Former Incarcerated Youth Speaks Out: “Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You”

tedrfpostBy 19, Shaka Senghor had been shot three times and killed a man. After going through his darkest times in prison, leading to solitary confinement, Senghor had an awakening that led him to where he is today. In a March TEDTalk: Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You, Senghor shared his powerful story of incarceration, rehabilitation and transformation.

After receiving a meaningful letter from his son, Senghor started to truly examine his past and the decisions he had made. This began his transformation, and these four key things kept his recovery moving forward:

  1. His mentors, who forced him to look at his life honestly and challenged his decision-making.
  2. Literature: While in prison, Senghor was inspired by many black poets, authors and philosophers whose words helped him heal. Senghor references the autobiography of Malcolm X as significant in shattering the stereotypes he believed about himself.
  3. Family: Senghor knew he couldn’t truly heal without his father by his side, and he thanks the mother of his children for teaching him how to love himself.
  4. Writing opened Senghor’s mind to the idea of atonement and helped him start to forgive himself. It also ignited a spark to share his reflections to help other incarcerated men and women begin to heal.

Senghor believes that rehabilitation is the most important element missing from the juvenile justice system, as not everyone has the support system around them that he did. He claims that it is our responsibility to change the tide to ultimately improve our society as a whole:

“The majority of men and women who are incarcerated are redeemable. Ninety percent of [incarcerated men and women] will return to the community, and we have a role in determining what kind of men and women return to the community.”

The ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality, as Senghor calls it, is the main mindset he claims needs to change. Instead, he calls for society to embrace a more empathetic approach to allow more incarcerated youths and adults redeem themselves from past deeds and not be “held hostage to their past.” He believes each person needs the support to do three things that will begin recovery:

  • Acknowledge that they have both hurt others and been hurt.
  • Apologize to those they have wronged and to themselves.
  • Atone for past deeds by helping those headed down a bad path similar to their own.

Senghor is now a MIT Media Fellow, teacher at University of Michigan, and published author—his memoir Writing My Wrongs was published in 2013.

Listen to the full TED Talk for further details on Senghor’s journey and how he plans to help others transform their lives.

Image from Creative Commons User TED Conference

Updated: February 08 2018