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Shaka Senghor shares how he transformed his life while in prison


Shaka Senghor

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Updated: May 1, 2013 5:38PM

I was invited to speak at TEDxMidwest this weekend because of my work in the community as a mentor and anti-gun violence advocate. During my talk, I will share my journey from an emotionally hardened and violent “thug” into a caring and compassionate mentor who found hope despite the hopelessness that grows like weeds in prison.

I was a victim of gun violence at the age of 17, which led me to become very paranoid and live in constant fear. I started carrying a gun wherever I went, and 14 months later, I found myself in a similar conflict — but this time, I decided to shoot first. Tragically, my victim died and I later pled guilty to second-degree murder.

Carrying a gun and deciding to shoot were two of the worst decisions I’ve made. What I didn’t realize at the time is that hurt people hurt people, and I had been hiding hurts from my childhood that I hadn’t resolved. I grew up on the east side of Detroit in an abusive household, and when my 14-year-old body could no longer stand the lash of the belt, I ran away from home. On the streets, I was robbed at gunpoint, beaten and left for dead on the floor of a crack den. Sadly, this is the reality for many youth growing up in cities like Chicago and Detroit.

When I entered prison at age 19, I was bitter, angry and broken. I didn’t want to take responsibility for my actions and sought to blame everyone from my parents to the system. I felt hopeless, unloved and abandoned. I rebelled against my confinement and found myself getting deeper in trouble. I never imagined that I would be spending my most productive years behind bars.

It wasn’t until years into my 19-year sentence that I unpacked the baggage from my childhood and began healing. Once I was able to understand the roots of my anger, I was able to help other inmates and youth like me who were heading down the same destructive path that led me to prison.

Fortunately for me, I discovered the transformative power of literature. It started when an older inmate introduced me to Malcolm X’s autobiography. His books captured my imagination and inspired me to take responsibility for the decisions that led me to prison. I stopped making excuses for my misdeeds and learned to control my thoughts and emotions. I started structuring my days as though I were on a college campus instead of a prison yard. I turned my cell into a classroom and read everything from philosophy to political science.

It was at this time that I also began taking writing seriously. I eventually penned several books, including my memoir “Writing My Wrongs,” which I now use to mentor inner-city youth. Though literature isn’t celebrated the way it once was, I believe it is one of the best tools we have at our disposal to help transform lives.

I was released from prison 2 ½ years ago, one day after I turned 38. One week later, I began mentoring and speaking. My transformation showed me that the majority of humans — no matter what they’ve done — are redeemable as long as they have hope. In my experiences working with youth, and reflecting on my own journey, I believe the common denominator is hope. I found hope in literature, and I believe others can too.

Shaka Senghor will be speaking at TEDxMidwest at the Harris Theatre on May 2 and 4. Live streaming video will be available at Read more about Shaka Senghor at

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