This author and motivation speaker reveals his inspirational journey of trauma and grace
Rodney Walker went from foster care to Yale and is beating the odds of homelessness and autism
The hard-knock life for author, entrepreneur and inspirational speaker Rodney Walker started when he was 5 years old. He spent the next 12 years in Chicago’s foster care system, until he ran away and ended up homeless for several months.
For much of that time, he was failing in school. But he says education saved his life. He attributes the turnaround to two teachers he met along the way.
Walker, now 27, holds degrees from Morehouse College and Yale University and speaks at schools, corporations and conferences about the importance of education, entrepreneurship, mentoring and philanthropy for nonprofit organizations supporting at-risk youth. His 2016 book, A New Day One, is his story on trauma, grace and his journey from foster care to Yale. Walker told his story to The Undefeated’s Kelley Evans.
Education saved my life
I graduated from Morehouse in 2012. I graduated from Yale Divinity School in 2014 with a master’s degree in ethics.
As a result of leaving the foster care system, I lost benefits of independent living. I lost benefits to get college scholarships through the foster care system. I lost all those privileges because of my actions.
When I moved back in with my parents, thinking it was going to be kind of a fairy-tale situation, I realized that my parents were deeply struggling with drug abuse, substance abuse, to the point where they would steal money from me and they would wake me up out my sleep and ask me all these things, and I couldn’t concentrate or focus on school. So I literally had to leave my parents’ house and just basically couch surf at friends’ places, and ended up at a homeless shelter for about three months of my life.
The turning point that transformed my life was when I was in detention. I was in detention like probably once or twice every week. We had a new dean in our high school [ACE Technical Charter High School in Chicago], Michael McGrone Sr., and he was the person that literally focused on the social-emotional aspect of my life experience.
We focused on homework, we focused on studying, we focused on just getting our life together, our academics together, so we can figure it out. But in that detention, he focused on none of that. His main objective was to focus on the social aspect, the post-traumatic stress disorder. He believed that by taking the time and energy to do that we would perform at our greatest. He wanted to hear nothing about excuses and about how I came from homelessness and foster care and things like that. He wanted to focus on how this affected me on an emotional level and on a social level.
He believed that by getting me to that breaking point to forgive and let that stuff go, then I would actually focus on myself and my lifelong learning so it would transform my life. The sacrifice that he made to really put that time and attention into me and these other kids in detention, it came at an incredible price. And most people don’t understand that, and that’s why I hate using the word ‘mentorship’ because it’s so watered down, because mentorship sounds like profession. He sacrificed in his marriage; I mean, he got divorced about a year after the program was over. … He had a wife and two children at the time at home that he, literally, not neglected intentionally but neglected by default because he was so passionate about his work.
The second person before that was a math teacher, Melanie Vaughn. And she took on the mother role that my mother couldn’t be for me because my mother was a struggling drug addict. … My math teacher was the first teacher that ever really gave me the time and attention and the energy and the support that I needed outside of school. So she was my math teacher from 9 to 10:30, whenever my class period was, but after school we would sit in our classroom, we would just talk about things I really wish I would have talked about with my own mother. She was my advisory teacher as well as my math teacher, so I had her at 14 until I graduated high school.
I think what’s overlooked so much is that when people succeed, they always look at the work that they’ve put in without looking on the back end, about the people who put in that honest investment to them, who gave them that love and that time and that energy and that support to get to where they are. I never really emphasize the hard work because hard work is just … I could be working towards anything, but somebody somewhere, and I always remind myself of this, somebody somewhere changed my mind to do what I do today. And when I look back and think back, I think about those people.
The struggle was real
I was struggling all through grade school. I was diagnosed with mild autism in the first grade. And thankfully my mother didn’t allow me to take psychotropic drugs because she didn’t believe in that, so I didn’t. But all throughout my grade school I struggled with reading. … When I was a freshman I had made a 1.3 GPA, then in my sophomore year I had made a 1.6. And that was half the result of just not being able to master the high school material, but the other half of it was because of social-emotional trauma. It was really because I was distracted, because I was coming to school every day, I was walking like a mile and a half to school because I didn’t have bus fare to get to the school from home, despite the fact that I had a foster parent making money from foster care who didn’t invest in transportation for me to get to school.
But the fact also that I went some 10, 11 years without my parents, without my eight brothers and sisters, and I was really sort of devastated by that. And every day when I went to school I was so distracted I didn’t care about the work. So my fail grades were the result of both of those things, not being prepared and not actually caring enough to do the work because I had so many other distractions. My junior year I had a 2.4, so it was the first time in a long time I actually had made over a 2.0 GPA. … And then in my senior year when I met my dean, who did a lot of that social-emotional counseling and trauma recovery kind of work with me, that’s when I was able to literally steel myself, let all that stuff go, let the baggage go, really focus on my learning.
Getting into Morehouse
I earned a couple of scholarships to college, but Morehouse at that time was about a $40,000-a-year institution. I got about $10,000 in scholarship money, and the rest of it I had to get a loan. So I took out a huge loan in my first year. Also, the problem was that I came into Morehouse on academic probation because my grades were so low that I wasn’t eligible for regular admission.
That first year I would say was my hardest year of any academic semester I’ve ever had in school because I came in on a huge learning curve. At that time I don’t know what reading level I was reading at, but I couldn’t master the college material, so I had to take all remedial classes that first semester. And every week I would get calls from my teacher and my dean. They would call me every week, see how I was doing. One time my dean took a trip down to Atlanta to check on me and things like that, and whenever I needed help and support they would call me and make sure I was in the library, or make sure I was with a tutor, and kind of getting myself back together.
Road to Yale
I wasn’t even sure if I would get into Yale. … I kind of put myself out there to take the risk and to just believe that I can do something I wasn’t sure I can do. So that really came as a result of that mentorship piece. Just that breakthrough moment and instilling in me that I can be my best self and I don’t have to live as a byproduct of my post-traumatic stress. I can actually live and triumph in spite of that, and I think that’s really what his biggest goal was in trying to help me through my circumstances.
Chicago then and now
I have a love-hate relationship with Chicago. Actually, I did return back to Chicago to partner with the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a jobs program for at-risk youth in the city. I’ve been here in Chicago for several months now.
… I love the city for what it can do. Like, what it has the potential to do for young people. But the problems that we have, there is literally a deep sense of hopelessness. … The social and the political climate of this city has taken a toll on the black community in a way that I think most people can’t articulate.
I work in public schools every single day, and I see the toll that it takes when teachers don’t have the materials that they need and when the infrastructure and buildings are being broken down, when kids are not coming to school because of truancy and they’re getting locked up for being truant to class. And child abuse cases are happening at our schools everywhere as a result of single parents who are going through that post-traumatic stress disorder that is unmet, unneeded, because they don’t have the money or the resources to do it, and the kids are literally walking from school back to home, where they’re dealing with all these social systemic elements, for poverty, gang element, drugs, that literally the city refuses to address. But instead they reinvest in our neighborhoods in a way that is counterproductive to hopes and the restoration that young people in these communities need.
Instead, they’ll build facilities that literally can entertain an international market when there’s a huge deficit at home in these neighborhoods that is going unmet and unaddressed. So really I love Chicago with a passion, but I understand that those who are less fortunate are not having their needs met in a very severe way.
I have eight siblings. I am the fourth youngest; I have a younger brother and two younger sisters.
… My parents were together, and literally their life was kind of just all over the place. I think the main thing that made their life so dysfunctional was obviously their substance abuse and addiction. When we were born, my parents were just making the shift from public housing and they got a place on the West Side of Chicago, which is where I was born. And then they moved from the West Side to the South Side, and they were still dealing with this drug addiction, drug abuse and addiction. And at 5 years old, my father was incarcerated for selling drugs in Chicago, and then that really spiraled into me and my siblings going into foster care at that age. My parents fought in court, but my mother was so emotionally torn that she couldn’t get to the court proceedings, she couldn’t get through the parental classes and the substance abuse classes.
That early half of my experience in foster care was actually with siblings, with relatives of my parents. A combination of their social-emotional trauma, my father’s a byproduct of the Vietnam war, so he was never able to get over his heroin addiction and his post-traumatic stress disorder.
My book – A New Day One
I really wanted to write the book for a couple of reasons. The first reason is because I have been telling my story to young people in schools as early as my sophomore year at Morehouse College. And every time I told my story, people would come up to me and say, “My God, that was really great what you said, I wonder if you have a book.” So that’s really what encouraged me to write the book, because I had been journaling before that, but I’d never had a book. And then I met a publisher a few years later after that, worked with me to write the book.