I was 16 when I was caught with marijuana and turned in. I felt betrayed and had no motivation to succeed.
I was recommended to apply for a spot in Usher’s New Look leadership program in Atlanta where I could learn about the business side of the music industry while meeting youth with similar backgrounds to me: gang violence, drug abuse. I was one of two people from Kansas City selected to attend Camp New Look.
When I got there, I immediately knew I was meeting people that would change my life forever and become family to me. People who had my best interest at heart and saw something in me that I didn’t know existed. I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to impress and sure enough, I won Star Camper of the Year that summer. I had my first service experience working at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Before New Look, I thought of service as a punishment and this taught me that I have the power to help others. I felt encouraged to create change.
As Camp New Look wound down, I felt scared. I knew when I got home I would have to face my friends but I didn’t want to fall back into old ways. That’s when I met Usher for the first time; he was so real. I needed to hear from him that when this two-week program ended, I still had a chance. When I got home, I felt torn. I went from feeling like I was going somewhere as a young entrepreneur to getting back into trouble. A couple weeks later, I was robbed at gunpoint and while I wanted revenge, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Usher saw something in me -- a fire in my eye. I couldn’t let him down. New Look became an outlet for me.
In the fall of 2008, I was one of 101 young leaders across America chosen to participate in the ServiceNation Summit in New York City, attended by then Senator Barack Obama. My dreams were slowly becoming reality and I started to see a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
After graduating from high school, I returned to New Look in 2008 as a ”Mogul In Training.” I began mentoring other youth and came out of my shell as a leader. That summer Usher asked me to join him before Congress to testify for the Serve America Act, a bill passed to expand opportunities for service. I attended the Presidential Inauguration as Usher’s guest, a surreal moment in my life and from there, I realized that I could influence others and explore every opportunity thrown at me. I applied for mini-grants through the New Look Foundation and executed three projects. I was humbled to be the first New Look youth to travel to the Philippines with Foundation president Shawn Wilson to begin mentoring youth internationally. That trip opened my eyes to realize that youth have the power to lead other youth.
I thought the problems I faced back home defined me and through my experiences with New Look, I have learned how to rise above and lead others on a path to success. In early 2009 I was elected onto the organization’s national Board of Directors as the official youth ambassador. I am a walking testimony of success. New Look has presented a domino effect. I know that I have changed the lives of those around me – everyone has the power to do the same.
James is from Kansas City, Mo., where he currently attends Johnson County Community College.