Ameer Baraka, is an Author, Activist, Actor and Educator. Many know of him as the guy who’s appeared in countless films and television shows including HBO’s Treme’, Fox TV, America’s Horror Story, Blackboard Wars on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN and many others, but behind the glory is a story of inspiration proving that anyone can turn their lives around and with hard work and determination anything is possible. Baraka, whose name means blessed prince, grew up in the Calliope Housing Projects, where oftentimes dreams died before they are birthed.
Early in life he found himself living in a broken home feeling alone and misunderstood. This led to him being a troubled youth being arrested multiple times soon finding himself incarcerated facing a six decades long prison sentence as a young adult, completely illiterate, dyslexic, and totally ill equipped for anything but the bleakest of futures behind bars. In this moment, he took control of his life and changing its direction forever.
Speaking of this moment and how these experiences shaped the person he is today; one who is dedicated to giving back he says, “Many of the experiences I had forced me to change. I saw my life was going nowhere so I decided my life needed to go in a new direction. I was a youth who was void of understanding, knowledge and wisdom and did not have the necessary tools to succeed and because of that I didn’t think I could do anything different, so I made a lot of mistakes. Now I am using all this for good to fill the void in others’ lives and helping them become their best selves because I feel it is your experiences that can either destroy you or compel you into greatness.”
Baraka has become the face of Dyslexia, recently testifying before Congress. Also, he has been part of a movement to remove the stigma as part of a campaign, Dyslexia Is Sexy(DIS), as he is called the Sexy Dyslexic, bringing attention and working to get people diagnosed early. “Growing up I was dyslexic and didn’t know what it was, my mother didn’t know and my brothers and sister did extremely well in school. I failed miserably; I hated school. But to tease and whip children is not the answer, get them tested and then get them the one on one help they need. Because people can go through life not knowing they have dyslexia; I found out while I was in prison, I was 23 years old, when I was tested and was reading on a 3rd grade level.”
Today Baraka is an example of triumph over tragedy and an example of the power of learning to read and how it empowered him. Now it’s his mission to help kids like himself reach their full potential. “I realized that reading is a very powerful tool, you are able to pick up a book, if you have never been to certain places around the world it can take you there. It was my inability to read that made me want to go into the street life. My mother was a young parent and she called me stupid and dumb and my brothers and sisters did as well so I acted out. It took me four years to receive my GED, that was the greatest time in my life that I’d finally obtained something that was rewarding and it was a high that cocaine couldn’t give me or heroin. Today accomplishments get me high and I realized I had to teach others to read. It is a known fact that 70% of people who are incarcerated have reading disabilities. I am bringing awareness and diagnosing kids early so we can intervene and get these kids on the right path.”
As many African-Americans have problems with the police, Baraka is working hard on solutions. He’s created a new pedagogy for police-community relations on which he has been joined by the noted Harvard Ph.D. and Criminologist, Dr. Peter Scharf, in teaching to police departments around the country his novel curriculum for better policing in cities, with a particular focus on communities of color. “Myself and Peter Scharf with our combined experience are a hell of a tag team. My goal is for police officers to better understand African-American; because sometimes they encounter people they do not understand and are in many instances afraid of and I am trying to bridge that gap.”
He is the author of the book “The Life I Chose – The Streets Lied To Me,” is being used by police departments across the country as a practical manual on better policing and better police-community relations. Also, it is being ordered by school principals across the country to inspire young people that they can overcome obstacles and aspire to reach higher.
In his life one that’s seen its shares of ups and downs, Baraka has overcome nearly every setback one can face in America, e.g. poverty, a history that includes time behind bars, drug abuse, and illiteracy until adulthood, dyslexia, and an absentee father. While these are roadblocks he feels they do not make, bettering oneself impossible. Conversely, his message is that having good social values, a sense of self-worth, pursuing personal excellence, having integrity, can be proper pathways out of the proverbial ‘hood and onward towards upward mobility.
The late Tupac Shakur wrote a poem entitled “The Rose that Grew From Concrete” that speaks of how determination and ambition can drive a person to the pathway of success, defeating any hurdles and the challenges that come in the way, Baraka is the embodiment of these traits. “If you want to be in the street life there are two places you will wind up, in prison or the graveyard. What I say today if you want to be successful, surround yourself with positive people and eventually you can accomplish all your goals. If this guy who couldn’t read changed his life, has been in 30 films, written a book and been on talk shows can do it you can too.”