to others. Now I am an inspirational leader, helping others overcome their past and define a new legacy.