Shaka Senghor is a motivational speaker, a Director’s Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab and the author of six books. At age 19, however, he shot and killed a man.
“I was a young drug dealer with a quick temper and a semi-automatic pistol,” he reveals during a TED Talk in March.
Twenty-three years ago, that was Senghor’s story. With the support of his family, mentors, literature and a newfound passion for writing, Senghor changed his narrative.
His story begins like any other American child growing up. He was a scholarship student on the honor roll with aspirations of becoming a doctor. But his parents’ separation and divorce affected his upbringing, leading him to spiral down a dark path.
As a 17-year-old drug dealer working the corner on the streets of Detroit, Senghor was shot three times. A brief trip to the hospital led him directly back to the neighborhood with a bitter outlook.
“Throughout this ordeal, no one hugged me, no one counseled me, no one told me I would be okay,” he recalls. “No one told me that I would live in fear, that I would become paranoid, or that I would react hyper-violently to being shot. No one told me that one day, I would become the person behind the trigger.”
Violence is a vicious cycle, and for criminals it’s exacerbated by an incarceration system that perpetuates recidivism rather than affording inmates opportunities to turn their lives around.
“…the majority of men and women who are incarcerated are redeemable, and the fact is, 90 percent of the men and women who are incarcerated will at some point return to the community,” Senghor notes, “and we have a role in determining what kind of men and women return to our community.”
Hostility over his situation led Senghor to continue his criminal activities behind prison walls, ultimately landing him in solitary confinement for seven and a half years. But one day, Senghor received a letter from his son, which read, ‘”My mama told me why you was in prison: murder. Dad, don’t kill. Jesus watches what you do. Pray to Him.”
The sobering realization that his son identified him as a murderer forced introspection, and for Senghor to finally confront his actions. With guidance from mentors he met inside prison, delving into texts by inspirational authors like Malcolm X, unwavering support from his family and a penchant for journaling, Senghor was afforded an opportunity to leave behind his troubled past.
In the four short years since his release, that checkered history has been replaced with a bright future.
Among his other achievements, Senghor is a 2014 W.K. Kellogg Community Leadership Network Fellow, teaches at the University of Michigan and serves as a national spokesperson for Black Male Engagement (BMe), a network of black males engaged in their communities.
His personal transformation, he adds, was possible because of three components: acknowledgement of hurting himself and others, apologizing to those he hurt and atonement for his actions. For Senghor, atoning helps at-risk youth and former inmates transform their lives.
“Anybody can have a transformation if we create the space for that to happen,” he says. “So what I’m asking today is that you envision a world where men and women aren’t held hostage to their pasts, where misdeeds and mistakes don’t define you for the rest of your life.”
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