According to a 2013 article in the New York Times, roughly two-thirds of foster care children do not attend college. Having grown up in fifteen different foster homes on Chicago’s South Side, Rodney J. Walker is no stranger to these odds. However, instead of becoming a heartbreaking statistic, Walker summoned the grit to transcend his surroundings and chart an extraordinary future for himself.
In the new book, A New One Day: Trauma, Grace, and a Young Man’s Journey, Walker shares a story of youthful determination and lessons learned along the way. Find out more from this inspiring interview with Rodney Walker.
Q: Tell us about growing up on the South Side of Chicago and particularly the foster care system. What types of dysfunction were you subjected to?
A: The South Side of Chicago is different things for different people. But for most people on the South Side, we all live with a shared feeling of hopelessness as it relates to what’s going on in poor neighborhoods on that side of town. My situation was a little rocky, having grown up in the foster care system as a byproduct of two parents who struggled with drug abuse in an era where the fight against drugs and poverty condemned communities to everlasting cycles of poverty and social failure; my life was a reflection of that family dysfunction, failed social and political policy and hopelessness.
Q: In your acknowledgements, you thank your parents and foster parents for giving you a life of adversity. How can adversity be the “greatest asset”?
A: My mentor always made a habit of saying “your struggles prepare you for greatness”. I have grown to believe that. I think that living a life of adversity gives your life a purpose by default, because it gives you a journey; it gives you something to strive for, something to aim for – which is a way out. But your mind has to be there, and you have to want that for yourself. Sometimes the problem with growing up in wealth is that it becomes harder to find your life’s purpose, because you’ve been given everything, and there are no obstacles in your way. My parents and foster parents gave me a testimony, which makes my success that much greater.
Q: In 1998, you were separated from your younger sister Samantha for 10 years. Tell us about that.
A: My sister and I were first separated in 1994, after I moved with my older brothers. I saw her again for a reunion with my siblings in 1998. Afterwards I moved to a few more foster homes and eventually just lost touch. I was signed under legal guardianship in 2003, which meant that I had no more social workers coming to set up visits between me and my siblings, and from there we all lost touch with one another.
Q: You’re now a Yale graduate and founder of Forever Life Productions. What set you on a different path?
A: I believe four things set me on a different path. 1) I found the right mentor – or we found each other. Someone who could identify with my struggle, my pain, my adversity, and my hopelessness, and could genuinely empathize with it. 2) I received social emotional trauma counseling, through a mentor who cared to help me come to terms with the abuse I suffered and the emotional distress I felt from not being with my family. 3) I received relevant education. Course curricula will never be effective until you can explain to children, in a relevant way, why they have no food in the refrigerator, why their fathers are in jail or not around, why there is poverty all around them, why they were raped and abused, and ultimately, why reading, writing, and math, or graduating, is so valuable to overcome these day-to-day life struggles. 4) After they’ve received this relevant education (i.e. knowledge of self and community), critically engaged mentoring and social emotional support, there has to be opportunities available and accessible for young people to create a path to success.
Q: You talk about your unlikely mentors. Who are they?
A: They are Christine Poorman, the Chicago Executive Director of College Possible. And Jane Lee-Kwon, and former Chicago Board of Education Administrator. Both instrumental in getting me away from the South Side and giving me the time and energy and even money I needed to eliminate those distractions and focus on my individual growth and learning.
Q: For those who want to rise from a life of poverty and live a functional life, where do they begin?
A: It first begins in the mind. As J.K Rowling said in a speech, rising out of poverty is the hardest thing to do because it’s cyclical and often generational. But you have to first want it, and believe it. For older youth, 16-24 year olds, I would say that education is the way out. Going back to school, and all the opportunities that come with being in the education space, is the most practical first step to lift yourself out of poverty. I wouldn’t say the same to 12 and 13 year-olds, because it’s our job as older brothers, and fathers and mentors to blaze the trail for them; because its a lot to ask of a 12 year-old to own their future and rise above poverty.
Q: You talk about positive affirmations and unconditional love saving you from a life of despair. How do you help others to see the tremendous value of self-love?
A: Again, my mentor helped me see the value to speaking life into people. This is especially important for infants. Most psychologists will tell you that the most important cognitive and social years for human beings is between birth and 5 years old. So positive affirmation and unconditional love has to be there from the beginning, but unfortunately, more than half of our young people are not getting that type of nurturing, because we’re being raised by parents that don’t know how to do that, because their parents didn’t, and so on and so forth. So the best thing we as success stories can do first, is lead by example, because most young people will do what you do before they do what you say. Second, I encourage young people to write their story, and ask themselves at the end of their writing, “how does it end?” So often we focus on preventing gun violence, rising high school dropout rates, teen pregnancies, drug abuse, etc. etc. However, we never stop to ask children to critically envision their life a year, 5 years, and 10 years from now, in every detail. Before you can go anywhere, you first need to know where you want to go.
Q: You’ve served as a keynote speaker around the world. Where are some of the places you’ve spoken?
A: Monte Carlo – EY. Vietnam. Zimbabwe. Paris.
Q: You say the book is for both inner-city youth and “high-net-worth” business people. What lessons or messages can the high-net-worth business people take away from this book?
A: Two points about that. First, my story of overcoming adversity and learning the skills and principles to live a life of success extends beyond the socioeconomic stratus. Everyone, in some way shape or form is sure to come across obstacles, trials and tribulations; of course, some more than others. This book is a testament that despite it all, it’s possible. Second, There are many people who care about what young people like myself are going through everyday. In my city, Chicago, it has gotten to the point where there is no part of the city where the everlasting effects of poverty, hopelessness and despair is extended. So it’s going to be important for philanthropist and the business community to get a fresh, comprehensive, holistic perspective into the problems, and how they can effectively contribute to the campaign of restoring hope, rebuilding dreams, and saving lives.
Q: How can we teach financial literacy to at-risk youth?
A: There are many nonprofit and community organizations that are effectively teaching financial literacy to at-risk youth. While financial literacy is most effective when taught in the household, most kids are not able to learn it there. So if we can incorporate financial literacy classes in elementary and middle school, it would make a world of difference. I think every student should have a bank account by their freshman year of high school, and a financial literacy coach who will manage that account for them as they teach them about investing, saving, lending, trading, etc. etc.
Q: You found out later in life that you had been diagnosed with autism when you were 5 years old. You said if you discovered this file before your journey, you don’t think you would have ever started. What lesson did this teach you?
A: This taught me that not every kid diagnosed with a mental or social disorder need psychotropic drugs to mitigate their “learning curve.” Every student learns differently, and at their own pace, and with their own challenges, and the biggest mistake educators and doctors make is confusing learning challenges with learning disabilities. Just because you learn a certain way doesn’t necessarily imply that you’re learning disabled. The irony of being diagnosed with autism is that I graduated from two of the best schools in America. That may not have happened if I was told by my teachers and doctors that I wouldn’t be able to learn because I was autistic. It probably would’ve had a tremendous effect on my self-esteem.
Q: “No one can go back and make a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending…” To our readers, what’s something they can do or learn today, right now to start A New Day One?
A: The first thing they have to do is understand their journey holistically. That’s why we’re started an online program called The Write Direction (right is spelled write); we believe this is the best form of education for students because their education, for the first time, is all about them. Once you’ve figured out your life’s journey, you then need to write where you want to go. After you’ve figured that out, the most practical next step to your journey is to go back to school. Every single organization that you need to meet and be involved with is in that space. I will be launching this initiative soon, and I encourage everyone to check it out.