Once considered a threat to society, BMe Leader Shaka Senghor, now herald as a global thought leader, will present at the 30th anniversary TED Conference.
This is the story of how a threat to society—a man who spent half his life in prison—became a role model for young black men in Detroit and a global thought leader.
Three years ago, Shaka Senghor was released from prison. Today, he co-teaches a class at the University of Michigan, is an MIT Media Lab Fellow, and will do his first TED Talk this Thursday, during TED’s 30th Anniversary celebration. He says his transformation from “James White convicted murderer” to “Shaka Senghor the influencer” is a result of his ability to network and to think in terms of infinite possibilities.
The transformation hasn’t been without its obstacles. Immediately following Senghor’s invitation to Vancouver to speak at TED—among thought leaders like Bill and Melinda Gates, Sting, and Joi Ito—he learned that the Canadian Government would not allow him to enter the country due to his felony.
“For me, I feel like I’ve served my sentence and just wanted to move on,” Senghor said. “It was disheartening to learn that the Canadian government wasn’t going to allow me into the country for TED, but it’s not the first time I’ve been discriminated against as a result of my felony.”
Senghor is now slated to join the convention via LIVE teleconference from a location in New York City—his life still limited as a consequence of his former conviction.
Senghor grew up in a neglected Detroit neighborhood with very dangerous opportunities. At the age of 14 he was a recovering crack addict and at age 17, he was shot three times following an argument over an ex-girlfriend. He says each of these moments of choice and consequence—including his arrest, following “a drug deal gone bad”—marks the beginning of a transformational journey that ultimately made him the man he is today.
Of the 19 years he spent in prison, Senghor spent more than 7 in solitary confinement because in his words, he was not a model prisoner.
“When I first got to prison, I vowed I would not leave the same way I came in. Initially, that wasn’t a positive thought. I told myself I would leave more skilled at hustlin’, more callous, more cold-hearted.”
But that’s not what happened.
Senghor says that what makes his story different is that he sought out atonement, or a personal shift toward purpose, in response to a letter he received from his son dated Oct. 1999.
It read: “Dad, Mom told me why you’re in prison”.
That letter, Segnhor says, launched a huge shift. The man his son perceived to be true was not a reflection of the man he really was inside and because of this dissonance, he came to realize that, if he ever did receive parole, he would return to society as an asset.
“Either you choose to be miserable and broken or you choose to take control of your destiny,” Senghor said. “You either chose to give in, or you choose to fight back and stand up. The first step is to get buy-in from yourself, despite whatever or whoever is attempting to discourage you.”
He says that his transformation began in prison. He spent the bulk of his time in solitary reading, reflecting and writing. He published his first novel, Crack Vol. I, from prison in 2008. By 2010, he finished another novel and launched a project with Chicken Soup for the Soul. He also co-produced a children’s book for young people with incarcerated parents.
In June 2010, after 5 years in solitary confinement and 19 years in prison, ‘James White’ reentered the Detroit community as ‘Shaka Senghor’. He made the choice to become a man who would grind non-stop—hitting up local bookstores to do readings and volunteer as a motivational speaker in schools, community centers, and churches.
“I see it as my role to take all excuses off the table,” Senghor said. “I encourage the youth I work with to think into existence and to enact the things they want to manifest in their lives.”
He says it is because of that award and his inauguration into the BMe Community that his sphere of influence grew beyond Detroit. Senghor says that when BMe brought him onto their team as a leader, he was able to build relationships with insightful leaders and mentors.
Senghor says there are four easy actions build a strong network:
1. Be present in the moment. Don’t connect just to connect. Find shared interest and value so connections grow organically.
2. Be your authentic self. It’s the cornerstone of relationship building.
3. Don’t be afraid to dance in your own light. Most people in the room are buttoned up and tight. The last thing they want to do is hear from someone who is buttoned up like them. Be real and don’t act small, be big.
4. Follow through by following up—in an e-mail or phone call—within a couple days. Avoid any superficial motives, emphasize the shared interest and the value you hold in the relationship.
Regardless of your environment, Senghor says the same rules always apply, because at the core of each individual is humanity. Senghor recalls the moment that he met Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab as a moment where these networking skills came into play.
“We were in a room full of people who were new to Detroit,” Senghor said. “Most of them were hopeless romantic types who, in reality, hadn’t experienced Detroit beyond midtown and downtown. I spoke up in the meeting and said ‘if you’re going to offer solutions to Detroit, do it on the playing field that allows you to organically connect to people at the local level.’”
Ito, who born in Kyoto Japan and moved to the Detroit area when he was 3, took him up on his challenge.
One year later, Senghor was selected as an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow. Proof, he says, that authenticity is both the key to building relationships and bringing real impact to communities.
Senghor says that in the days leading up to his next TED Talk, he recognizes that it’s a big moment for his career and for the future of the prison system.
“I feel like I’m carrying the weight of 2.5 million incarcerated black men on my back,” he says. “I’m not worried about my presentation, even though this is a big moment in my career and TED is a global platform. I just hope my message resonates with the audience.”
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Jenna Buehler is the managing director of Miami-based, Jenna Made Productions. She is a former communications associate at the Knight Foundation where she served as a contributing writer.
Source: TBO Inc®
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