Editor’s Note: I read Curtis Howard’s story in the San Diego Reader back in November (check it out, it’s an excellent read). It was so good that I contacted the Reader to let Curtis know I would like him to join American Debt Project as a staff writer. He kindly agreed, and this is his first post. I hope that there will be many more to follow. It’s exciting to have my first staff writer be someone who grew up in the same town as I did, leading a life that is the mirror opposite of my own. So many years later, we are on a similar journey as people who have made significant changes and are serious about self-improvement, but still aware of the long, unglamorous path towards reaching our goals and dealing with the frustration of slow progress. I realize that some of these topics make people uncomfortable (racism, crime, poverty, and broken institutions), but that’s what I’ve wanted to write about from the very beginning. Just took a while to get here, I guess. Curtis is an awesome writer and once again, the power of the internet to connect people amazes me.
I joined the Crips at the age of 14. I spent the next 25 years in and out of prison, and on and off parole.
It was a long and winding road with lots of violent encounters and ever-changing circumstances.
During the course of these transitions I have been homeless, on drugs, involved in major prison race riots, as well as other street life ups and downs. I have to admit that although I did enjoy some “up times” with money, fine women, and nightlife; my “down times” by far outweighed them all.
Eventually, I gave up the lifestyle of gangs and crime altogether. I now find myself in a constant struggle to survive; to keep a job; to pay the rent. It’s hard, homeboy.
Last week I attended a community meeting that would address resolutions to problems in my neighborhood in southeast San Diego. There were several organizations present that claim to assist individuals like myself; ex-offenders; at-risk teens, and the like. The basis of these meetings are in the best interest of the community, and since I am sold on anything that works towards improvement, I attended. I was disappointed…
This forum brought back memories of prison politics and unstructured gang meetings. People were interjecting guest speakers to correct or question them, rather than writing down their concerns to ask afterwards. I was then introduced as a guest speaker by the wrong name, and then rudely interrupted three times!
One panel member startled me as he suddenly jumped up to loudly announce his departure in the middle of my speech: “Alright you guys I gotta go. Have a good night and stay positive!”
The second interruption came in the form of an extremely loud ringtone. The owner of the phone appeared to let us enjoy his selection of music before running out the door like the highly successful businessman to answer.
The third panel member interjected and took the floor from me for five minutes.
I attended the forum that night with hopes of meeting someone that could assist me with finding a job. I thought that they would recognize my struggle and help me. I thought that they would view me as a potential asset to the community as being someone that could reach the youth due to my past. However, I left the meeting that night only being known as the guy who wrote the cover story for the November 7th issue of the San Diego Reader.
I guess the meeting did more good than bad. They offered plenty of “advice” and some lightweight resources, but in the end the ultimate message was very clear: If you want change you have to be proactive in making it happen for yourself. There are no handouts in life.