The following is a speech I gave at the Aspen Ideas Festival, retracing my climb from welfare-service recipient to community leader.
My name is Jamiel Alexander, once an opportunity youth and now a voice for them and a voice for National Service. During my early childhood years in Philadelphia, I was raised in a 20-person household, in a three-bedroom row home, with two floors and a basement. The basement was converted to three more rooms and a half bath, where my sisters, cousins and I stayed.
I shared my room with my older cousin, a hip-hop graffiti artist, and a third roommate: an oil heater that heated the entire house. The garage was transformed to a place of storage for food with a deep freezer. For some reason, we never had enough food -- even with donations from the food bank. As each month drew to an end, I always anticipated the first of the month for our monthly trip to the supermarket. I also shared clothes with another cousin who came to live us later, and this gave me a great sense of "swaportunity."
As I went through childhood, going through my parent's divorce, I was labeled as a problem child. I can recall those sessions with the social worker at the Department of Human Services in Philly. During this era, I remember my music teacher back in Beeber Middle School (now shut down due to lack of funding) would ask me, "Why are you so angry?" He would let me literally "beat" the drums from 6th to 8th grade, and helped me to learn how to master & skillfully play each tom tom, symbol, hi-hat, snare and bass, until I made it through the divorce and school. I was featured as a drummer at graduation.
By the time I attended high school, sharing clothes was now just "hand me downs," fighting became a way of territorial expression that I was from "West Philly" and I could hang with the best of them out "North," where this new school was located (Benjamin Franklin High School). Here I was introduced to the "game" (hustling drugs) as an avenue to "get money," not realizing the distractions and destruction I would cause in my community.
I failed the 9th grade, transferred to yet another school (Overbook High School, out "West"), got caught with drugs and a gun was "in the vicinity," was mandated to do community service and placed in York City, Pennsylvania! While doing my mandated hours, I was introduced to a life-changing experience: YouthBuild Americorps, at the Crispus Attucks Association.
YouthBuild Americorps is an opportunity for young people to get a diploma/GED while performing work rebuilding low-income housing with a leadership development component focused on service and civic engagement. Now some years later, I am the president of the National Alumni Council.
So please excuse me if I get chocked up here and there, because the thug in me has died.
If you see me gazing off, it could be that I'm mentally taking pictures, so that I can freeze and remember these moments of right NOW. AHORA!!!
Coming from a place where being a welfare-service recipient was a necessity of survival, to later serving on the Leadership Council for Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (major service & opportunity givers), is an amazing honor.
Even in Aspen at the Aspen Ideas Festival, gathering of the great minds, I feel like I am at the mountain-top of service. Service begins full circle. A recipient to a giver. I see the beauty of my struggles and the advancements of what my service has brought me, I acknowledge and realize the surrounding mountains. Take a breath, thank GOD and I am ready for the next climb -- I will drink a lot of water.