15 Crucial Steps Toward Graduating from the 'Hood, Curated By Southside Chicagoans

Photo credit:Photo: Martese Johnson

| February 05 2017,

6:13 pm

Recently, a friend asked me how I made it to where I am today. For context, I am an African-American man from a poverty-line household with a single mother upbringing. I grew up on the southside of Chicago, attending several different Chicago Public Schools before matriculating to college. My family changed homes often, in hopes of avoiding neighborhood violence and maintaining some amount of financial stability. Despite an imperfect upbringing, I became a proud graduate of the University of Virginia, a Strategist at a well-performing consultancy, and a resident of Midtown, Manhattan. I effectively went from eating instant ramen dinners by necessity, to eating instant ramen as a late-night guilty pleasure. When responding to the aforementioned question, I explained that there is no formula for making it out of Chicago, that I just got lucky. I then quickly realized how privileged and selfish of a response that was. So I thought about the question again.

My pondering led to me asking similarly achieved hometown friends what they thought of the question. We again came to my original conclusion: there truly is no formula for what we accomplished.

While there is no foolproof formula for graduating from the hood, we did decide that there were some prominent common traits and behaviors that played huge roles in our long-term success. Below is a list of ways to increase your odds of ascending from the trenches, curated by a handful of successful, black southside Chicagoans. 

Feedback and comments are welcome. 

1. Seek the knowledge! It will not seek you. 

By opening this article, you’ve already taken the first step toward successfully making it out. Just a few glass ceilings, income brackets, and haters left to go! 

2. Keep your GOOD friends close

Every friend that you have a good time around isn’t necessarily good for you. Sometimes you have to let go of acquaintances, or even close friends, who may not share your long-term vision of ascension. While we entered this world bearing a societal debt that we did not personally earn or deserve, we cannot surround ourselves with people who intend to retain or grow that debt. If we do, we will inevitably share their fates. Let’s just say the “GOOD” in GOOD friends stands for get the hell out of debt (and fast!).

3. The system was created to hold us back. Circumvent it (aka finesse). 

Resourcefulness is key. When I was a young child, my brothers and I wanted sweet desserts and snacks that we couldn’t afford. As a solution, my grandfather took balls of flour, added sugar, and threw them in the oven. These slightly sugared, awkwardly shaped balls of cooked flour became our favorite snacks growing up, and they cost near-nothing to make. Folks like us were not gifted with trust funds, but we were gifted with a long lineage of people making diamonds out of dog sh*t. 

We will approach countless barriers on our roads to success, and we must apply these second-nature skills that we’ve inherited to the ensure the most positive, preferable outcomes. The more that companies, organizations and society searches for ways to be “nontraditional” and “disruptive,” the higher our human equity grows. 

4. Google and Youtube are both the plug

Need help? No more excuses, big fella. Look it up!

5. Establish good mentors 

Similar men and women have come before you, and we’re eager to share our stories and wisdom. Don’t make things harder on yourself by making the same mistakes someone else already has. 

6. We all have emotions, it doesn’t make you "soft"

Our upbringings have taught us that life is rough and we will encounter problems, but we can never be “soft.” In our communities, being “soft” encompasses a wide variety of healthy life traits. When rejecting those traits, we become constricted to primarily detrimental personal traits and behaviors. Being “soft” is the same language that promotes expressing ourselves physically instead of verbally abusing women when they respond to us with disinterest, and making that blatantly stupid decision when our peers say “you’re just scared.”

In order to be successful, we must not be afraid to show our multifaceted nature. It is okay to hug your brothers. It is okay to say no to peer pressure. It is okay to seek mental health assistance. By trying not to be “soft,” we are foreshadowing one of our community’s longtime downfalls, and it is only a matter of time before we perpetuate the cycle. 

Always remember, Lil’ Wayne kissed Birdman and he turned out just fine (well, sort of). And he’s still one of your all-time favorite rappers (well, sort of). 

7. Reverse code switching must happen, but we must not forget it is a tool

Thanks to gang violence, corrupt policing and a culture of desperation in many of our cities, we are a consistently endangered species. We learn very quickly what it takes to survive where we come from. Professionals code switch to excel in the workplace, and you better believe we reverse code switch to excel in the 'hood. But just because this is a necessary means to survival, it doesn’t mean that it has to become who you truly are at your core. When it comes time to decide on those life-changing ultimatums, be your own person. Do not get in that car, do not hold that conspicuous item for the homie, and absolutely do not “check it out” (reference Chicago slang for this one). We will always have to live by the decisions we make, so make decisions that will make life easier, not more difficult. 

8. Make your weakness your strength.

We have seen some crazy things in life. We often felt like we were adults at a ridiculously early age. Our most unique and unfortunate experiences have brought us a special kind of wisdom. Nobody in this country has the perspective that we do , and they never will. For that reason, our minds will always be of value. Take advantage of it. 

9. "Bros before..." ...wait no, that's not cool! 

We all date eventually. And we’ve all heard about the “sacred” law of putting your friends before your significant other(s). In some cases, that is a big mistake. Choosing the right woman and treating her well can become a secret weapon in the long run. 

Unlike family, we get to choose our significant other. If we choose correctly, that person has the ability to expand our horizons to places we might never explore otherwise. My first legitimate girlfriend introduced me to customs, experiences and values that have made me a more cultured man to this day. 

Do not take her for granted. Value her and learn from her. And don’t worry about this being one-sided. You will teach her plenty along the way also. 

10. "Know your story, tell it well, tell it often." 

A great mentor of mine once told me the quote above. He emphasized the importance of the best version of your story being popular knowledge to those around you, as it is likely to almost naturally bring more opportunity your way. A second mentor of mine also told me, “it’s not about what you know or who you know… it’s about who knows you.” 

The first piece of advice emphasizes the importance of people you know understanding who you are and why you are valuable. The second piece of advice emphasizes the amount of people who know you, inherently increasing the likelihood of you coming to mind when an opportunity arises. If both of these pieces are in top shape, you will never go without a job, an educational moment or an opportunity for advancement. 

11. Shoot your shot like Russell Westbrook on the '16-'17 Thunder.

There's a lot of scams in the hood, but there's some real opportunity out there too. Sometimes you have to dig through lots of dirt to find that gem. In practical terms, this means you have to be prolific in putting yourself out there and giving opportunities your best shot. Apply to lots of colleges, scholarships, enrichment experiences, and jobs. If the first person flakes on mentoring you, reach out to other prospective folks for guidance. Russell Westbrook didn’t become a frontrunner for MVP by not shooting his shot. You won’t either. 

12. Never forget where you come from, but never let it become your hindrance

It is important that, as we grow, we remain true to our past experiences and communities. Investing in the communities we hail from is the only way that articles like these will one day become unnecessary. 

While this is true, we must never allow our flawed upbringings to hinder our performance in our current lives. Sometimes you must compromise to make it to the next level. There is a time and place for everything, and you must become a master at deciphering the perfect behavior for any occasion presented to you. And no, this doesn’t mean you’re not being true to yourself. It means you are becoming multifaceted. 

13. Try sushi, Taylor Swift music, hiking or all of the above

The point is, get out of your comfort zone. Often times, we shy away from opportunities to try new things in fear of seeming uneducated, becoming uncool or having a bad experience. We’ve had a very dialed in experience growing up, and that can make it difficult to explore new things as they become available to us. 

The truth is, we probably won’t like some things we try. But it is almost inevitable that we will also fall in love with something we may have least expected. Trying new things ultimately makes you a more dynamic person. In life, you won’t want more until you’ve seen more. Therefore, see as much as you possibly can. 

14. Don’t listen to them (or “THEY" as DJ Khaled would say) 

Why not us? Why not multiple lanes? Every lane is our lane when we make it ours.

If we take no for an answer, we are doing exactly what they want (and expect) us to do. Each of us are talented and special. We must always remember that as we pursue our individual paths toward greatness. I believe in you. I believe in us. Shoot for the stars, you can reach them. 

15. You’re in college, but you’re still not out. Repeat numbers 1 - 14

I’ve seen far too many good brothers make it to a prestigious university and lose everything they’ve worked toward. These institutions were not created for us to succeed, but we are present so we will do exactly that. College is a huge milestone, but there is more work to do. Never forget that there is no safety net for us to fall back on. Always remember that there is a world to gain if we focus and grind. 

Thank you for reading. If you ever feel like there is no one to reach out to, here is my email: johnsonmartese@gmail.com

I will make time.