By Mugdha Gurram
HARTFORD, Connecticut, U.S.A. – Taking another person’s life indisputably changes a person.
When Kenny Jackson found himself in prison after shooting someone at point-blank range, he was in the same situation as a lot of inner-city youths.
But he said he came out of this experience as a better man.
After spending 14 years behind bars, he told an audience at the Peace in Connecticut conference Thursday that he regrets his decisions, but has managed to make the best of his situation.
Reflecting on his time in jail, he said, “I look at it as going in a cocoon, but I came out a man.”
“My past mistakes,” he said, “are just what they are – past mistakes.”
According to Jackson, if used as a learning opportunity, “a prison can be just like a UConn institution.”
Jackson has managed to channel his past into a positive force for the work he does now as the program supervisor at StreetSafe Bridgeport.
On the job, he helps inner-city kids with conflict resolution, to help them avoid the same mistakes he made.
After being a negative influence in his community, he said it’s his duty to become a positive influence. Having once brought problems, he said he now thinks, “Who better can bring solutions to the community?”
“We have to treat this like it’s war, because that’s what it is,” he said.
Jackson’s approach for working with inner city kids is unique because he, unlike so many others, grew up in similar circumstances, so he is able to relate to them better and earn their respect.
For inner-city kids, it’s important to have mediators who look like them, understand and empathize with their situation, Jackson said.
“A youth doesn’t wake up waiting to shoot somebody,” he said.
But when they’re raised surrounded by domestic violence, drug problems, and gangs, those behaviors become automatic to them, Jackson said and they become immune to the terror of their deeds.
“A lot of that immunity is built up on what’s going on in the household,” Jackson added.
The community also has a large influence on the youth. He compared walking around some neighborhoods to “walking in war zones.”
The violence young people see in their neighborhoods and schools become second nature to them, according to Jackson.
“It takes a community to raise a child,” said Jackson.
This is why he’s taken so much effort to create programs that cultivate a supportive environment for inner-city youths. For him, having a support system helped him get out of jail.
So Jackson set up a conflict-resolution type program, with fellow students acting as mediators while he looks on.
The key factor of success for this program is the mediator, said Jackson, stressing the importance of choosing people who are respected by students and who respect the students.
They must be able to relate to the students, understand their home life and the social dynamics in their community, he said.
After the initial mediation, it’s important to follow up with the students, to ensure continuing success. By doing this, Jackson said he’s “holding them accountable.”
Student success is dependent on the follow-ups, so Jackson always makes sure to check in on them and allow them to check in with him.
“I make myself accessible,” he said.
He can see the change these programs have inspired in the youth. By using positive reinforcement, the kids start to seek out their mentors on their own to share achievements, he said.
But Jackson again stressed the importance of community to ensure these students’ ongoing success.
“It needs to not just be in the school,” he said, “but in the community.”