Living the Good Life Now

I will never forget the excitement I felt when I saw video images of me and my family on national television that warm night in the early 80’s. I remember the documentary coming on and being all confusing, but then we appeared on this tiny little box and it was clear that we were going to be famous or something. Little did I understand at the time that the documentary being aired was on the topic of poverty, and the footage being shared was of us living in public housing with my mother father, uncle, aunt, her daughter, and I.

Soon after this, my dad and mom decided to move to Galveston Texas. We rented a house there on the other side of the tracks from the island, but it was nice to not be surrounded by folks on every side. Having a house meant that we had a yard and could even practice baseball by the house. My dad being a semi-pro baseball player in Nicaragua meant I was destined to have some skill with the sport, and I did. In fact, I was given a scholarship to play ball at a private high school on the island. The school was a culture shock for me because most of the kids came from affluent families that bought the kids new cars when they turned 16.

I used to hitch rides from the other kids after late games. The problem was that I was so embarrassed by the house that I lived in, that I would tell my teammates to drop me off down the block at a different house, because I didn’t want them to know how poor we were. I used to buy used clothes from a friend of mine so I could fit in with the other students wearing Tommy Hilfinger and Guess jeans. I always felt like I was just too poor to keep up with this image of success. Even upon graduation only a couple people actually knew where I lived.

Things changed when I graduated from High School and was hired to drive a truck to Nicaragua with my dad. I will never forget driving by  glistening beaches, through endless mountains, and through valleys of complete darkness. Guatemala City was so busy with cars and cows, and kids in the streets. Outside of the city I was shocked to see the huge heaps of garbage and the people who lived there. I thought the city demonstrated some major poverty but was even more amazed to see that there were some people who were so poor that they lived in the garbage being dumped from the city!

This exposure to extreme poverty changed my way of thinking. I realized when I got back home that I had running water, electricity, and air-conditioning and that I was not poor but rich, and in fact I was living the Good Life. Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have, I started to focus on what I did have and this way of thinking was at the root of me starting my own skateboard and clothing business, to later creating my own major at the university, to now working to creating community change with The Good Life Organization today. I realized that instead of looking at the deficits and feeling disempowered, that I could look at the assets and begin to cultivate these things to empowering myself and change my community.

Many institutions focused on social justice are overly focused on the issues at hand and for this reason they feel overwhelmed, are disempowered, and often times are not sustained because of burnout. The Good Life Organization takes a different approach that focuses on the assets and the strategic usage of these assets to solving problems on individual and social issues. Operating from the idea that healed whole people create healed whole communities, we see the empowerment of individuals as part of a larger work to the cultivation of transformation in communities. The Good Life is not something that can be purchased but something that must be cultivated within us, and the truth is that we can start living it now by pursuing holistic empowerment and social contribution.

We are starting a global movement of people living the Good Life and bringing this healing and wholeness to our communities and world around us. Just because many of us live in Urban environments doesn’t mean that we can’t take wellness and social change seriously. To help us in our journey we have connected to some of the top thinkers in our time focusing on relevant ways to empowering ourselves mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We have authors that specialize in urban meditation and movement, creative grieving and healing, spiritual enlightenment and communal change. These stories will inspire you, encourage your and equip you to being empowered to living the Good Life  not matter where you live or what possessions you have. We are raising up and challenging the fantasies of a world that uses documentaries, music, and culture to say that the Good Life is based on money, materialism, and upholding  the status quo. It is time to live the Good Life now, and the journey continues!

For more info on this movement of living the Good Life check out:

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Nahum Diaz Interview of Big Brother Roberto




What are the differences between hip-hop, and the hip hop industry?


I like to make a distinction between Hiphop Culture and Hiphop Industry.

I define Hiphop Culture as the modern day phenomenon of oppressed people finding liberation through creative and spiritual means. It is an ancient phenomenon going back as far as Egypt during the times of Moses when folks were trying to leave an oppressive environment and took what they had and their spirituality and made something out of nothing. Taking what they had they left slavery and used music and their spirituality to get out of the slave mentality. The same sort of thing happens with the emancipation of slaves, they embrace their spirituality and take their creativity  and culture and liberate themselves not only physically but mentally as well. We see Jazz, blues and gospel impulses as embodying not only a different style of music but a kind of philosophy on how to deal with reality and overcome it. These impulses and philosophies get inherited in Hiphop Culture in the early 1970’s.
Teenagers took what they had available and “made something out of nothing.” The truth is that no one can really make something out of nothing, but when what is seen as valuable ( by mainstream society) is only money, than yes, Hiphop took other valuable things such as: creativity, knowledge of self and community, interdependent connections with others, and positive risk taking and leveraged that to the full potential. Young people in the South Bronx, living in a very oppressive environment ( due to bank redlining and other institutionally racist practices) , were able to find their voices and share their stories in ways that allowed them to name reality and change it. These voices manifested through a variety of mediums that we call elements: Mcing/Rapping, Djing, Breaking/Dancing, Graffiti/aerosol art, and the knowledge of hiphop. The knowledge, based on my interviews with Africa Bambataa and Chuck D and others, is understanding the roots of the culture, namely the blues, gospel, and jazz philosophies.  Young people took the torch of civil rights and added their own fuel of expression and demonstrated to the world that young people can alter their environments. This culture, coined hiphop by Africa Bambataa of the Zulu Nation spread around the world like wildfire, to other youth needing to have a voice.
Hiphop Industry in contrast starts more so in the early 1990’s with the advent of gangster music. When NWA sold over 1 million copies of their Straight outta Compton LP, big business realized that there was a lot of money to be made with this genre. The element of the MC got Rapped up (pun intended) and got divorced from the other elements. It became all about selling units, even if that meant the music would fulfill every stereotype that white people in the suburbs ( the ones who were buying the music) believed about people of color. The rhetoric of black men being Pimps or Thugs, and women being “hoes” or “Bitches” fit in too perfectly with mass media’s tendency to promote hyper-masculine personas, and depict women as objects of sexual conquest. 
At least Hiphop music in the 90’s had some balance. For every NWA and Snoop you had Public Enemy and Tribe Called Quest, but record companies began to realize that the conscious lyrics and political commentary got lost in translation once the music went over seas. Big business decided to take RAP to the lowest common denominator and only promote music that is violent, overally sexualized, and has lots of “bling”. It seems also that everything is now using Hiphop to sell things from shoes and clothing to cars, video games, and sports drinks, it is a multi-billion dollar industry. Our focus on money in the US has made it so we have lost sight of the real power of Hiphop to transform individual lives and societies and make them more just and egalitarian.  The power of hiphop as a mechanism for social change has now gone over seas where youth, who once exposed to hiphop through the industry, realized they could take it back and use it as a tool for liberation once again.
Put simply- Hiphop Culture is about “get free or die trying” and hiphop industry is about “get rich or die trying”.


In your opinion, in what ways has hip-hop influenced youth?


In the US, youth are often times not in tune with this history of hiphop and this is very strategic. If young people were aware of the history of the culture they would be empowered by the examples of countless young men and women who used this culture as a vehicle to transform themselves and their communities. This is something that empowers young people, but big business does not want this because it takes youth out of the consumer way of living and that is not good for business. Instead many youth in America in particular have power exercised over them, as big business tries to not just get them to be loyal to a brand but have a brand identity.

The fact of the matter is that this generation of teens spends 200 billion dollars a year on commodities, and so every industry in the world is trying to get them to spend their money on their stuff. This means that youth are studies unlike any other generation in the history of the world, and that their music and culture is used against them to sell them false definitions of themselves. Being a consumer instead of a creator means that life is about acquiring as many physical goods as possible, and that in combination with a lack of opportunities for young people to get these things legitimately means that some turn to illegal ways to get this “stuff”. 
Media in many ways has more influence in young peoples lives than adults. A study out of the Search Institute indicates that only 19% of American teenagers have a positive relationship with an adult. That means that roughly 81% of American youth do not have the adult support necessary to co-author a positive identity. That co-authorship is given over to big business who again frame purpose around consuming as much as possible, by any means necessary. Again this compared with the reality that young people of color get tried and convicted 6x times more than their white counterparts for the same crimes, means that many youth end up in jail or worse in a casket.


What are positive impacts hip-hop has had in your life?


I started to “wake up” to my true potential and purpose through hiphop culture. It started mainly when I began working at a teen center as a teenager. I started out just volunteering and inviting my older friends to come down and share what they knew with us. This evolved to performances and festivals and eventually original hiphop plays. I then realized that alot of the “minority”, “learning deficient”, “at-rsk” titles I had been given were really false and had put me in a deficient frame of mind. Hiphop culture taught me that I was a majority (when it comes to people of color living in the world), that I learn differently, and that some of the most successful people in the world took positive risks. I started to become activated as an artist, a student, and as a change agent. Through my paper I wrote at MATC, I learned about Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation and I realized that it is possible to use music and art to change our realities, prior to that I just wanted to escape from reality.


What are negative impacts hip-hop has had on you?


I went to 13 different schools before I went to high school. I was kicked out of school when I was 14 for selling drugs, I ran away from home, and got arrested several times. Not that I would blame all of that on Hiphop, but growing up in G-Town (Galveston just south of Houston) I listened to gangster music all the time. It confirmed what I believed about the world being messed up, and encouraged me that the only way I could do something about it was to be an outlaw or a thug. What this really meant was checking out of reality by smoking weed all the time and drinking all the time and promoting that to others. So I thought “well this is how we deal with our feelings” and the fact that the world is messed up.

Deep down I wanted to face reality and change it, but it wouldn’t be until later in my life that I would come to understand that I could do that through hiphop. I mean it wasn’t a sudden change, I started to freestyle when I was 17, but also used to smoke weed and drink 40’s. But I realized that the more I got serious about my music and actually talking about the root issues that were bothering me, the less I felt a need to get high and drunk. This was a huge awakening for me, because it empowered me to be able to do something in my life for the better and I have chosen to make that a major focus in my life. This is why we teach the history of HIphop Culture and share the principles of the culture with youth around the nation and world with the Good Life Organization. Check out more at


What are the differnces in hip hop from it’s origins, to today’s music?

Again Hiphop back in the day had a lot of blues, gospel, and jazz impulses running through it. You could hear samples from really classic music that was remixed in to the beat, with some stories about some crazy events that happened that were also laced with some hope for redemption. Now when I turn on the radio most of the music that I hear is devoid of those impulses and more so promoting a fantasy way of living or being that benefits alcohol or clothing manufacturers. 
Real Hiphop that is grounded in reality is still out there but it is less available through mass media. You have to dig for it a little bit more. The real power of hiphop as an instrument for social change is more demonstrated in other countries outside of the US. Places like Brazil, Cuba, Uganda and even the West Bank are now the leaders of how HIphop Culture can bring about liberation and empowerment. Now the US has to become humble and learn from the rest of the world about a movement that originally was started here. As they say ” the tables have turned” and they certainly have!
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Five Principles To Living The Good Life

The other day an old friend got in touch with me via facebook. The last time I heard from the guy, we were both really into skateboarding, freestyle rapping, and partying a little too much. He must have been sort of facebook stalking me because he seemed to already know what I was up to, even though I hadn’t talk to the guy in over five years. His response was not trying to one up me or even fill me in on what he had been up to. He simply asked me for help. He said that it seemed like I was doing so much in my life and he said that he just felt “stuck”. He asked me if I could meet with him and “be a life coach to him”. I commented back jokingly but he made it clear that he was serious. 
Upon realizing that he was serious, I thought about my life and really wondered what I had to offer. With reflection, I realized how blessed I truly feel to be: married to the girl of my dreams, doing what I most love to do in the world, and am able to honestly say that I would not trade places with anyone that I know (and I know a lot of great people). I truly feel like I am living the “Good Life”! My wife and I recently bought another home in a very tight knit community after having our first little baby. We have been meeting our neighbors and I have had a chance to have some deep conversations with some of the guys in the neighborhood. In one conversation that I had today, I asked the guy if he felt like he was living the “Good Life” life and he said straight up: “no”, when I asked him what it would look like for him to live it, he could not even give me a solid answer. This is when I started to realize, wow maybe I do have a few things that I could share with folks who are feeling “stuck” or can not answer what the “Good Life” means for them.
The first thing I would say to someone that has no idea on what they want to do, is to volunteer in a way that allows you to serve someone or a group of people. In my experience being in a situation where you are asked to serve and get the focus off your self, allows you to begin to become more aware of the needs of others. Sometimes we are so wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t realize how blessed we really are and how much we have to give. Even more than this, if you are lucky you will quickly find yourself in a position where you are in over your head. This can be good because it can cause you to realize what you can do well and what areas you need support from others in. No one is great at everything, and it is important to know your strengths and weaknesses. This leads me to my second point…
2) Find out what you do well and learn how to become your best at it. Notice I didn’t say that you have to be “the” best, just “your” best. Living the Good Life is not about competition with others, but really just being your best authentic self and being able to play to your own unique strengths. Once we find what we are good at, we have to find others who are better at it and be open to learn from them. The great Picasso discovered he had an aptitude for art and he allowed himself to be mentored by the great artists of his time. He would work with them until he mastered their technique, he did this with several mentors then finally developed his own technique and style, which was groundbreaking. To go from good to great, it always requires mentorship and support from others It is important to be open to mentorship and to learn as much as possible, but in the end you have to develop your own unique style and walk your own path.
3) The third point is to be humble and willing to learn from anyone. What I have learned is sometimes the Creator (some call him God or the Universe) will speak to you in places you least expect through people you would think the least likely. This maybe be a foreign exchange student, an elderly person, a child, or even someone who is severely disabled. It is in the context of relationship with others, especially others who have a very different background than us that our world views can begin to open up and we can begin to be open to ideas and realities beyond the small bubbles of our lived experiences. This is important because our purpose may be to do something that is connected to another place or people group than what we may have ben exposed to previously. They key to a rich life partially relies in having diverse relationships with a wide variety of people. 
4) My fourth piece of advice is that we need to embrace our pain. Too many people have been emotionally wounded through relationships and they never take time to truly heal from those wounds. Instead of continuing their lives from a place of peace and well being, they live life from a place of pain and brokenness. I have learned that doing the hard work of healing is important for two reasons: 1) some of our greatest insights about life come from facing our pain and learning the important life lessons that come from those experiences. These insights can very well be the very things that link to our purpose. 2) Seeing the hurt that others can cause can make us more aware of the powerful effect of our own words and actions. Understanding this power can make us more empathetic in dealing with others, especially others who we see that are wounded, and can allow us to become powerful wielders of hope embodying the possibility that pain can become propane for living a better life. This leads me to my last point…
5) We all have a purpose that is unique for us and that allows us to most come alive. This purpose or what I call the “Good Life” is something that first off cannot be defined by MTV, any media outlets or marketing firm. It is something that must be defined by us. This most often times is something that combines our own life experiences (both good and bad), our strengths, our social capital (relationships), and the powerful insight we have gained from our pain. Although this is unique and special for each person, it is consistent in that our purpose is linked to using all the good and bad that we have experienced to make the world a better place; to leave a positive legacy. You don’t need to be hyper spiritual or religious to recognize that our actions (or inactions) have an effect upon others. Ultimately our purpose is linked to our ability to leave a positive legacy that reflects our true selves living in this world and leaving it in a better condition then when we found it.
I believe that if someone were to follow these five concepts, they will be on the right track to walking in their destiny and living “the Good Life’. What I have learned is that it is sometimes the very things that have hurt us the most, are the very things that we are called to address and change.  I was hurt through my experience with schooling, and told that I was “LD” or learning deficient. What I have learned is that I just “learn differently” and that my purpose is connected to reforming educational spaces so all people from different backgrounds and learning styles can be engaged. I use my strengths, my social capital, and my unique insights from doing the hard work of healing to guide me to doing this. I am convinced that if I can do it so can you.
Roberto Rivera created his own major at UW-Madison entitled: Social Change, Youth Culture and the Arts”. He also started his own company that combines his passion for Hiphop and education and creates innovative curriculum that teaches leadership, relationship, and citizenship skills to youth using media, movement, and music. He recently was named one of the top change agents in America by the Search for The common Ground Coalition, and is a global partner in the Unreasonable Institute. He speaks publicly and can be reached through this website:

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Hiphop-Youth Voice and Social Change

The Good Life Organization (GLO) specializes in galvanizing adults towards supporting the positive development of youth and cultivation of youth voice, and mobilizing youth towards using their voices to create community change. Extensive research and experience indicate that there is a reciprocally transformative experience that occurs when youth development and community development are strategically linked. Often times youth led events and action plans are able to garner the support of adults and community organizations in ways that would be much more difficult if they were initiated by adults. Since most non-for-profits claim to be “about the youth”, when a youth led agenda emerges, it carries with it a sense of urgency and power to unify a community around the needs of youth.

Driven by the simple idea that “youth don’t grow up in programs or classrooms but in communities” necessitates that organizations, parents, and schools work together in making youth a priority. Community is created when people feel a sense of relationship and belongingness, not to mention a sense of a common purpose. To foster these connections takes organic dialogue, of which we find happens naturally when people are engaged with “edutainment” (combining education and entertainment). Films like “Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting For Superman” are a couple examples on how films can spark critical dialogue, which in turn, can connect people through a common purpose and eventually even create changes in policy and culture. It is for this reason of building critical dialogue and common purpose, that Good Life creates high quality film, music, media and educational products to spark dialogue and initiate cultural change.

The Good Life Organization has created a variety of visual media including a film entitled: Bridge Da Gap. This documentary highlights critical issues such as the achievement gap and the racial disparity of incarceration gap and discusses (including interviews with scholars, rap pioneers, and youth) how these gaps can be bridged by using Hiphop based education. GLO also works with a variety of hiphop artists regionally and around the nation in the development of music linking youth development, hiphop culture, and social justice. On the education side of edutainment, GLO has developed an innovative social and emotional curriculum called Fulfill The Dream that takes research based principles of empowerment and teaches them in culturally relevant ways. Teaching leadership, relationship, and citizenship, the curriculum engages youth with these topics using media, music, and movement. The results have included increased G.P.A’s, better school attendance, and even one school reaching its first ever 100% graduation rate. The key to these results are linked to building capacity to community leaders to engage youth in relevant ways that allow youth opportunities to discover their voices and use these voices in addressing community issues creatively.

Youth being at the forefront of social change is not a new concept. In fact a re-visiting of history would indicate that every major social movement in the last 50 years had youth on the front lines. From Civili Rights and youth boarding buses to head down south and sitting at lunch counters, to youth involvement in South Africa challenging the Bantu System of education to end apartheid, to more recent activity in Egypt with the Arab spring indicate that youth having an empowered voice challenges the status quo of any society. Just like the Chinese symbol for crisis combines ideas of danger and opportunity, every social crisis contains within it the possibility of great opportunity to derive if youth are involved. Our current crisis in education indicates that it is time for a different way of thinking to be added to the discussion. Einstein once said: “ you can solve the current problems you are facing with the same thinking you used when you created these problems”. Part of the reason why the education debate is not moving forward more effectively is because youth voice has been strategically silenced. To counter this trend, GLO is now also publishing books, music, and media specifically designed by youth that shares their ideas and perspectives.

Seeing and hearing youth who have a voice and who have been empowered, is the single most effective way to engage youth with the understanding that they are an important asset to their communities and communicate that their voices count. It is therefore the focus of GLO to build capacity in organizations and communities where the effective and consistent input of youth is facilitated in ways that contribute to plans of action, policies, and program ideas. The results of this level of leadership which includes youth result in a few outcomes: First off, it ensures that the plans of action and programs being developed by an organization relevantly meet the needs of youth. Secondly, it ensures that organizations remain focused on the importance of actually servicing youth instead of using rhetoric and using youth as an excuse to raise money to fund the status quo. Lastly, youth voice helps youth develop the skills they need to thrive in a 21st century economy. Research indicate that youth who have a voice in their communities develop skills that help them become better citizens, helps them work in better collaboration with others, while also fostering greater creativity and problem solving skills applicable in a variety of settings.

Helping youth develop the skills to thrive with learning and life are not just important for the short term but also benefit a nation in the long term. Ensuring youth have a proper education grounded in citizenship, collaboration, and creativity ensures that they will have the skills of the 21st century and will be able to effectively contribute to the society they are apart of. If we as a nation want to keep up with the demands of our economy which is swiftly changing from an industrial one to one of innovation, we have to begin to create communities that value youth and cultivate their voices. It requires that youth serving organizations undergo a paradigm shift where youth are not the recipient of services and needing to be fixed but are participants given opportunity to contribute and act as part of the solution. This is what a proper 21st century education looks like, youth centered, strength based, incorporating their voices, and involving the whole community. “ The hope of a nation lies in the proper education of it’s youth”-Erasmus. Check out more at:

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From Isolation to Transformation: A Story about the Power of Using Hip hop based education and SEL in Schools.

Back in 2005, I had recently graduated from college at UW-Madison, where I created my own major entitled: Social Change, Youth Culture and the Arts, and I was looking to put my education into practice. I noticed that the media was constantly writing articles blaming youth and their families for the negativity and violence that was going on in the public schools in Madison. What I began to realize with further investigation was that there was an over representation of youth of color in special education classes in Madison, a reality not just taking place in the mid-west but throughout the nation as well. With more specific focus on Madison schools I saw a dichotomy, because these same schools that were winning national awards for sending white kids to ivy league schools, had also 50% drop out rates for black and latino youth (primarily young men). Furthermore, we learned that this trend for college graduation was 8% for students from low social economic status (SES) and 80% for students from a higher (SES). We also realized that schools without relevantly engaging these realities, and treating youth as liabilities, were not helping youth to succeed academically or in life.

We decided to get involved and take different approach, and influenced by the fields of positive youth development, culturally relevant pedagogy, we decided to create a curriculum that was strength based, relevant, and centered around empowering youth voice. The curriculum and lesson plans took us several months to create, and upon completion we approached the superintendent at Madison schools to talk about piloting this program. What we learned was that the crisis in Madison schools created an opportunity for us to pilot our program, because the district was out of ideas of what to do to mend the problems and public humiliation it was receiving from local media sources. We were asked to pilot our program at a middle school that was having some of the most challenges. We met with the principals and the staff and quickly identified the classes that were causing the most trouble. Meeting the class confirmed our hypothesis: youth of color were being warehoused and controlled so they would not “act out”. This method had the exact opposite result, in that the kids felt dehumanized and silenced, and their acting out was their feeble attempt to being heard, but instead of listening, it caused more trauma and isolation for the youth specifically.

We kicked off our program with a Hip-hop performance and inspirational talk for the entire school. We told informed students that we were about to do a leadership, relationship, and citizenship curriculum with a select few classes and that the next time we were going to see the entire school, that some of the students would be performing with us. The students were all excited, and when we arrived the next week to the four classes where the youth were being warehoused and both the students and the staff were elated. We informed the students that we knew they were leaders in the school, and that we wanted to help them realize their potential and become elements of positive change for the community. We started doing the curriculum focusing on taking off negative labels put on by society and redefining our identities from what the media portrays through music video’s. We did workshops dealing with grief and frustration, helping youth to tell their stories through art. We helped youth visualize their own funerals in the future, and asked them to write about what they wanted to be remembered for.

A memorable moment was when one of the students, deemed the worst student in the school by teachers and administrators, said he wanted to die making a good name for his family and doing something to help the community. Once this piece was shared, both the students and the staff began to treat him differently, instead of being seen as a problem, he was being seen as a solution. This treatment further helped him to start acting like he was part of the solution, and on occasion where he was about to act up, one of the teachers would remind him of his legacy and if he was sure he wanted to make that negative decision. Other youth labeled “at-risk” had similar experiences that allowed them to see themselves and each other in a different light. Another memorable moment was when we were doing a lesson on grief and one of the teachers shared a poem about losing her father, she and the entire class were in tears when share finished sharing your piece. It communicated a few things, first that this was a safe place, and secondly that students’ experiences were valuable and would be honored if they shared. Youth began to get open about what they had been through and we could see changes in attitudes towards the teachers, the school, and each other.

By week 5 we decided to start supplementing the in class work with some workshops after school focusing on the arts and elements of Hip-hop. Youth were given room to explore their creative sides through movement, music, and poetry. Youth began to share their own narratives in ways that often countered what society was saying about them. For example, instead of boasting about material riches and “bling-bling” the young men wrote a song called “Soul Bling” where they boasted about the internal things that made them bling. Other youth did a breaking (breakdancing) routine that started out looking like the youth were going to fight and then instead of fighting, it went into a whole battle routine. Other youth shared poems about their life and experiences transferring to a new state and the challenges of starting at a new school.

Finally the time came where the youth had a chance to perform for the whole school and the community was invited as well. The young man who had previously wrote about leaving a legacy, was so excited because his dad had just been released from prison, and was in attendance. The youth with the support of the mentors and staff performed their extremely powerful and expressive pieces for everyone. By the end of the event, both parents and teachers were crying. We had teachers coming up to us saying, “I would never image that some of these students could be given a microphone and actually say something positive”. But the real test came after the performance when some of the other students, jealous by the attention this group was getting from some girls, challenged one of the students and pushed him into some lockers. Now normally, this student would without a doubt retaliate and it would have become a full blown fight. The student stopped, clenched his fists and you could see he was thinking about what to do, then the assistant principal told the youth man, “hey Darell, don’t forget to soul bling”. Consequently the young man unclenched his fists and walked away, and we all started to breathe.

Now from an experience level, this was all amazing, but we knew the real test of the effectiveness of this program was going to be the data. The school collected records of the students G.P.A’s, their attendance, and behavior issues from before the program started and again after the program concluded. What we saw was astonishing, the four classes of youth who had been previously warehoused, had cumulatively raised their G.P.A’s by half a point, and the youth who were causing the most trouble in the school previously had raised their G.P.A’s a full point in ten weeks! Moreover, we saw that the students were attending school more often and had fewer behavioral issues. Upon receiving this analysis from the school administrators we took this data to the Superintendent and Chief of Staff of Madison Public Schools. They were amazed to see the results and called a town hall meeting for all of the middle schools in the district.

What was amazing was that once the youth caught wind of the town hall meeting about the program, they wanted to be there and represent their own voices and experience. What started out as being pretty dry with data, became quickly more activating when the youth began to tell the stories behind the data. Explaining, that they had more hope now , and could see how school was important because now they had a vision of what they wanted to do in the future. We were all amazed by how articulate the youth were, and so were all of the administrators and principals in attendance. That was the push we needed to go district wide with the curriculum. What we learned however, is that you can’t put a changed person into an unchanged environment and see change be sustained. Seeing this themselves, the teachers asked us if we would train them in the pedagogy and philosophy of the curriculum. This is when we also realized that we could impact youth directly and impact a life or we could impact teachers and impact a generation. We have continued in this work doing both. Now the curriculum is operating in 7 different cities.

Currently with an opportunity to reach 1 million youth through the Unreasonable Institute, we have an opportunity to work with educators to make an effective and sustainable change in the system of education. We are now one of 50 organizations from around the world with a chance to receive world class mentorship and a potential for funding from Google, HP and 200 other organizations. The first 25 organizations to raise $10,000 will win this race and gain this opportunity. If you have a heart for education and the empowerment of youth please check out our profile online and donate today!

You will also see more up to date work with youth on the west side of Chicago on this site as well, enjoy!

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Using the Knowledge of Hiphop To Transform Self and Society: Article Six I Have a Dream Too!

A dream is a vision that is worth fighting for—Paulo Freire

Those who are in power are afraid of the masses once they understand that they have the power to change the reality of the world. The only way to do this is by having a clear vision that is accepted and invested in by a community of people. One of the major powers of rap music is that it communicates the struggle in a way that people can relate to it. The call and response that takes place between the artist and crowd is one that lets people know that they are not alone in the struggle. By isolating people and hindering real dialogue, those who have power stay in power. But when people begin to come together and engage in authentic dialogue they begin to realize that there is a common struggle that offers a common solution.

One of ways that this power of vision was demonstrated through Hiphop is through graffiti. Early writers took the risk of writing their names on walls of various neighborhoods. This may not seem like a big deal, but it was because this was mainly done at night in various gang territories. One kid in particular named Taki 183 challenged the stronghold of fear that gangs had on the community by doing just this. When the New York times came out with an article that explained who Taki was and what he was doing, the light went off in many people mind’s.

Suddenly they were less afraid to cross over into the various gang territories, because of this new found vision expressed through graffiti. Working together to make this dream a reality was a huge contributing factor to walls of separation coming down and people eventually coming together. The real walls as it turns out were the walls that were in people’s minds. Walls that graffiti was able to challenge and knock down so that new possibilities could be actualized.

Herc in the same way saw the opportunity that had arisen with the gang peace treaty and people being more willing to go to other neighborhoods. He caught the vision of bringing these folks together through music. By inventing what he called the merry go round, he was able to extend the break part of the record and open up the possibility for a new type of dance, and for the eventual emergence of rap to develop. People bought into this possibility that struggle could be turned into something that demonstrated individual power and collective beauty and this music started to spread all over the city. Soon this phenomenon would start to spread the message of new possibility to other cities.

Sylvia Robinson caught a vision for what could happen with this music when she heard a live recording of a Hip-hop party that her son brought home one day from a weekend in New York. Being a visionary leader, she ventured to find some artists that could record the first rap record. To her surprise many of the prominent rappers during the time didn’t see how recording their music could bring about any opportunity. They only saw how doing shows in clubs could bring in money and figured that taking time to record an album would distract them from getting paid to doing what they loved to do. Before admitting defeat, Sylvia Robinson decided to stop at a pizza stand, as legend tells it, the person working behind the counter was listening to a hiphop tape and was rapping along with it. Not realizing that this worker wasn’t the real author of the lyrics, she offered him an opportunity to record a song. The worker called in one of his friends who happened to be nearby and they ended up recording a song with other people’s lyrics. The group became named as the Sugar Hill Gang, and the song is known as “Rappers Delight”. The original authors of the lyrics were shocked when the record was played over the radio, had they had the vision they would have been the first ones to bring Hip-hop to the mainstream.

Russeell Simmons caught the vision that Hiphop could go beyond a one hit wonder, which is what happened with Sugar Hill Gangs Rappers Delight, and believed that Hiphop could become a genre respected by the world. By developing the vision for Def Jam and signing Kurtis Blow, Russell was able to cut a track named Christmas Rapping which launched Blow’s career. This success eventually led to other acts coming on board such a LL Cool J, Run DMC, and Beastie Boys, all of whom have now toured the world several times over. Even though other people more established in the record industry could have seized this opportunity more easily themselves, they never saw the potential of how youth living in the ghetto could bring something of value to the world. Without having this connection to a vision, they proved to be the ones in a ghetto mentality that could have literally made them millions if not billions of dollars. Since they did not catch on until the early nineties, people like Russell was able to take Hiphop to the mainstream and seize that opportunity. What vision do you see that maybe no one else sees? How can you start to work on making that vision a reality?

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Using the Knowledge of Hiphop to Transform Self and Society Article Five: Pimp My Ride

Pimp My Ride.

Ever since humans have walked on the earth there has been conflict and beef with others from different backgrounds. From war to racism, to poverty humans have had to learn how to deal with the brutal realities of life. The legacy that Hiphop inherited is the understanding that we can overcome these conflicts, and  by connecting with a force greater than ourselves and can overcome our challenges and change our realities. One thing that the Civil Rights demonstrated is that by connecting with each other and with our faith we can overcome any oppressive reality no matter how large.

A couple of fantasies that those in power want us to believe is that the brutal realities of poverty, racism, and oppression have always been around and will never change. The reality is that systems of oppression are created by human being and human beings can change these systems. Hip-hop took the reality of growing up in the Bronx, a community that some estimate to have 30,000 fires occur during a five year time period (This was mainly due to land lords paying folks to commit arson so they could collect the insurance claims) The banks only lent money to white people so they could move, and without the financial support necessary business diminished, unemployment rose, and schools started to cut their arts programs. Feeling rejected, abandon, and unwanted, young people felt the heavy hand of society trying to silence them and sweep them away.

Created to make noise, and without the proper support to make their voices heard, many of these young people joined gangs and began to burn each other through acts of violence. Pissed because of the lack of support from banks, government or local institutions young folks mistakenly took out their aggression on each other claiming that folks from different sets were the enemy. Murders, gang fights, and individual beat downs became an everyday part of life for many living in the Bronx. However due to the visionary leadership of Black Benji and Benjamin Melendez, they began to communicate a different option.

Inspired by the legacies of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Fred Hammond, these leaders began to realize that the real enemy was not the other gangs but society that was not giving them equal opportunity. With this newfound understanding, these young people began to organize various gangs while promoting their message of peace and hope for a treaty. Unfortunately during one of his peace campaigns, Black Benji was brutally murdered. Upon hearing this news, Benji’s gang prepared for war. As they were getting their weapons one of the members asked if this would best honor Benji, and one by one they all dropped their weapons. Instead of fighting, Benji’s gang decided to let Benji’s death be the catalyst for extending forgiveness and calling all the heads of the gangs together to form a peace treaty. Shocked that Benji’s gang would not retaliate, gang leaders came together and in 1971 signed the gang peace treaty.

It would be due to this act of forgiveness that allowed gang leaders to identify the real enemy, and come together to start to battle it. By signing the peace treaty in 1971 youth were able to come together from various neighborhoods and share their ideas, their expression which would eventually lead to Kook Herc starting a party that would allow Hiphop to bring folks from all the burrows to unify. Coming together with the belief that reality could be changed and acting on that belief allowed not only for the transformation of individuals, but the transformation of a community and a movement that has sparked hope in the hearts of young people world-wide. The truth is that facing our realities, identifying the real enemies, and stepping out on faith collectively we can face any challenge and win any battle.

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