Trigger warning: This article includes some of the speaker’s life experiences that are graphic and violent in nature.

By: Rodney Walker, CAMPUSPEAK Speaker

As a former ward of the State of Illinois, I am privileged to be where I am today. Of the nearly 400,000 youth in foster care, less than a quarter will go on to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and less than 5 percent will go on to earn an advanced degree. Half of all foster care youth will be incarcerated before the age of 25 and experience homelessness, unemployment, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or some form of undiagnosed clinical depression. So for any of us to find the audacity to get over the fact that our mother left us in the hospital and our relatives did not want to keep us, or our mother beat us because we grew up to look just like our father and hated our father because we were the product of his raping her, or that she somehow thought it was acceptable to send us back to school the next day after having beat us with her bare hands, it takes a hell of an attitude for us to say after all of that, “I can still be something, I can still defy the odds, and I understand my parents and love me anyway.”

Not all stories are the same, but our adversity is unmatched. When you have been disconnected from your roots and asked to grow in a different kind of soil that does not fertilize you and find a way to grow anyway, that is the definition of courage.

In my case, I am the product of a mother born and raised in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing projects; a mother who was herself born to a 13-year-old single mother who was not ready to have children and was neglectful; a mother who met her father for the first time at 12, and was raped and abused by him shortly thereafter; a mother who lost her younger brother to two shots to the head with a sawed-off shotgun, one of the most brutal gang homicides in Cabrini’s history; a mother who followed her mother’s example and became pregnant at 12, at a time in her life when she literally did not know what the word “pregnancy” meant. A mother who understandably suffered from clinically undiagnosed depression and PTSD and became a cocaine addict as a result.

I am also the product of a father whose mother migrated to Chicago from New Orleans to escape an abusive marriage and settled in the Harold Ickies public housing projects; a father who ran the streets after his mother left for work in the evening as a bartender and as a result was consumed by the streets and eventually dropped out of high school; a father who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968, went to Vietnam, and came home with an aggressive heroin addiction to cope with his PTSD; and ultimately, a father who could not keep a job and was eventually consumed by the streets once again, getting involved in petty criminal activity and locked up for selling drugs on school grounds.

This was my blueprint. I came into the system at five years old and bounced around between relatives before eventually being placed in the foster homes of nonrelatives. I will spare you the horror stories of my experiences in abusive foster homes, with foster parents thirsty to control a black, hypermasculine teenaged boy with behavioral issues, not because they were passionate about steering me in the right direction but because the money they received was too much to lose. I will save you the countless stories of breakdowns and episodes of depression that I experienced from knowing that I had nine other siblings with whom I did not have the privilege of growing up. I will not attempt to explain why my education was the least of my priorities given all of this instability in my life. What I will say is that my story was, and still is, the status quo, which should scare all of us. I will avoid overwhelming you with the complexities of an inner-city at-risk ward of the state, but briefly, share how the urban education system contributed to my life experiences. Ultimately, my adversity became my greatest asset.

Among the many perplexities of my urban public education experience, there were four key ways that the system was beneficial to my growth and development. These factors—while not the only ingredients to make up the entirety of my early childhood experiences—were the most vital to my success.

First, school was my safe ground. Given that I was never in any particular foster home long enough to be consumed by the streets, school was where I found the most stability. My peers were there, the atmosphere was clean and well managed by staff and security, and there were always teachers present to lend me advice and give me coaching if I needed it. Along with being in a dozen foster homes, I also attended ten neighborhood public elementary schools, and in each school, I remember growing accustomed to adopting that space as my own. I would stay after hours as long as possible and join many extracurricular activities. After returning home, I usually prepared for bed by 7:30 p.m., which was usually within 15 minutes of returning from school. I would bury my head in my covers and sleep the entire night away until daybreak. By 6:00 a.m., I was awake and getting ready to leave the house so that I could be at the school when its doors opened at 6:45 a.m. For me, being in foster homes was a terrible reminder of the hell in which my birth parents left me to live the remainder of my childhood. I ran away from that inevitable reality by living at school, thus creating my own safe haven.

Second, foster care insulated me from more negative influences. Despite having negative feelings about the role of social services in my life, there was one advantage to having caretakers regulated by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS): they did not allow me much freedom to get into trouble outside of the home. My curfews were strictly enforced by my caretakers, and my time was consumed by extracurricular activities at schools and community centers. These activities were often sponsored by DCFS, and my evaluations from social workers were an indicator of how effective those extra programs were in keeping me preoccupied and proactive.

Third, my experience in entrepreneurship education was critical to my learning and development. By the time I had been exposed to the world of gangs, drugs, and poverty on Chicago’s South Side, I had already been educated well enough to understand the repercussions of engaging in such a negative lifestyle. But while foster care instilled a sense of ethics and caution, it did not alleviate the burden of hopelessness and pessimism that I felt whenever I would reflect on my life up until that moment and realize that I had not done enough to put myself in a position to be successful. This is where entrepreneurship was most effective. As an elective course in high school, I was taught how to create my own income through a business class. The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), an organization that taught young people how to start and run a small business, gave me the tools and mentorship necessary to create a sustainable enterprise while I still had the luxury of being in school and financially supported by parents. After exploring my individual talents and strengths, I decided to start a video production business. Within a few months, after receiving financial support from NFTE and mentors, I was making enough money to help my parents pay for food and rent. This sense of economic empowerment gave me a deeper sense of internal motivation and drive, and I used this momentum as leverage to explore other ways I could grow and succeed.

Fourth, social-emotional guidance counseling and mentorship helped me forgive. Entrepreneurship was the starting point to my growth and development, but it was not what sustained me. While I was earning an income, there were still social-emotional barriers that were unaddressed. The motivation that I felt from starting a successful business was constantly challenged by the hopelessness that I felt from knowing I had nine other siblings with whom I had no relationship, a mother and father who were still drug dependent, and a community where some of my closest friends were losing their lives to gun violence. Entrepreneurship answered the question: “What will you do and how will you do it?” But it did not answer the more life-defining question: “Why does this matter to you?”

Ultimately, a lifelong mentor was vital for me to answer that question. I needed a social worker who possessed the ability to take me on a journey through my life experience and help me to deal with those social systemic and social-emotional elements. I found this person in my senior year of high school. He was the new dean of my high school that year, and he sought to prove to educators that kids cannot learn and grow if they have unaddressed posttraumatic stress. I was fortunate to participate in his mentorship program, where he helped break the mold on all the trauma I had been holding on to in my life. Once I was able to heal and recover, I was able to approach my struggles in a positive and proactive way, and in doing so, I was able to embrace my pain as the greatest motivation for my life’s journey.

It is uncertain whether our nation’s public education system will be able to go this extra mile for disconnected youth such as myself. While my life experiences may seem abnormal, I suggest that they are synonymous with the life experiences of over half of at-risk inner-city youth across our nation. While I know that everyone means well, it is unfortunate to see many school districts do the same thing every year expecting a different result. I believe that to address the fundamental problems of our inner-city communities, we need a radical reform of our education system—not fixing what is broken, but instead shattering what is broken and creating an entirely new system.

To learn more about Rodney Walker and his programs, visit campuspeak.com/walker.