In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles with the vision to start a creative writing prgram for incarcerated youth. Out of that experience grew InsideOUT Writers. In 2005 I left the organization to pursue my writing once again. Something I was most proud of was the magazine of interviews and student writing and the book, What We See, which has been used by thousands of students and teachers. The last magazine issue had an interview with Stan Tookie William shortly before his execution. The interview was an incredible gift to the students of the InsideOUT Writers program. Sadly, the magazine didn’t continue after I left. I would like this magazine and this interview and the incredible power that it had for change in the lives of our youth not to be forgotten.
Here’s a copy of the interview:
Stanley Tookie Williams is the cofounder of the Crips gang and has been living on death row at San Quentin since 1981.During this time he has dedicated his life to ending gang warfare, eaerning him five (2001, 2022, 2003, 2004 and 2005) Nobel Peace Prize nominations and four (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005) Nobel nominations for literature. He is the coauthor of nine books with Barbara Cottman Becnel: Life in Prison and Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence, an eight-book series for children. He has also written his memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. His transformation into an advocate for peace and education was the subject of last year’s Golden Globe-nominated cable TV feature Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story starring Jamie Foxx.
Interview by Susan Shields
WHEN AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE BOOKS FOR CHILDREN?
For me, writing children’s books was the evolutionary process of my redemption and transition. I wanted–and needed–to warn children about this path of self-destruction.
HAVE YOU CONSIDERED WRITING BOOKS FOR TEENAGERS?
I have written the book Life in Prison, whihc is primarily for middle school level teenagers–and there will be more books for them. Critical thinking persuaded me to begin with the children, then teenagers and, eventually, adults.
HOW HAS YOUR IDENTITY CHANGED THROUGH THE DIFFERENT PHASES OF YOUR LIFE?
Throughout most of my life, I never had a real identity. After educating myself intellectually, culturally and spiritually, I discovered who I am today: a thinking Black man, not a gangster or an animal.
WHAT WOULD HAVE MADE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE FOR YOU AS A CHILD AND TEEN T HAVE KEPT YOU FROM GETTING INTO TROUBLE?
Among other things, I believe that had I had the consistent presence of a responsible, educated, hard-working, spiritual, and caring father, it would have made a tremendous difference.
YOU WROTE IN Gangs and Self-Esteem, “It took me a lon time to learn to like myself, but I do now and it feels much better than having a bad reputation.” WHY DO KIDS IN GENERAL NOT LIKE THEMSELVES?
In many instances, it has to do with negative racial stereotypes, poor parenting, abuse, social inequality and exposure to verbal degredation. Indeed, when adults repeatedly tell a child hat he or she is worthless, eventually that child will start to believe it–and then live it. Children need encouragement.
WHAT MADE YOU LIKE YOURSELF?
I began to like myself the moment I started to change my negative behavior. It built my confidence.
ALSO FROM Gangs and Self_Esteem: “I believed that because people were afraid of mem they respected me. That was one of my biggest mistakes. When people are afraid of you, they want to hurt you before you hurt them.” WOULD YOU LIKE TO ELABORATE ON THIS?
Any form of respect earned by fear or violence will make you a target for aggression. When people fear you it’s because they worry about you harming them. Others will reason, “Let me hurt him or her before he or she hurts me.”
YOU WROTE IN Gangs and Your Neighborhood: “When you’re truly tough, you don’t worry about what other kids think about you. You care about what you think about yourself.” HOW CAN KIDS TODAY GET “TRULY TOUGHT” WITHOUT RESORTING TO VIOLENCE?
There are simple ways to be tough without resorting to violence. Here’s a brief list of true toughness:
1. True toughness is to attend school, graduate, and then enroll in college.
2. True toughness is to avoid gangs, drugs, weapons, crime, illiteracy and violence.
3. True toughness is to believe in your ability to succeed.
4. True toughness is to ignore people who say you’re dumb and worthless.
5. True toughness is being strong mentally, physically, culturally and spiritually.
6. True toughness is being able and willing to help other people, regardless of their color, race, creed or socioeconomic status.
7. True toughness us acknowledging right from wrong and behaving in a manner that will not harm you or other people.
YOU WROTE in Gangs and Your Friends: “When I was a boy, there were times when I knew that something I was going to do was bad. Just before I did it, my stomach felt strange. A voice inside my head said ‘Don’t.’ But I would do it anyway…. You can learn from my mistakes. Trust yourself.” DOES THAT STRANGE FEELING AND VOICE IN YOUR HEAD GO AWAY EVENTUALLY IF YOU KEEP DISOBEYING IT?
No. It never leaves! If that inner voice disappeared from every human being, all of us would be human automatons, robots. The feeling in the stomach is a reaction to disobeying the voice. The voice itself is the voice of reason, the higher or better part of us. As long as we exist that voice will be our conscience, warning us to do what it right.
WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE HAVE YOU RECEIVED FROM KIDS WHO HAVE READ YOUR BOOKS?
I continue to receive positive feedback. Tens of thousands of youths and students have written me or emailed my website (http://www.tookie.com) along with parents,teachers, principals, professors, counselors and others. Most of the kids claim that they are adhering to my message and that I have changed their lives for the better. Many kids who were about to join a gang email me to say that they changed their minds after reading my books or watching the move that was made about me, Redemption: the Stan Tookie Story, starring Jamie Foxx. I also receive emails from a lot of youths already in a gang who quit their gang affiliation upon reading my books or viewing Redemption.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR INTERNET PROJECT FOR STREET PEACE–LINKING AMERICAN YOUTH WITH AT-RISK YOUTH IN ZURICH, SWITZERLAND? ARE AMERICAN PROBLEMS AMONG YOUTH UNIQUE?
First, my Internet Project for Street Peace enables youths from two different countries to address social issues and exchange ideas as to how they can participate in resolving these problems. My project also includes mentoring, teaching youths themselves to be leaders and mentors among their peers. The Internet Project for Street Peace also helps youths to become computer literate.
Second, America shares a common thread with most all countries. No country is exempt from poverty, corruption, unemployment, lack of adequate housing and medical care, drugs, crime, violence, racism and gangs–all of the circumstances and conditions that support a culture of youth violence, incarceration and community destruction.
LOOKING BACK, IF YOU COULD, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL THE 7-YEAR OLD TOOKIE, THE 17-YEAR OLD TOOKIE, THE 24-YEAR OLD TOOKIE?
I would tell the 7-year old Tookie to not be in a hurry to become an adult. I would tell him to enjoy his childhood; listen to his parent–or parents–because they have the experience; study hard and obtain the highest education possible, and then use that education to help resolve social problems.
I would tell the 17-year old Tookie that every choice in life begins with him. I would warn him about the perils of gangs, drugs, violence, incarceration, death row, and death itself. I would say, “Don’t follow in my footsteps. However, the choice is yours.”I would explain to him that it’s all about him making positive choices that will prevent him from ending up in Juvenile Hall, California Youth Authority, prison, death row, hurt or killed! I would remind him that change begins with him. I would ask him not to become a victim of self-pity or a victim of the negative social conditions that surround him, like thousands of others have done. I would say, “Be a consistent survivor.Pisture your seuccess and then work towards achieving it.”
For the 24-year old Tookie I would say, “Look, you’re wasting your life. The only people benefiting from your gang-thug-criminal lifestyle are the police, judges, prosecutors, jails, prisons, death rows and morgues. You, Tookie, are becoming a modern-day slave. Though you might feel offended and are likely to deny being a slave, I can prove it. Here are the recognizable signs:
1. A modern-day slave will neglect to educate himself or herselfor to develop a legitimate trade.
2. A modern-day slave will commit robbery, theft, burglary, and other crimes against his own people–and others.
3. A modern-day slave will perpetuate self-hate, chaos, violence and senseless murder against his own people–and others.
4. A modern-day slave will buy, use and/or sell street drugs, causing his own people and others to becomes slave addicts to drugs, slaves to crime, slaves to misery and slaves to death.
5. A modern-day slave will hustle, degrade, abuse, disrespect, rape and/or prostitute women.
6. A modern-day slave will deprive his or her children of financial and/or emotional support, as well as abandon them.
7. A modern-day slave will inevitably end up incarcerated and will make no attempt to break the chains of his or her mental and physical bondage.
“Now, Tookie, I challenge you to rise above your present situation, a circumstance that can destroy your life. I challenge you to become a better ‘you’ and work to resolve your community’s social ills.”
I would also encourage a 24-year old Tookie to watch movies like Redemption and to read books like my memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. I believe a 24-year old Tookie could empathize with the type of analysis that I made about myself in Blue Rage, Black Redemption, including my self-healing process and my redemptive efforts to assist others.
IF YOU WERE OUT OF PRISON, HOW WOULD YOU SPEND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?
I would spend it promoting peace and helping youths as well as adults throughout America and around the world.
Amani–that’s Swahili for peace.