In his pursuit of a better future for himself and his community, Benjamin has achieved a great deal of success against some incredible circumstances.
Born in Chicago to Jamaican parents, domestic violence prompted his grandmother to bring him back to Jamaica, where he describes a middle class upbringing with good family values. A series of moves brought him back to Chicago, and eventually on a path that led to his incarceration, but he came out determined to change the story for others. Thanks to a ton of hard work, the help of Inspiration Corporation and a generous grant from the Lori Jericho Memorial Education Fund, Benjamin is on his way to earning his Master’s Degree at the University of Chicago.
Benjamin’s story is one of relentless determination, and one that proves the incredible potential that an education can unlock. His academic obstacles seemed to begin in his teens, when he dropped out of his school in Englewood to earn his GED at Kennedy King College. “Going to high school in Chicago is a war zone.” Says Benjamin. “You gotta really give people props, especially Black men that graduate from high school in the South side and West side, certain neighborhoods. You gotta give them props for making it-for surviving.” According to the Chicago Tribune, while Chicago’s average high school graduation rate is 73.5%, the rate among African American male students is just 57%, highlighting an ongoing disparity in academic opportunities across Chicago neighborhoods.
Although Benjamin was able to avoid gangs, he still recalls being negatively influenced by his friends and community, which ultimately led to his incarceration for his part in a robbery at age 27. “I would not have done it if I knew ahead of time where I was going. But, once I was there, it wasn’t conducive for me to be conflicting, and you know, I had already drove us there.” Benjamin’s outlook was shaped by the experiences he had in prison, where he was able to see past the labels often given to those who were incarcerated. During his five years there, he read hundreds of books and began thinking about how he could use his insight to help at-risk youth, and to advocate for change within the justice system. “I feel compelled to do right because I didn’t see the worst side of people.” He says. “I started to see good in my fellow humans in the worst place.”
After his release, Benjamin became a House Monitor at a nonprofit that works with recently paroled men, which is where he learned about Inspiration Corporation. He joined our Job Training Program, giving him the confidence to enroll in school at City Colleges of Chicago, where he was elected to student council and secured an internship with the 27th Ward Alderman’s office. Meetings with his case manager helped him discover his interest in policy, and he immediately began applying to Bachelor’s programs.
The resources we were able to provide helped Benjamin afford summer class at the City Colleges, ensuring enough credits to transfer to the University of Illinois in Chicago’s College of Urban Planning. “It caused me to not have to break a stride because financial aid is only going to cover so much.” He says. Using this time to complete the more difficult classes like Calculus, he’s convinced he would have earned a failing grade if he had to wait until the full time schedule of fall classes. He recently earned his Bachelor’s Degree and is now working on his Master’s of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy at University of Chicago.
Benjamin is quick to credit the Lori Jericho Memorial Education Fund, as well as his Case Manager, Hilary for helping him get this far. “I always get in contact with her at the end of the semester just to kinda let her know how I’m doing, just because I don’t wanna be the statistic that fell off, so I’m trying to check myself through other people.”
Although Benjamin has a solid grasp on the changes he’d like to see in the world, he still struggles with which personal path to take, whether it’s taking an opportunity to study genocidal conflict resolution in Rwanda, pursuing business ventures in Jamaica, or continuing in the fight against violence in Chicago. “We’re not going to see violence end in America.” He says. “There’s a possibility that I might not see that change occur before I die, even if I live to be 80, 90 years old. So I have to ask myself, do I want to venture this path knowing the outcome will not be? But at the same time, I wanna be true to myself.”
Whatever the next chapter holds for Benjamin, it’s clear that he is intent on using his experiences to make a positive impact. To the many people for whom a higher education is out of reach, college may seem like a privilege, but Benjamin doesn’t see it that way. “To me, it’s life or death, it’s just that serious”, he says “I need this. This is life-saving. It all is. Inspiration’s a big part of it, going to school is a big part of it, talking to people, having this communication, it’s all a big part of it to avoid those things that are out here. It’s not that far from us all.”