“Why is it that there’s a gun store on every corner in our neighborhood? The same reason there’s a liquor store on every corner in our neighborhood, they want us to kill ourselves.” I remember when Furious Styles uttered these words while educating his son and his friend about the gentrification of the black community, they were in. I was too young to understand what he was talking about or who he was talking about at that time, but as I got older and more socially aware I began to appreciate and understand just how insightful his words were. Not only was he describing the conditions that were synonymous with black folks living in the “ghetto”, but also how those conditions lead to dire consequences. It wasn’t about denigrating a people and their behavior out of context. It was about providing the people necessary information to think about their circumstances. To think about how their environment could influence their behaviors.
I grew up in New York City during a time where I felt relatively safe. One could say I was sheltered, but that didn’t stop me from being exposed to crime and violence. When I think about my upbringing, I think about how vigilant I had to be. A kid who recognizes that you cannot afford to be unaware of your surroundings no matter where you are. So, every time I sit down and watch Boyz N the Hood, I think about my neighborhood. The liquor stores, mom and pop Caribbean stores, the corner stores, the fast-food restaurants that litter the area, the homelessness, and the drug addicts. Imagine the culture shock I experienced coming from that to being away at college where there were no corner stores and places closed by 9 pm. It was an adjustment and also a time to reflect on how my environment caused a lot of stress. Thankfully, I had a strong supportive family that helped me through, but unfortunately not everyone had the support system I had.
I grew up playing sports and loved being active. I enjoyed helping people to be physically fit. When I decided to declare a major, accounting is what I chose. It was the degree that would allow me to make some money, but quickly I realized it was a degree I was not passionate about. At the end of the semester, I changed my major to kinesiology. After two years at community college, I transferred to SUNY Cortland where I continued studying exercise science and began playing collegiate basketball. Prior to the start of my second semester at Cortland, I changed my major again to fitness development, a degree that was designed for individuals interested in becoming personal trainers. At the time it felt like the right decision for me. However, being a student athlete proved to be too much. One day my coach called me into his office and told me I’d have to leave school unless I got a professor to give me a grade change, I was stunned. Immediately, I went to a professor to tell him about my situation and asked if there was anything I could do to get a grade change. Thankfully he allowed me to make up some work and gave me a grade that would only put me on academic probation. He said, you have some tough decisions to make, you either want to be an athlete or you can choose to be a student, but it does not look like you can do both. That summer I stayed on campus and took summer courses. I was contemplating whether I would continue playing ball or just give it up and focus on school.
I was working as a valet attendant at the mall during this time when I had a conversation with an older brother who asked me what I was studying in school? I told him; I was in school to become a personal trainer. He asked me, why would I waste four years to get a degree in something you don’t really need a degree for? I hadn’t been asked that question before and I didn’t have an answer for him.
The following semester I took two classes in the community health department. One class was mental and emotional health and the other was introduction into community health. It was in this class that I was exposed to the Social Determinants of Health. Where I learned that the health of an individual, a family, a community is interdependent on many things. It gave me a language to put my worldview and experiences into a framework. It allowed me to think about my circumstances and how it could be fixed. Being in that class gave me an opportunity to share my experiences and theorize solutions.
One day I attended this speaker series on campus. This guy talked about the other 4.0. The intangibles and experience you need to be successful upon graduation. Up until that point had nothing to show for the 3 years I had been in school. No internship experience, fellowships, or grades. It was the final wake up call for me. I got home and decided that I would no longer play basketball. I stayed up all night and submitted my full application to change majors again, and this time to community health. Since that change I have been this journey called public health. Pursuing public health feels like a calling. An opportunity to change lives like personal training would, but just on a bigger scale. It was going to provide me the knowledge, skills, and resources I need to make change. Grant writing to me is that opportunity to build a skill that can be utilized to make an impact. It’s the chance to be creative and innovative about health topics, programs, and interventions that are of interest to you and allows you to gain the valuable experience you need to go out and be an agent of change.