NEW BRITAIN - Marking Black History Month, which ends today, the New Britain Opportunities Industrialization Center on Tuesday presented African-American guest speakers and performers to an audience of middle and high school students.
“It’s my belief that if kids can connect to local heroes, they have a chance to be heroes themselves,” Adrian Elliott, youth specialist at OIC, said.
More than 50 students heard the success stories of Bomani Brown, Edmond Battle, Mark Schand and Iunre Smart Jr.
Battle has spent the last 17 years as a probation officer in New Britain, working with at-risk youth from 8 to 17.
“I felt good walking in because I don’t know any of you,” Battle said with a smile.
He shared his story about being born in prison, where his mother, a drug addict, was serving a sentence. His father was absent from his life, working as a pimp. Battle lived with his grandparents, who were caring for 10 other grandchildren.
Without a guiding figure in his life, Battle looked up to a man in his neighborhood named Dante. He wanted to be just like Dante, so he started delivering packages across the country for him. What was in those packages was illegal, though, and Battle found himself locked up at 14.
“I was that kid looking for an identity, but I was looking in the wrong places,” Battle said.
At 16, he fathered his first child, his father and brother were killed 7 days apart and his other siblings continued down the wrong path. But he persisted. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and went on to college.
“We can choose our paths in life. We can dictate where we go,” Battle said.
He encouraged the students to use resources offered through the OIC to navigate obstacles, to be individuals and not to use excuses.
Schand is the owner of Sweetwater Juice Bar and Deli at 60 W. Main St., and spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He spoke about forgiveness and how he managed to overcome when he had his freedoms stripped away, encouraging the teens to make the right decisions.
“You’re all blank canvases. You have a choice. … A lot of people think they don’t have choices, but they do,” he said.
Smart graduated from New Britain High School in 2008. In 2011, he decided to move to California to pursue his passion for music.
He ended up becoming a drug dealer and was in and out of prison. While he was out, he would travel back and forth to Connecticut to visit his children.
During one trip, he missed his flight and the next day got into a dirt-biking accident that severed his spine. Doctors told him he would never be able to walk again, but he can now walk with the assistance of a walker and hopes that, by the anniversary of the accident, April 9, he will no longer need his wheelchair.
He hoped his story would demonstrate to the students the importance of will power.
Brown went to Kingswood-Oxford School, a private school in West Hartford, on a scholarship. He also graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior. While at Wesleyan, he held leadership positions and was a linebacker on the football team.
He is on the Board of Directors of the OIC and a sales consultant at Paychex Inc.
“You are a product of where you come from,” Brown said.
He said he is the company’s top sales consultant and whenever he walks into a meeting, he is always either the only minority in the room or one of two.
Brown told the students they can still be successful even if they come from the inner city or have a harder life than others.
Performances by Nzinga’s Daughters, a group of women from central Connecticut who perform poetry, stories and songs about the Underground Railroad, and Michael Edwards, a steel pan player from Trinidad and Tobago who now lives in Hartford, provided entertainment and inspiration to the students.
OIC is a nonprofit employment and training agency that organizes programs for middle and high school students.