My Life in Street Gangs

A TALE OF BLOOD­SHED AND RE­DEMP­TION

Toronto Life - - Front Page - By Se­gun Akin­sanya

Iwas born in De­cem­ber 1987 in La­gos, Nige­ria. My par­ents gave me a tra­di­tional Nige­rian name: Oluwase­gun Olufemi Akin­sanya. Oluwase­gun (Se­gun for short) means “God will help me con­quer,” Olufemi means “God will have mercy,” and Akin­sanya trans­lates as “war­rior who gets re­venge.” When I think about my name now, I be­lieve it meant my des­tiny was writ­ten: that I would go down a dark path, fail, and find re­demp­tion. I’m still work­ing on that last part.

When I was two, our fam­ily moved to Canada and set­tled in ru­ral Que­bec—all trees and open farm­land. My dad, John­son, was a chemist who got his de­gree at the Univer­sity of Water­loo and later ran a wa­ter fil­tra­tion busi­ness in St. Bernardin. My mom, Mo­sun­mola, pur­sued a nurs­ing de­gree. Our house was huge, at the end of a long, wind­ing drive­way. We had to drive to a nearby farm to pick up our eggs, and our neigh­bours had two cows that called John and Deere. For our first few years in Canada, it all went well. I won math awards at school and learned how to play chess with my sis­ter. My dad would make me write es­says when I got home—education was very im­por­tant to him. He wanted me to be­come a doc­tor.

Ev­ery­thing changed one week­end in Fe­bru­ary 1996. My three older sis­ters and I were home alone when we heard a knock at the door. My sis­ter Mo­rayo an­swered and found a po­lice of­fi­cer look­ing for my dad. He whis­pered a few words to her, and she dropped to the floor and started scream­ing. “Mommy’s dead, Mommy’s dead.” It turned out my mom had been driv­ing through a snow­storm on a nearby road—she couldn’t have been go­ing more than 10 kilo­me­tres per hour. An­other car hit her from be­hind and knocked her into a ditch, killing her in­stantly. I was eight years old.

Over the next few years, I acted out at school. First I kept get­ting de­ten­tion. Then I was be­ing sent to the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice. Once, when a group of older boys on the school bus called me nig­ger, I started throw­ing punches at them. I came home with a bloody lip, and soon, for one rea­son or an­other, I was in trou­ble for fight­ing prac­ti­cally ev­ery week.

By Grade 7, we had moved to an apart­ment in Toronto, near Vic­to­ria Park and O’Con­nor, so my dad could be closer to a woman he was dat­ing. One day, I walked down a huge grassy hill to the bas­ket­ball court be­hind a nearby hous­ing com­plex. I was try­ing to make friends, and that was where ev­ery­one went af­ter school. I saw a few guys from my class, and when they asked me if I wanted to hang out, I said yes. One guy socked me hard in the nose—and then ev­ery­one joined in. They didn’t stop kick­ing and punch­ing me un­til I was cry­ing on the ground. Sud­denly, ev­ery­thing was fine, and we were back to do­ing kid stuff. I didn’t re­al­ize it at the time, but it was an ini­ti­a­tion into the crew.

A few months later, I no­ticed a man hang­ing around the neigh­bour­hood. He was a tall, quiet guy—he seemed an­cient to me then, but I re­al­ize now he was prob­a­bly in his 20s. We called him Mr. T. He used to give us $5 here and there, or buy us a Big Mac for lunch. He was nice to us. He took care of us. So when he asked me to help him out one day, I jumped at the chance. He gave me and my friend a brown pa­per bag, and told us to stand out­side a con­ve­nience store and hand it off to an­other guy. I didn’t look in­side the bag, but I knew it was full of drugs.

We loi­tered out­side the store, and the owner came out to shoo us away. I ar­gued a bit, but even­tu­ally I left—and went straight to Mr. T to tell him what hap­pened. He walked back with us to the store and told us to wait out­side. Then I watched him go in­side and bash the owner’s head on the counter— ca­su­ally, like it was noth­ing. Af­ter a few min­utes, the owner came out and apol­o­gized to us. It was like magic. One se­cond we were no­body, and the next we had the power. A few weeks later, a bunch of friends and I were caught steal­ing some yo-yos from an­other cor­ner store, and the cops brought me home. My dad was so dis­ap­pointed. Nei­ther of us knew then that it would turn out to be the first of many times I’d end up in the back of a po­lice cruiser.

Cops al­ways talk about get­ting young black men off the streets. Stop­ping us be­fore we take that first step. But they have it wrong. No­body takes a first step into gang ac­tiv­ity. Toronto po­lice use the term “gang” to de­scribe any­thing from four boys play­ing dice on the cor­ner to a full-fledged Hells An­gels crew. I don’t like the word. What they’re re­ally re­fer­ring to is a group of peo­ple band­ing to­gether—op­por­tunists with­out op­por­tu­ni­ties. There are an es­ti­mated 6,000 kids in­volved in gang ac­tiv­ity in the GTA, but th­ese groups are a lot smaller than many peo­ple think. And they’re not or­ga­nized into in­tri­cate hi­er­ar­chies like you see on TV. Most of them are based on where peo­ple live, par­tic­u­larly in low­in­come neigh­bour­hoods or com­mu­nity hous­ing com­plexes. Lots of th­ese crews don’t even think of them­selves as gangs— they’re just a bunch of guys try­ing to get by.

I en­tered that world in the sum­mer be­fore Grade 9, when my fam­ily moved to a town­house near Morn­ing­side and Lawrence. My dad was still run­ning his busi­ness in Que­bec, and he was trav­el­ling so much for work that I barely saw him. I felt like I didn’t have any­one in my life. The sum­mer be­fore high school be­gan, I met a kid my age—I’ll call him Michael— at the lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­tre. (I’ve changed his name and a few oth­ers to pro­tect their anonymity.) I was in awe of Michael. His pants were per­fectly baggy, creased and tucked into his socks. His par­ents had good jobs, and he would al­ways have the new Air Force 1 Nikes. We hung out all the time, smok­ing weed and play­ing Cee-lo, a dice game. By the time I started school in Septem­ber, I was smok­ing and gam­bling ev­ery day.

I quickly dis­cov­ered that Michael’s older brothers were as­so­ciates of the Gal­loway Boys. The gang formed in the late ’80s, and over the next three decades was in­volved in drug traf­fick­ing, gun run­ning and pros­ti­tu­tion. I wanted to be just like them, so I started wear­ing gang in­signia—in­clud­ing blue ban­danas, the Gal­loway trade­mark—as a way to let the world know I was part of it, too. I used to walk around with a base­ball bat to in­tim­i­date peo­ple. I didn’t even need to use it: just hold­ing it was enough for me to feel pow­er­ful. I didn’t want to be that good guy do­ing his home­work in the cor­ner. He was in­vis­i­ble. I wanted peo­ple to see me. And for the first time, they did. I was pop­u­lar.

One day, I was walk­ing down the street with Michael and an­other friend when we saw a kid with a nice CD player. So we snatched it, pawned it, bought McDon­ald’s for din­ner, and saved the rest for dice. That night, at home, a cop came knock­ing on my door—the kid had re­ported the theft, and Michael and our other friend had snitched on me. I was the new guy in the neigh­bour­hood, the low­est on the totem pole. It was my job to take the fall for them. I got house ar­rest and one year’s pro­ba­tion.

It was my first crim­i­nal charge. I should have been ter­ri­fied, but back then, it didn’t faze me. It was a street stripe—it helped boost my rep­u­ta­tion. Guys were more afraid of me, less likely to start a fight. And we were al­ways fight­ing. If you didn’t re­tal­i­ate, you were a punk, a baby. Guys would even flash guns on school prop­erty. Once, I was at a party in Cataraqui, a hous­ing com­plex near War­den and Dan­forth. We were out­side smok­ing a joint, when about 30 guys from a ri­val gang showed up, and one had some­thing in his hand. Just as I reg­is­tered that it was a gun, I heard a pop. I ran as fast as I could, jumped over a fence into a field and sprinted all the way back to War­den sta­tion. Only then did I re­al­ize my shirt was ripped and I was bleed­ing. I’d been grazed by the bul­let.

I skipped school one day to­ward the end of Grade 9 to play dice with three Gal­loway Boys in one of their base­ments. Within an hour, I’d lost $1,700. I’m sure they set me up. I didn’t have the money, so ev­ery day for the next month, when I saw th­ese guys at school, I’d give them a pay­ment of some­thing, any­thing I could scrounge to­gether. They didn’t even have to threaten me; I knew what hap­pened to peo­ple who didn’t pay back what they owed. They’d get beaten, robbed, some­times even shot. I would do what­ever it took to clear my debt.

Soon, I was rob­bing peo­ple with my friends from the neigh­bour­hood. You know those sub­way rats, who loi­ter at Kennedy, Vic Park and Main sta­tions? That was us. We’d tar­get any­one with money or nice stuff—stereos, head­phones, shoes, glasses, any­thing we thought we could pawn. It was easy: there were enough of us to just swarm some­body and pounce. We’d flash a knife, maybe grab them or push them around. Some­times we just threat­ened to beat them up; other times we went through with it. Most peo­ple never screamed or re­sisted: they just handed over their stuff. The po­lice only got in­volved if the TTC col­lec­tor saw what hap­pened and re­ported it. I used my take to pay back my gam­bling debt.

My fam­ily didn’t stay long in Scar­bor­ough. My dad mar­ried his girl­friend, and just be­fore I started Grade 10 we all moved to Whitby, where I at­tended Father Leo J. Austin, a Catholic high school. As a kid from Gal­loway, I had in­stant cred. I told my new friends about all the stuff I’d done, all the peo­ple I’d robbed. To kids in the sub­urbs where this stuff rarely hap­pened, I seemed cool. Be­fore, I was a fol­lower, but now peo­ple turned to me as a leader, and I liked it. There weren’t any power play­ers in Whitby. The guys I met were look­ing for some­body

to fol­low. Ev­ery­one was al­ways turn­ing to me, ask­ing me what to do. They called me Young’un.

One night, a bunch of us were at a house party in Whitby, and a beau­ti­ful girl came in on the arm of a guy from an­other school. My friends de­cided they didn’t like that she was dat­ing him—it was like, “How did he get her?” They wanted to do some­thing about it, but they needed my say-so. So we jumped the guy. Later, over MSN mes­sen­ger, he said he wanted to fight me. Gal­loway think­ing popped back into my head: I knew I couldn’t back down. The next day, I skipped school with my friends. I was so pop­u­lar by this point that half the school left with us. I was like the Pied Piper—a whole line of kids snaked be­hind me, ea­ger to watch the fight. When I got to this guy’s school, he came out shak­ing, but I was revved up. I saw his fear. “You can ei­ther fight me or em­bar­rass your­self,” I told him. He backed away, and I knew it was over. He’d cho­sen hu­mil­i­a­tion. I told him to take off his pants and left him out­side in his box­ers. Then, my friends told him he needed to pay me $50 twice a month for the trou­ble he’d caused.

He called the po­lice and ex­ag­ger­ated the story—in his ver­sion, I’d pulled a knife and threat­ened to kill him. The next day, I was ar­rested at school, and charged with ex­tor­tion, pos­ses­sion of a weapon, threat­en­ing death and vi­o­lat­ing my pro­ba­tion. I was sen­tenced to three more years of pro­ba­tion and 150 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice. My dad was fu­ri­ous. He grounded me and for­bade me from hang­ing around with those “street boys,” as he called them. It didn’t mat­ter. He was still work­ing and trav­el­ling a lot, and I took ad­van­tage of that. As soon as he left, I was gone—back out with my friends, smok­ing weed, caus­ing trou­ble. My three older sis­ters—straight-A stu­dents, all of them—were sad about my be­hav­iour, but they weren’t sur­prised. It seemed nor­mal to them that a young black guy would act that way.

Af­ter six months in Whitby, my school’s vice-prin­ci­pal sus­pended me for the rest of the se­mes­ter for be­ing drunk at school— he said I was a bad in­flu­ence on my peers. While my sis­ters were pre­par­ing for univer­sity, I was start­ing Grade 11 at Durham Al­ter­na­tive Sec­ondary School, or DASS, in Oshawa. It’s where kids go when they’ve been kicked out of the reg­u­lar school stream. At DASS, we only went to school for half a day. Most of us took two classes, max. If you took three classes, you were a nerd. They didn’t teach us much—mostly cook­ing and crafts. We had to take English and math to earn a diploma, but the aca­demic ex­pec­ta­tions were much lower than at a reg­u­lar school. I spent a lot of my time there gam­bling, smok­ing weed and try­ing to hook up with girls. I hated it there. It seemed like a place they dumped kids the sys­tem had given up on.

I was walk­ing home with some new friends one day when I spot­ted the kid I’d stripped and em­bar­rassed—the one who re­ported me to the po­lice. I told my friends who he was and how he’d lied about me to the cops. They ended up chas­ing him down the street to his house, where he ran in­side. When I got home, I saw a po­lice cruiser out­side of my house. My heart sank. I ended up plead­ing guilty to vi­o­la­tion of pro­ba­tion and was sen­tenced to 30 days at Brook­side, a ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­tre in Cobourg.

The day I was re­leased, my dad and sis­ters were sup­posed to come get me. Three or four hours passed, and no­body showed up, so I took the bus home. When I got to my house, I found it all locked up, with an evic­tion no­tice posted on the front door. I broke in and re­al­ized my fam­ily hadn’t been there for a while: the heat was off and the fridge was full of rot­ten food. I couldn’t reach my fam­ily, and I just snapped. I stole the keys to my dad’s van, which was still there, and used it to go visit some friends. We de­cided I needed to hus­tle to make money, so we planned a string of rob­beries—we stole drugs and around $2,000 in cash from three or four drug deal­ers.

I slept at my aban­doned house and crashed with friends for about a week be­fore my old­est sis­ter, Mo­rayo, fi­nally called me. She said my dad’s di­a­betes had got­ten bad and he was too sick to work, so he’d gone to live with one of our aunts. Then my sis­ters had moved out. They fig­ured I’d be fine. Se­gun can take care of him­self, they thought. My sis­ter Abi, who was study­ing health man­age­ment at York, agreed to let me move in with her at her apart­ment near Jane and Finch. No reg­u­lar schools would take me, so I en­rolled at Mon­signor Fraser, an­other al­ter­na­tive school. Just like DASS, it fo­cused on life skills in­stead of academics. I was back to cook­ing break­fast for class credit.

When I first started run­ning with gangs in Grade 9, it was so I could be cool, so I could fit in. By the time I be­came in­volved in gang ac­tiv­ity near Jane and Finch, it was be­cause I didn’t see an­other op­tion. I thought maybe, if I made some quick money, I could be­come a real es­tate mogul. I started sell­ing drugs, mostly weed and coke, some ec­stasy. I even tried cook­ing crack. My friends and I were al­ways plan­ning. Plot­ting. Smok­ing weed and think­ing about our big hit—the one that would make us enough money to stop. As a small-time drug dealer, I was barely mak­ing min­i­mum wage; you have to sell a lot of dime bags to get rich. In the year I was liv­ing at Jane and Finch, I only earned about $15,000. I spent it on a 1992 Nis­san Al­tima. I didn’t want to sell heroin, or meth, or large quan­ti­ties of weed. You have to de­cide where you draw the line, and when you’re mov­ing hard drugs, you have to be pre­pared to die—or to kill some­one in an in­stant. I couldn’t do that to my fam­ily.

At this point, I wasn’t in any spe­cific gang—I was friends with a lot of dif­fer­ent crews. And most of my friends were car­ry­ing guns. One day, early in 2006, I was at my friend Tyler’s apart­ment, and he was clean­ing his gun. He asked me if I wanted to hold it. I’d seen a lot of guns. I’d seen peo­ple threaten to shoot. I’d been shot my­self. But I’d never had my own gun. It was a 20-gauge pump shot­gun. When I shoved it down my pants, it went from my hip past my knee. I thought, Now I know why we limp. I asked Tyler if I could bor­row it, and he agreed that we could share it. It was just like when I was 14 and car­ried a base­ball bat: it made me feel pow­er­ful. Guns are made to take things. And that’s how I used mine. While I never shot it, I al­ways flashed it when I was rob­bing drug deal­ers. I thought I was un­touch­able. I soon re­al­ized I wasn’t.

On April 20, 2006, I fin­ished an English exam at school and went search­ing for some weed—it was Bob Mar­ley Day. I met up with some friends at Downsview Col­le­giate and walked to a Coffee Time at the cor­ner of Keele and Wil­son. My friend Nathan saw Danilo Ce­lestino, a 17-year-old kid he knew who he thought might have some weed for sale. When we walked to the bath­rooms to make a deal, I went in and Nathan stood out­side to guard the door. Be­fore ne­go­ti­at­ing, Ce­lestino asked me about the peo­ple I knew. I was friends with some­body who had beaten his friend with a metal pipe for try­ing to rob his car. Things quickly got heated be­tween us—we ar­gued about the pipe in­ci­dent, whose fault it was. I turned to leave. “Fuck this shit,” I said.

Sud­denly I felt like I’d been punched in the head, twice. He’d stabbed me in the back of my neck, close to my cere­bel­lum. I turned around to see he was hold­ing a knife with a dragon han­dle. It was cov­ered in blood. I don’t re­mem­ber what hap­pened next, not re­ally. I re­mem­ber him com­ing at me with the bloody knife. We fought, and I got the blade. I ended up stab­bing him three times; I learned later that one of the cuts sliced his aorta. He stag­gered out­side the Coffee Time and crum­pled on the ground.

Nathan came run­ning into the bath­room and told me we had to go. I re­mem­ber look­ing in the mir­ror. I had on a white Mickey Mouse hoodie—it was now red, soaked through with blood. Nathan shouted at me to move. I splashed some wa­ter on my face, grabbed the knife off the ground and ran. At that mo­ment, noth­ing was reg­is­ter­ing. I was in shock—I couldn’t be­lieve what I’d done. As I ran away up Wil­son, I saw a cop driv­ing down to the coffee shop. We made eye con­tact as she drove by. Then I was gone.

I dumped my bloody hoodie in the park, then raced to a friend’s house. I didn’t want to go home. I turned on CP24, where the in­ci­dent had made break­ing news. They were re­port­ing that Ce­lestino had been rushed to the hos­pi­tal. For a mo­ment, I was hope­ful: maybe he’d be okay. I kept watch­ing the news, feel­ing sick to my stom­ach as I waited to hear more about Ce­lestino. My face was soaked in sweat, and I could barely breathe. Af­ter a few min­utes, my friend called and told me he’d heard Ce­lestino was dead.

I didn’t want to be­lieve it—I knew my life was about to change for­ever. I went to the park and sat on a bench, try­ing to fig­ure out my next move. For a few days, I waited. Even though I knew I’d have to turn my­self in, I wanted to put it off as long as pos­si­ble. I went to class. I took my ex­ams. But I couldn’t think about any­thing other than what I had done. Four days later, I found out the po­lice had se­cu­rity footage from the Coffee Time be­fore the fight. My time was up.

My lawyer be­lieved the Crown would charge me with man­slaugh­ter. I was shocked to find out that they’d slapped me with se­cond-de­gree mur­der, which means they thought the act was pre­med­i­tated. I was fac­ing a po­ten­tial life sen­tence. The court sent me to Maple­hurst Cor­rec­tional Com­plex in Mil­ton for a few months, and then to the Don Jail while I waited for trial.

The Don was just as bad as I’d al­ways heard: grey, rusty and over­crowded. The other pris­on­ers mostly left me alone, be­cause my charge, se­cond-de­gree mur­der, gave me a cer­tain amount of re­spect. I was lucky that my cell­mate liked me—he was happy to have some­one he could play chess with. He was also vi­o­lent: he’d been fight­ing so much that the war­den had sent him to soli­tary for a few weeks be­fore I got there. He wasn’t back in the cell for long be­fore he re­tal­i­ated against an­other in­mate—the guy was sup­posed to sell drugs for him but stole them in­stead. Peo­ple smug­gle all sorts of things into jail: heroin, coke, oxy, weed, hash, any­thing. I even heard about peo­ple smug­gling gun parts into the Don, stuff­ing them up their asses. My cell­mate used his pull with the guards to get the in­mate he was af­ter, who was a drug ad­dict, trans­ferred to our block. He and some of his friends yanked the guy out of his cell shortly af­ter, and beat him, badly. They pissed on the guy, then took pa­per tow­els and rolled them into wicks, lit them and burned him all over. By the time they dumped him back in his cell, he was cov­ered in blood. He lived, but barely. All of us in the range were con­fined to our cells for a week.

I’d been in cus­tody for 13 months when 15-year-old Jor­dan Man­ners was shot dead at C. W. Jef­ferys near Jane and Finch. The pub­lic was clam­our­ing for a crack­down on street vi­o­lence. My crime had made all the pa­pers, and the Crown wanted to make an ex­am­ple of me. If I went to trial, they said they’d get my friends to turn on me. There was a good chance I’d be con­victed. Or I could take a plea: they were will­ing to set­tle for man­slaugh­ter, with a five-year sen­tence, in­clud­ing the time I’d served await­ing trial. That meant I’d be in prison two years and 10 months, max. I didn’t want to risk a life sen­tence. I pleaded guilty.

The hear­ing was sur­real. I think about it ev­ery day. All of the vic­tim’s friends and fam­ily—his par­ents, his brother, his cousin—filled up one side of the court­room. The other was packed with school kids who were there on a field trip to learn

about the ju­di­cial sys­tem. Ce­lestino’s fam­ily read vic­tim im­pact state­ments. His mom sobbed through her words, talk­ing about how her son had hoped to start a ca­reer as a com­puter tech­ni­cian and how he’d vol­un­teered to help with Pope John Paul II’s Toronto visit in 2002. His dad, who’d moved the fam­ily to Canada from the Philip­pines, lamented how hard he’d worked to make sure his kids would have a fu­ture.

I did my time at Fen­brook, a medium-se­cu­rity prison in Graven­hurst that’s now part of Beaver Creek. It looked like a big col­lege cam­pus. There were five ranges around a cir­cle, and in the middle, there was a soc­cer field, com­mu­nity cen­tre, gym, li­brary, pro­gram­ming room and bar­ber­shop. There was even a gro­cery store and a wood shop where you could build fur­ni­ture. It didn’t seem so bad at first.

I re­lied on the same old power struc­tures. I used my con­vic­tion as a street stripe. But as the weeks went by, I fell into a de­pres­sion. My dad was still sick, so he couldn’t visit me very of­ten, and my sis­ters were busy with school. I was all alone. At one point, I re­mem­ber talk­ing on the phone with an old girl­friend and telling her I felt like I’d died. Like the old me was gone. I was still just think­ing about my­self.

One day, af­ter I’d been in jail for about a year, my dad came to visit. I hadn’t seen him in a few months, and his health had im­proved. It seemed like ev­ery­thing had changed be­tween us—for the first time, he treated me like a man, not a way­ward kid. He walked out­side with me, his hands be­hind his back, telling me he could help me change, but only if I wanted to. At the same time, I started meet­ing ev­ery few days with a priest who worked at the prison. We’d talk for hours about my past. The mis­takes I’d made. The per­son I wanted to be­come.

Through­out all this, I’d been at­tend­ing anger man­age­ment ses­sions as part of my sen­tence. One day, I was talk­ing to my fa­cil­i­ta­tor, who was giv­ing us ex­er­cises for con­trol­ling our frus­tra­tion. When he told me to count to 10, some­thing bub­bled up in­side me and I just lost it. I thought, He doesn’t even know why I’m an­gry! He doesn’t know what led me here. At that mo­ment, I re­al­ized that nei­ther did I. I needed to sit down and think about what I had gone through. Many young men in jail had faced the same bar­ri­ers as I did. If I fig­ured out where I went wrong, maybe I could help my­self and oth­ers like me.

For the next six months, I be­came ob­sessed with writ­ing a man­ual based on my own ex­pe­ri­ence—a book that would help kids avoid get­ting into trou­ble. I con­ducted writ­ten sur­veys, ask­ing fel­low in­mates what hap­pened to bring them to in­car­cer­a­tion. I was look­ing for com­mon threads. And I found them: peer pres­sure, sin­gle-par­ent house­holds, racism, low in­comes, get­ting shunted around the education sys­tem, pre­car­i­ous hous­ing. We were all just liv­ing up to our own stereo­types. I wanted to break the cy­cle.

I made a de­ci­sion: as soon as I got out, I would look into launch­ing pro­grams for marginal­ized kids. I turned my man­ual into a cur­ricu­lum that I could teach once I was re­leased. It out­lined three lev­els of crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity. There are the king­pins, who com­mit rob­beries and kid­nap­pings, who are in­volved in drug and gun smug­gling, and em­body a “kill or be killed” men­tal­ity. There are the Scar­faces, who deal some drugs, steal cars and have a sense of in­vin­ci­bil­ity. And there are the sol­diers, who fol­low the crowd, com­mit mi­nor thefts and buy drugs for per­sonal use. I de­vel­oped a cur­ricu­lum to give kids the train­ing they’d need to make bet­ter lives for them­selves. They’d meet with re­formed crim­i­nals and sur­vivors of vi­o­lence to learn about the im­pact on both per­pe­tra­tors and prey. They’d learn lead­er­ship skills and take ca­reer­ap­ti­tude tests. They’d spend time with pris­on­ers and ex-cons to see how they live and rein­te­grate back into so­ci­ety. I counted down the days un­til I could get out of prison and be­gin teach­ing my pro­gram. For the first time in my life, I was filled with hope and pur­pose.

Imade pa­role in Fe­bru­ary 2009, at age 21, af­ter two years in prison. When Abi came to pick me up, I did a back­flip in front of the jail. I re­mem­ber look­ing back at the gates think­ing, Wow, I was in there. As we drove along the ru­ral roads near the jail, my brain was on au­topi­lot: I’m free, I’m free, I’m free. We stopped for a Sub­way sand­wich, and she bought me a new pair of shoes. That day, I moved in with my dad in King City, north of Toronto. It was my first time liv­ing with him since he got sick when I was 16.

I was still com­mit­ted to my youth pro­gram, which I named Bright Fu­ture Al­liance. For the first few weeks, I was on the com­puter ev­ery day, email­ing phil­an­thropic or­ga­ni­za­tions, com­mu­nity cen­tres and so­cial jus­tice work­ers about my idea, and I car­ried my 60-page pro­gram man­ual with me ev­ery­where in a brief­case my fam­ily bought me. Af­ter a few months of cold calls and knock­ing on doors, I hooked up with an or­ga­ni­za­tion in Markham called Path­ways, which later changed its name to 360 De­gree Kids. They gave me the op­por­tu­nity to run my first pro­gram: a mar­tial arts class for youth ages 14 to 25. From there I was in­tro­duced to the Remix Pro­ject, a United Way part­ner that does pro­gram­ming for marginal­ized youth in un­der­served com­mu­ni­ties in the GTA.

At first, I kept in touch with a lot of my old friends. I thought I could main­tain those re­la­tion­ships while still mov­ing for­ward. My buddy Nathan brought a few girls to see me in King City one day. The whole time driv­ing up, he’d bragged about what I’d done—he thought it would im­press them. By the time they got to my house, he’d fin­ished the story. They were hor­ri­fied: they called me a mur­derer and took the bus home. It was heart­break­ing. I wanted to move on—to be de­fined by some­thing good—and Nathan was glo­ri­fy­ing his as­so­ci­a­tion with me to gain cred­i­bil­ity in the ’hood. I was more care­ful af­ter that. I needed to cut those ties.

My first big break came in De­cem­ber 2009 from one of my men­tors at the Laid­law Foun­da­tion, which sup­ports youth-run projects. One of my grant ap­pli­ca­tions was suc­cess­ful, and they gave me $5,000 to run a pi­lot pro­gram. They said, “Let’s see what you can do.” It wasn’t much, and yet it was ev­ery­thing. I dropped to my knees and cried. I used the money to start a life skills pro­gram on Tues­days and Thurs­days for kids in my old neigh­bour­hood at Vic Park and Eglin­ton. Around the same time, I en­rolled in U of T’s bridg­ing stream at Woodsworth Col­lege. I’d re­ceived my high school diploma in prison, but the course would help me get into univer­sity.

Soon, Bright Fu­ture Al­liance re­ceived two more Laid­law grants, for $25,000 and $35,000, which we used for our education pro­grams. I was teach­ing in schools and run­ning event-lead­er­ship sem­i­nars. Then came a $10,000 City of Toronto grant, from the Iden­tify ’N Im­pact In­vest­ment Fund. Then a $5,000 Telus grant. I used it all to ex­pand my pro­grams: I was teach­ing kids how to tran­scend stereo­types and build their so­cial cap­i­tal.

But while my busi­ness was grow­ing, I was strug­gling to keep the rest of my life afloat. I needed to make money—all my grant fund­ing was go­ing to­ward keep­ing my pro­grams alive. For the long­est time, I couldn’t find work. In­ter­view­ers liked me un­til I told them I was on pa­role for man­slaugh­ter. I ap­plied for one job at a call cen­tre, and as soon as it was done, the in­ter­viewer asked me when I could start. When I told him my back­story, he went to speak with his boss, then said he’d get back to me. He never did. And that’s how it al­ways went. There were times I was broke. I was on and off wel­fare. I wasn’t eat­ing very much. And I was de­pressed. I thought I’d never be able to es­cape my past.

Af­ter two years, I was ap­pointed to a pro­vin­cial ad­vi­sory board called Step­ping Stones, de­signed to help young peo­ple with their so­cial and emo­tional de­vel­op­ment. Through that ex­pe­ri­ence, I met mem­bers of the African Cana­dian Le­gal Clinic, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that works to ad­dress racism in the court sys­tem. They put me for­ward for a job op­por­tu­nity with the clinic’s Youth Jus­tice Education Pro­gram, which had re­ceived $2 mil­lion in fund­ing to hire eight young men who would work with at-risk youth. In March 2012, I got the po­si­tion—my first pay­ing job. When my new boss called to tell me, I just cried on the phone.

The job gave me the boost I needed. It was so strange be­ing on the other side. Some days, I was re­quired to go to court with my team. I sat at the front of the court­house with the lawyers— for once, I wasn’t one of the ac­cused. We even trav­elled to Ghana to learn about the slave trade; it was my first time on a plane. The le­gal clinic paid off my stu­dent debt so I could start my BA in hu­man ge­og­ra­phy at U of T. They also gave me a gym pass and med­i­cal ben­e­fits. I got a side gig sell­ing branded credit cards at the mall, and I fi­nally had enough money to buy my­self a new car.

A few years ago, I teamed up with two other en­trepreneurs: Nahum Mann, who ran a pro­gram called Youth Na­tion, and Ameen Bin­walee, who founded Out of the Box, an or­ga­ni­za­tion for marginal­ized kids. We joined forces to form a co-op called Cur­rant. We re­ceived a $25,000 On­tario Tril­lium Grant from the Youth Op­por­tu­ni­ties Fund to start a trades pro­gram, and par­tic­i­pated in a two-day celebrity bas­ket­ball game and artist show­case at Maple Leaf Gar­dens, which raised an­other $25,000. Around that time, some­one from a char­ity called Work­ing Women Com­mu­nity Cen­tre reached out, invit­ing us to come work out of the Vic­to­ria Vil­lage Hub, a com­mu­nity space at Vic Park and Eglin­ton. It wasn’t cheap— $2,500 per month—but we took it. (Work­ing Women was even­tu­ally able to help sub­si­dize our rent.) We turned it into a workspace where we of­fer re­sources for lo­cal en­trepreneurs. I work with amaz­ing peo­ple who in­spire me ev­ery day. To­gether, we’re help­ing oth­ers con­trib­ute to the health of their com­mu­ni­ties and giv­ing those on the fringes a chance to suc­ceed. In Fe­bru­ary, for ex­am­ple, we’re hold­ing an event called the 6 So­cial at the Royal Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic, de­signed to help kids im­prove their lives by us­ing so­cial me­dia and tech­nol­ogy.

At age 28, I wouldn’t say I’m “suc­cess­ful” in any con­ven­tional sense of the word. I’m strug­gling emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially— the work isn’t easy, and nei­ther is life. I wish Danilo Ce­lestino didn’t have to lose his life so I could find mine. But my ca­reer gives me a larger pur­pose. Peo­ple al­ways ask me if I’d change what hap­pened, and I say no; you can’t change the past, but you can cre­ate your fu­ture. I’m alive to­day so I can share my story and heal. It’s been a long jour­ney. My whole life I’ve wanted to be part of some­thing big­ger, but I al­ways sought that out in neg­a­tive ways. Now I’m part of some­thing im­por­tant and pro­duc­tive. I’m de­fined by some­thing good. ∫

BOY­HOOD The au­thor’s fam­ily im­mi­grated to Canada from La­gos, Nige­ria, in 1987. Mo­sun­mola and John­son are shown here with their chil­dren, Titi, Abi, Mo­rayo and Se­gun (in his father’s arms)

STREET LIFE

The au­thor pic­tured in 2005, a year be­fore he was con­victed of man­slaugh­ter in the stab­bing death of Danilo Ce­lestino

AF­TER PRISON

The au­thor work­ing with kids at Bright Fu­ture Al­liance; at Cur­rant with col­leagues Nahum Mann and Pres­ley Durga

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