The Dividends of Poverty

There is a narrative that’s touted in the media and other propaganda on the daily that black boys living in America’s inner-city’s are violent and stupid. Here in Atlanta, we even have the data to support this narrative:

· Many of our inner-city neighborhoods have been rated the most dangerous of America’s inner-cities,

· Youth from three Atlanta zip codes – 30310, 30315, 30318 – grow up to comprise 80% of Georgia’s prison population.

· Black boys in Atlanta have about a 40% chance of graduating at all or on time.

When I hear this narrative – it pisses me off because the naysayers are also talking about me.

Although I partner with Atlanta Public Schools (APS) through my non-profit organization L.E.A.D., Inc. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) and through my Rotary Club of Atlanta West End, this isn’t my first encounter with APS. My very first time inside of an APS school was as a seed in my mother’s womb. She started off at Doug, but when she got pregnant with me, she had to go to night school at Washington to finish her education. I was born at Grady Hospital and during my early years we lived in Hollywood Brooks. She also received some educational and career support from The Job Corps, right on Westlake Avenue. Ironically, when I was a little boy in the day care there, I had no idea that one of the ladies who I saw everyday was the aunt of my wife who I wouldn’t meet until some 15 years or so later.

I say all this to tell you, my Brothers, that I am you. I was on food stamps, TANF, Medicaid and WIC; all of those daily tell-tale reminders that you were born at the bottom and you have absolutely no shot of making it out of the gutter. After all, one of the most alarming stats on poverty in Atlanta today is that only about 4% of children born into poverty will ever make it out, so my being born into a family on the poverty rung of life was surely a death sentence – or so it seemed.

C.J. Stewart speaking to Atlanta Public Schools students at Turner Field.

My purpose in sharing this message with you is to reveal the hidden treasures, the dividends, that poverty paid out to me.

GRIT = Strength of Character

Know: Grit is strength of character. It’s not based on talent. It’s about getting difficult things done even when you don’t have the knowledge and resources to do it. Grit is about possessing passion and perseverance. Your passion is found in your suffering. Pinpoint what makes you mad as hell and there is where you’ll find your life’s mission.

Feel: I want you to feel confident when approaching life challenges. You have grit because you are still standing despite your life’s challenges. You are still standing in the face of things that would have already destroyed others folks. Remember, you are still standing.

Believe: The world has lots of problems and I need you to believe that you can solve them. You certainly can’t solve them all, but you can solve at least one. The world needs you because your grit allows you to get difficult things done and not quit when things get tough.

Do: I want you to be keenly aware of adversity, run to it and then conquer it like only you can.


Know: Discernment is the ability to judge well. Even if you weren’t born with it, growing up in poverty develops this gift in you like no other situation can. Knowing who to trust and who to leave alone can save your life and the lives of those around you. Discernment; it’s a powerful weapon that you possess.

Feel: I want you to trust your gut. Discernment is one of those tricky gifts that sometimes doesn’t come with empirical evidence; sometimes it’s just a feeling you have in your gut. Learn to listen and trust this voice. In my life experience, I grew to find out that this feeling was the Holy Spirit speaking to me and guiding me before I was even thinking about being a follower of Christ.

Believe: I want you to believe that you can use your spiritual gift of discernment to navigate life’s experience to make your life better and the lives of others better.

Do: Poor people are often taken advantage of because it’s assumed that we don’t know better and can’t do better. I want you to protect the poor. You can do this; you must do this. As you progress in life and become financially secure, don’t forget the poor.


Know: Great men born in this great city of Atlanta have paved the way for you to become a living legend. We couldn’t chosen a better city in the world to be born in – especially when it comes to poverty. Immerse yourself in the rich history of black people in Atlanta and abroad – their legacies will fuel yours.

Feel: I want you to feel self confident in the fact that you can solve problems because men born in Atlanta and educated in Atlanta Public Schools such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Vernon Jordan, Mayor Maynard Jackson and Coach C.J. Stewart have solved and are solving problems.

Believe: I want you to believe that God has you on earth for this moment. You are a living legend and your legacy will live beyond you. Take care of it daily; use your grit and discernment to protect it.

Do: I want you to start living like you have the power to solve world problems. There are millions of people that will benefit from your contributions to the world that may never get the opportunity to say thank you to you. Do not believe what the world says about you. Make them believe differently. Write a new narrative.

A message to the young ladies: Please know that as I write this blog that I have you in my heart. As the father of the two beautiful little black girls, the leadership and mentoring work I do with black boys is so that my daughters know what a confident, strong and productive young man looks like. I need your prayers as I work with our young men, so they can be great community leaders, husbands and fathers for you.

Coach C.J. Stewart and three of Atlanta’s most valuable assets. Photo by Audra Starr.