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Misdeeds do not define you: Shaka Senghor at TED2014

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Shaka Senghor. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Shaka Senghor. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Writer, teacher and MIT Media Fellow Shaka Senghor gives the last talk of Session 10: Passion at TED2014, and he starts with a literal bang: When he was 19, he shot and killed another man. At the time, he was a young drug dealer “with a quick temper and a semi-automatic pistol.” Speaking to us remotely from a salon in New York, Senghor says that the “23 years since have been a story of apology, acknowledgement and atonement.”

Growing up, Senghor was an honor roll student who dreamed of being a doctor, but things took a dark turn when his parents divorced and separated. When he was 17 he got shot three times on the corner of his block in Detroit. He was patched up at the hospital and sent home, not expecting that he would become paranoid and hyperviolent in response. Fourteen months later, Senghor shot a man dead.

In prison, Senghor was bitter, angry and hurt. He blamed his parents, and he blamed the system. And feeling helpless and abandoned in his cell, things got darker for Senghor. He ran black market stores, loansharked and sold drugs. The warden called him “the worst of the worst.” And as a result he wound up spending seven and a half years in solitary confinement. He says, “It’s one of the most inhumane and barbaric places you can find yourself.”

One day Senghor received a letter from his son. Its message had a profound effect on him: “My mama told me why you’re in prison: Murder. Dad, don’t kill. Jesus watches what you do. Pray to him.” Senghor thought of Socrates’ sentiment that an unexamined life is not worth living, and he decided it was time to transform himself.

Through strong mentors, literature, family and writing, Senghor was able to lift himself out of his misery and look at his life honestly. In trying to share his positive experiences with other prisoners, he was sad to realize that so many of them had the same story as he did. “The system,” he says, “which keeps 2.5 million people in it, is designed to be a warehouse, rather than to rehabilitate or transform.”

In 2010 Senghor left prison after 20 years (like Fred Flintstone walking into the Jetsons, he jokes), and since then he has devoted his life to changing the system. Senghor believes strongly that the majority of men and women who are incarcerated are redeemable;┬áthat’s why it’s his wish for society to “embrace a more empathetic approach to how we approach mass incarceration.” After all, he says, “Anyone can have a transformation if we give them the space. Misdeeds should not define you for the rest of your life.”