Many leaders have overcome challenges that helped shape their character.
We hear how adversity prepared them to be strong, confident leaders, able to guide organizations through difficult times.
However, we don’t often hear about the rare urban youth who, despite being raised in the midst of a violent, drug-infested environment, decides that he no longer accepts his circumstances and takes action to improve his life.
This is the story of Justin…he might not have a seat in the boardroom (yet), but he is still someone to be admired.
Living in “Darkness”
Justin was born in West Baltimore, one of the City’s most dangerous areas. Drugs and violence prevailed and survival was the benchmark of success. Justin wondered if people in his part of “Charm City” even knew what happiness felt like.
“As I grew, so did my experiences with pain and dark times” recalls Justin, already into drugs and alcohol as a young teenager.
Reaching adulthood, Justin saw those closest to him losing hope. Drugs were everywhere and Justin spent days high on whatever was available. Then, in 2006 he met Denyse. Denyse came from an abusive home and, after hearing her story, Justin realized he hadn’t known real pain. Soon they were living together with her two infants.
With little opportunity for employment, life became a constant struggle.
Justin longed to give his family a better life. “We often had no food to eat…we slept on a pile of clothes for a while and there were nights when the children had no diapers. I contemplated suicide to end the pain.” Like his friends, Justin began losing any hope of leaving this area. “I was unemployed for two years. Most days I slept until two or three, I was in bad shape.” Justin was out of control and faced losing Denyse and the kids.
At 21 years old, Justin had to change if he wanted to live to see thirty.
A Leader of Self is Born
“Around Christmas 2008 I was at the mall. Families had bags of presents. A single shirt for each of our kids was all we could afford.” Justin sat outside on his steps Christmas Day, he had hit bottom and needed to get clean if he wanted a better life. Justin says a “feeling came over him” and he vowed to stop using drugs and get his family out of that environment.
The next day, Justin bought a sketchbook and pencils with what little money he had. He’d taken art classes in school but hadn’t drawn for years. Later he sat in his kitchen thinking about life. Images flooded his mind and he captured them all on paper.
Drawing made Justin feel better and he began to believe he could find a way out of this environment.
His first drawing “The Rebirth of Crazy” symbolized Justin’s transformation. “When I was little, people said I had a ‘crazy‘ imagination, I guess that drawing was my imagination’s rebirth.” Justin draws using a stream-of-consciousness technique. The result is a collage of images illustrated like a comic book.
Each image communicates a message, “drawing became a way to express my own perspective of the urban environment,” explains Justin.
Leading Others by Example
“I realized many of my neighbors had lost hope and just accepted this life…like they couldn’t change anything. I had to get us out of there.” Justin worried about the affects on his children. “One day I noticed that the city was like different images mixed together in a complex picture.” He suddenly understood his art form…Urban Art. “The chaos in my artwork is what it’s like in my neighborhood. Urban Art is just me drawing about my life.”
Still in the West Baltimore area, Justin struggles with painful memories of his past.
“I still have demons to get over, but I can’t change the past. Rather than sit around complaining, I want to make a difference.”
Last year, Justin received training and works at a clinic helping dialysis patients. He is still drawing and hopes someone will take an interest in his art. Against incredible odds, Justin has stopped his downward spiral and is focused on relocating his family.
He knows that his attitude determines his altitude. He is thinking about the future and how to lead his family to a better place.
“I just want to take my kids to the playground without worrying they’ll step on a needle,” Justin says “and I never want them to wonder what happiness feels like.“
How have you as a leader handled adversity? Do you set the example for your employees by dealing with challenges professionally? Do you look at the possibilities that are available and take the small steps needed to get your circumstances improved? Or are you waiting around just sitting, waiting, wishing for things to get better? Could you have lived through Justin’s life and still maintained an optimistic outlook and taught yourself how to lead yourself?
Please visit Urban Art to read more of Justin’s story and see examples of his work.
Ken Jones, AIA, LEED AP is a Vice President at Grimm + Parker Architects in MD
A service-focused leader, Ken helps create meaningful architecture + client success
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Image Sources: justinsurbanart.files.wordpress.com