"When I become famous,
I will tell everyone
that I know a hero named Marlon Peterson."
Heroes rarely look like me.
I'm what garbage looks like.
No, not the most appealing
way to open a talk
or start a conversation,
and perhaps you have some questions
going through your head about that.
Why would this man say
such a thing about himself?
What does he mean?
How can someone view him as a hero
when he sees himself as garbage?
I believe we learn more from questions
than we do from answers.
Because when we're questioning something,
we're invested in taking in
some sort of new information,
or grappling with some sort of ignorance
that makes us feel uncomfortable.
And that's why I'm here:
to push us to question,
even when it makes us uncomfortable.
My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago,
the southernmost island in the Caribbean.
Trinidad is also home
to the only acoustic instrument
invented in the 20th century:
the steel pan.
Deriving from the African drums
and evolving from the genius
of one of the ghettos in Trinidad,
a city called Laventille,
and the disregard
of the American military ...
Well, I should tell you,
America, during WWII, had
military bases set up in Trinidad,
and when the war ended,
they left the island littered
with empty oil drums --
So people from Laventille
repurposed the old drums left behind
into the full chromatic scale:
the steel pan.
Playing music now from Beethoven
to Bob Marley to 50 Cent,
those people literally made
music out of garbage.
Twelve days before my 20th birthday,
I was arrested for my role
in a violent robbery attempt
in lower Manhattan.
While people were sitting
in a coffee shop,
four people were shot.
Two were killed.
Five of us were arrested.
We were all the products
of Trinidad and Tobago.
We were the "bad immigrants,"
or the "anchor babies" that Trump
and millions of Americans easily malign.
I was discarded, like waste material --
and justifiably so to many.
I eventually served 10 years, two months
and seven days of a prison sentence.
I was sentenced to a decade of punishment
in a correctional institution.
I was sentenced to irrelevance --
the opposite of humanity.
it was during those years in prison
that a series of letters redeemed me,
helped me move beyond
the darkness and the guilt
associated with the worst
moment of my young life.
It gave me a sense that I was useful.
She was 13 years old.
She had wrote that she saw me as a hero.
I remember reading that,
and I remember crying
when I read those words.
She was one of over 50 students
and 150 letters that I wrote during
a mentoring correspondence program
that I co-designed with a friend
who was a teacher
at a middle school in Brooklyn,
We called it the Young Scholars Program.
Every time those young people
shared their stories with me,
every time they drew a picture
of their favorite cartoon character
and sent it to me,
every time they said they depended
on my letters or my words of advice,
it boosted my sense of worthiness.
It gave me a sense of what
I could contribute to this planet.
It transformed my life.
Because of those letters
and what they shared with me,
their stories of teen life,
they gave me the permission,
they gave me the courage
to admit to myself
that there were reasons -- not excuses --
but that there were reasons
for that fateful day in October of 1999;
that the trauma associated
with living in a community
where guns are easier
to get than sneakers;
that the trauma associated with being
raped at gunpoint at the age of 14;
that those are reasons for me
why making that decision,
that fatal decision,
was not an unlikely proposition.
Because those letters
mattered so much to me,
because writing and receiving
and having that communication
with those folks
so hugely impacted my life,
I decided to share the opportunity
with some friends of mine
who were also inside with me.
My friends Bill and Cory and Arocks,
all in prison for violent crimes also,
shared their words of wisdom
with the young people as well,
and received the sense
of relevancy in return.
We are now published writers
and youth program innovators
and trauma experts
and gun violence prevention advocates,
and TED talkers and --
and good daddies.
That's what I call a positive
return of investment.
Above all else,
what building that program
taught me was that when we sow,
when we invest in the humanity
of people no matter where they're at,
we can reap amazing rewards.
In this latest era
of criminal justice reform,
I often question and wonder why --
why is it that so many believe
that only those who have been convicted
of nonviolent drug offenses
merit empathy and recognized humanity?
Criminal justice reform is human justice.
Am I not human?
When we invest in resources
that amplify the relevancy of people
in communities like Laventille
or parts of Brooklyn or a ghetto near you,
we can literally create
the communities that we want.
We can do better.
We can do better than investing solely
in law enforcement as a resource,
because they don't give us
a sense of relevancy
that is at the core of why so many of us
do so many harmful things
in the pursuit of mattering.
See, gun violence is just a visible
display of a lot of underlying traumas.
When we invest in the redemptive
value of relevancy,
we can render a return of both
personal responsibility and healing.
That's the people work I care about,
because people work.
Family, I'm asking you
to do the hard work,
the difficult work,
the churning work of bestowing
upon those who we can relegate as garbage,
who we can disregard and discard easily.
I'm asking myself.
Over the past two months,
I've lost two friends to gun violence,
both innocent bystanders.
One was caught in a drive-by
while walking home.
The other was sitting in a café
while eating breakfast,
while on vacation in Miami.
I'm asking myself to see
the redemptive value of relevancy
in the people that murdered them,
because of the hard work
of seeing the value in me.
I'm pushing us to challenge
our own capacity
to fully experience our humanity,
by understanding the full biography
of people who we can
easily choose not to see,
because heroes are waiting
to be recognized,
and music is waiting to be made.