I was inspired to write this piece because a good friend of mine wanted me to talk to her mentee. She described this young man as being “pro self-education”, in other words, he just doesn’t see how college can help him. My friend knows me well; She knew I would be a good person for him to talk to because I was in the EXACT SAME BOAT! She also knows how I was able to take what I learned outside of school and leverage it inside of school for Life Experience Credits towards my degree.
This Is A Journey Into Sound…
I graduated from high school in 2005. By Spring 2006, I had decided to drop out of college. I made this major life decision for several reasons: 1) I had NO clue why I was there in the first place; 2) I was taking wack classes; 3) The algebra placement test was kicking my butt; and 4) I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that college wasn’t it. So I did it. By Fall 2006, I was no longer enrolled in college.
Now here’s the fun part: I had to figure out what I wanted to do fast. My mother made it very clear that I could not sit in her home without getting a job or doing something productive. I chose the latter. Around that time, I was online looking at one of my favorite brands, POLO Ralph Lauren, when I saw something very unusual — some Black kids on POLO.com! I immediately saw this unusual sighting as an opportunity. I called the corporate office and asked to speak with whomever was responsible for having those young people on the website. They connected me to someone in the Corporate Responsibility Department, who then suggested that I call Mr. Divine Bradley, the founder of Team Revolution (the organization that partnered with POLO to run the POLO Fashion Business School).
So I called Divine, and after I introduced myself and realized he was a cool dude, the conversation basically went like this:
Syreeta: I need to be down with Team Revolution
Divine: I can already tell you’re a go-getter because you called POLO Corporate offices to get to me, who does that?
Syreeta: HAHA… Me
Divine: I see, let’s change the world!
I seized the opportunity that I had just made for myself and off I went, with Divine, to change the world! While rocking with Team Revolution, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. With that burning question always in the back of my mind, I began my quest.
The Tipping Point…
I’ve always been interested in different things and thirsty to find out about things that I didn’t know. Things I DID know that I was interested in were: hip-hop, graffiti, photography, community service and rocking with my peers and teenagers. I also knew that I always wanted to be, as my uncle says, “Front Row at the Game”. So since I knew I had these particular interests, I started to seek them out. I read about the subjects and got to know who’s who. I began to reach out to folks, cultivating, building relationships and did my research on the topics that I enjoyed. Then I took it up another level; I started to do actual projects in these areas of interest.
My first was a community service project. I got to work on a mural with one of the dopest graffiti artist of our time – Cern YMI. We created an amazing mural for the community AND I was also extremely privileged to work with, and learn from, some really astonishing artists — Cope2, Stem YNN, Toofly, Space YMI, Erodica, and Clark Fly to name just a few.
For my second project, I worked with both Team Revolution and Life Camp Inc to put on a Hip Hop Conference for my peers called “Team Rev’s Hip Hop Life”. Around this time, I was also going to hella photography and graffiti exhibits and was meeting and building relationships with inspiring artists like Jamel Shabazz, Lady Pink, Akintola Hanif, Toni Blackman and Martha Cooper.
At some point in the middle of all this activity, I realized that I was actually creating the perfect curriculum for myself based on what I passionately wanted to learn. I realized that I was going through a school of my own creation as I gathered these experiences first hand. It could be called “The School of Hard Knocks” if you will, but I loved it!
I was committed to just doing MAD ISH! If I was working on two or three projects, I felt like I wasn’t doing anything! I had a Blackberry and wanted to be busy! So I turned it up another notch, just like Emeril Lagasse. And I stayed busy for three years straight. From 2006 to 2009: I participated in POLO Ralph Lauren Business School, Public Allies, Life Camp Inc, and StartingBloc; I ran the SYEP Video Program, the Mural Program, the Ministers of Culture, Young Woman’s Group and ASET; and it was during this time that I created The SWT Life.
The Council & The Purpose…
It was during that busy time, that I realized that I was organically generating a council of people who not only challenged me, but also supported me personally and professionally, like a board of directors or advisors. Some of them are:
Erica Ford and Divine Bradley
Eden Connelly and Daniel “Fritz” Silber-Baker
Shawn Chandler and Doni Pitchford
Robin “Khep” Kearse and Michael “Zaki” Smith
Sallome Hralima and Jullien Gordon
It seems a little funny now, but if you asked me how my council worked, I would have told you the simple truth — I thought they were superheros. To me, they were and are just that. Remember how, in the movie Hancock , there were two superheroes that had the same individual powers but when together each became stronger? How each would build up the other? Well, there were MANY MANY…MANY times when I wanted to give up, (drops mic and walks away) when I failed and wanted to say, ‘eff this ish’, but they kept me on my toes.
It’s always important when doing anything to have a team of folks that are soooooo down for you to be dope, that they don’t accept any less from you and will check your BS in a heartbeat. I am eternally grateful for each and every one of them. I also realized that when you’re grinding or going hard your circle changes. I have mad love for my friends, but as I was ‘moving and shaking’ I came into contact with other people that were doing the same thing. I learned that “Steel sharpens Steel”.
As I was meeting these folks most of them tried to convince me of the urgency of my going back to school, which I completely ignored. To be honest, I was absolutely ANTI-school at a few points during this time. My view was that if Bill Gates, Jay Z, Mary J Blige (or insert your favorite billionaire, millionaire, entertainer or sports figure here) didn’t need school, I definitely did not. NO WAY! NO HOW! I figured that since I put myself through my own “school”, what could college really teach me that 1) I didn’t know, or 2) I couldn’t learn on my own? But because the people that had invested so much time in me were all saying that I should, I started to seriously think about it. And of course, my advisors shared some reasons (that added up for me) on why I should return. So I wrote out a pros and cons list that went a little something like this:
- Getting a degree
- Meeting some really dynamic people
- Cultivating relationships with professors/staff
- Participating in college clubs/activities (I could infiltrate the system muhahahhaha)
- Paying tuition
- Having to take wack-ass classes
- Not having the free time to do other projects
- Not being able to get the MOS (T) out of school
Better than a Michael Jordan Comeback…
So after I wrote that list, I sat on it for a few months and let it marinate. I decided to enroll back in school Fall 2009 to major in Labor and Community Organizing. This made sense for me because I had been doing tons of organizing with Team Revolution, Life Camp and Public Allies. What I learned when I returned was that if I take classes that I’m interested in, such as Intro to Labor and Community Organizing and Social Movements that’s where the “money” is. Because I took classes that I was genuinely interested in, I started getting A’s in school, which I hadn’t done on a regular basis since elementary.
During that time, I had also started running a program called “Minsters of Culture” with SAFE (PRY was my partner organization with Public Allies and SAFE is one of their teen programs). I had the privilege of running the program with Eden and Kristen (two people that were strong at everything I was not, and amazing ass folks in general). The best part about the program was that I got to facilitate discussions, workshops, and peer-lead activities on whatever my little ol’ heart desired. So this became a space where I took everything that I was learning and put theory into practice. I got to facilitate programming on the philosophies of Cornel West, Tupac, Mos Def, Common, Lauryn Hill and Jay Z. We explored topics like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point in relation to the Harlem Renaissance; Notorious BIG and gentrification in Brooklyn; StrengthFinder2.0; Lil Wayne’s “No Ceilings”; Freedom Dreams by Robin D.G. Kelley; Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and a bunch of other amazing things.
Out of all the programs I had ever run, this program changed my life. The young people that were in the program were like the roster of early Def Jam — they were geniuses. This is when I found my purpose, I knew I wanted to work with young people and create culture for eternity. In the past, like clockwork, I wanted to drop out of school every semester. This time, I was questioning and still conflicted with the question, “Is college really going to help me in life?” But I leaned on my Council and friends and continued to rock it out.
This Is The Remix…
After running “Ministers of Culture” I knew I couldn’t get a regular degree, I had to up the ante once more. I knew my strengths, passion and purpose and this made all the difference. One critical thing that I had come to realize is, when you move in the world with purpose your whole swag changes. You know specifically what you will and will not do just because it either is or is not in alignment with your purpose. Because I couldn’t get a degree that someone else made for me, I started researching schools that would allow you to create your own major. I found two programs that would allow me to do that: NYU Gallatin and CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies (CUNY BA). I applied to CUNY BA and got accepted for Fall 2010 and declared my major as Urban Youth Culture.
From college dropout to my self-devised school of hard knocks to a somewhat late registration in self-defined Unique and Interdisciplinary studies, I have created my own lane. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things that could be useful to that young man I mentioned, my friend’s mentee. Maybe you know someone who’ll find these tools useful too:
1. Find your passion, purpose and strengths
- PASSIONS– Skillshare classes are the best things since iphone and wild berry skittles, you will find your passions NO QUESTION (Take classes in any and everything that even sounds fly)
- STRENGTHS-Take the StrengthsFinder2.0 Test
- PURPOSE- Great article by Jullien “PurposeFinder” Gordon about how to find your purpose here
2. Create something in the world
- Ji Lee talks about the importance of Personal Projects
3. Go to College, start a StartUp, or create your own position within another company…if that makes sense, if not create your own lane
- NYU Gallatin and CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies
- Find a problem and solve it
- Use your personal projects to leverage a problem you want to solve in an existing company
FYI: For those interested, I submitted my Life Experience Portfolio August 2011 and received ALL 15 credits (Maximum number you could receive). A whole semester knocked out for little money down ($50 to be exact) BOOYA High 5’s for everyone!