Public School to Prison Pipeline and How We Can Break It

Julian Young
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Posted: Dec 22, 2014 12:01 AM
Public School to Prison Pipeline and How We Can Break It

In elementary school, I was labeled a low achiever. My teachers constantly advocated to my father about holding me back a grade and even worse, I was placed on Ritalin and different medications to address my behavior and in an attempt to treat some of my disengagement with school overall.

It's true, I struggled in elementary school, but it didn't stop there. I struggled all through my teens, from Junior to High School, I constantly carried around the idea and baggage that came with it, that deep down I was a "low achiever." It's hard to describe, but even when I got to college, I could still feel this dark cloud lingering over me, constantly telling me, I couldn't keep up with my peers.

All of this led me down a path of self-destruction and self-sabotage that I acquired through drug dealing. I became curious about drugs around eight, that was the first time I witnessed a drug deal happen. I was too young to fully understand, but as I became older, I became more intrigued and at 16 I started to experiment. From age 17-20 I grew a sizable drug trade along with my brother, and every skill set an entrepreneur uses to build an enterprise we used them to build an illegal one.

Eventually, I found myself in trouble with the law and facing 15 years in prison. In order to make things look as good as possible I re-enrolled into college and a mentor came into my life, a college professor. He told me I was entrepreneur. I'd never been told that, and before I knew it he had talked me into joining and eventually become the president of a student business organization that leveraged entrepreneurship as a social impact tool to help enrich communities with outreach.

I quickly found myself responsible for overseeing outreach projects at times with a budget of over a million dollars. And eventually I was approached by the president of the college to spearhead a diversity council to encourage diversity and inclusion around campus. Within a year of my turn around I was being offered jobs by three different fortune 500 companies. Shortly, after I launched my first entrepreneurial venture and multiple others after this. I eventually began to write and then publish books, six to date. Now I am the founder and Executive Director, of The Start Center for Entrepreneurship, a social impact organization that empower communities through innovation, entrepreneurship and talent development.

The irony in all this is that I am the same elementary student who was called a low achiever. However, the reality was in public school, my unique talents of entrepreneurship, such as risk taking, high energy, constant talking and going against the grain, were viewed as disruptions instead of as gifts. This is the problem with the "one-size-fits all" public education system in our country. I began to engage drug dealing because I knew I could be good at it. Since public school didn’t engage my talent, I wanted to use it at something, so I sold drugs.

There are countless minorities, especially within the African American community that fall victim to this all throughout our public education system. That is why I created The Start Center, to engage the hidden talent in underserved areas of cities that have fallen through the cracks of public education. While this article is not intended to bash public education it is time to raise a louder voice about the need for education reform within public schools. Many of the curriculums are out dated and irrelevant. They don't engage unique entrepreneurial talents, and as a result talent slips through the cracks if it doesn't show up a certain way.

Right now, African Americans have the highest population percentage in prison and also those in prison on drug distribution related charges. Clearly this one-size-fits all thinking carries on into our prison system, because if we could think outside the box more and see more than criminals, we could see the talent. Whether they are using it for good or bad, it is still entrepreneurial talent. At The Start Center for Entrepreneurship we work with some ex-offenders, along with a diverse rosters of entrepreneurs and startups and the bottom line is always talent.

Can you imagine what would happen, if we decided to deal with drug distribution related charges different? Within the African American community alone, the talent is so potent, and many prison sentences could be reduced or given an alternative for these individuals with misguided talent to join an entrepreneurial program. This is how I changed my life, by positively channeling my gift of entrepreneurship through an environment that allowed me to learn my way on my terms.

I believe now is the time to revisit how talent is engaged in elementary school. It is truly what sets the path for our youth. We need to implement more talent-based programs that engage gifts and encourage students to discover their passion early on in school. For years we've heard about "Education Reform," but when is it ever going to happen? When are we going to actually sit down and began to revamp and restructure the unique talent exists within public schools?

I get letters often from individuals in prison who want my advice on how to start a business and their biggest complaint is they have no classes to channel there talent in a positive way. Many of them are former drug dealers and want to make a positive impact but they don't have access to the training in prison.

Often times too much money is spent on how to deal with crime or the problem, not enough money is spent on how to prevent it, Much of the answer lies in this proactive approach of how students learn and how do we cater to those who don't fit in? Do we continue to label them low achievers and allow that dark path of destruction to take its course? Entrepreneurs are anomalies they don't fit in. It's the same with any creative talent. And if we don't change something soon, more talent will continue to go overlooked, undeveloped and undiscovered.