Tommy “Shakur”, 54
Tommy “Shakur”, 54

Meet Tommy “Shakur”…

He treated me with respect, acknowledging my humanity in spite of my incarcerated status.

Here I am with Bob Myers, the General Manager for the Golden State Warriors. This picture was taken the year Bob and the NBA Championship organization came inside San Quentin to play against the San Quentin Warriors, an annual game of basketball. I was there on assignment to interview Bob before the game. I remember thinking how much of an honor it was to speak with him, he had such an infectious personality and a generous spirit. 

Ultimately, I produced a video, radio and written piece covering the event. I’m also enclosing a copy of my written piece entitled “They are Warriors.” Perhaps it will provide you with an insightful glimpse of the excitement surrounding that eventful day.

My motto is “I’m not counting the days, I’m making the days count.” Stay safe and remain vigilant.

More about Tommy

I want to share with you one of the best days of my life. I never imagined earning a college degree, let alone delivering the valedictorian speech at the graduation ceremony! But here I am!

As a kid growing up in South Central L.A., I had problems in school, beginning in elementary school. I fought, I acted out in class, got swats from the principal, and received harsh whippings from my father when I got home. I was so misunderstood, no one seemed to really care. But here I am!

In junior high school, I was expelled from seven different schools. I was given the boot for things like gang activity, gambling, getting smart with the teacher, leaving school without permission, cutting class, being threatened by rival gang members, and fighting. All of this happened before I got kicked out of the Los Angeles Unified School District and sent to an all-boys School in East Los Angeles. But here I am!

I was in and out of juvenile hall, I did time in County Probation camp, and Youth Authority. Consequently, I never attended high school in my community – I was locked up, both mentally and physically. But here I am!

Still, in 1983, I managed to get my high school diploma while in California Youth Authority. Back then, I didn’t give a damn about getting an education – it had no value to me. But here I am!

I’d like to share with you the speech I gave at my college graduation.

 

Valedictorian Speech for Patten University 2019
Here I Am!
By Tommy “Shakur”

Welcome everyone! My name is Tommy. In 1993, I began going by the name of Shakur. It’s been a journey growing into the shoes of Shakur, but here I am! Today, I am thankful, I am grateful, I am appreciative. In Arabic, the word “shakur” encompasses all of these expressions. With that, I’d like to shakur everyone for attending this commencement ceremony in celebration of the graduation class of 2019. Everybody, let’s give it up for ourselves one time!

I want to share with you my journey through the college program by highlighting some of the challenges I’ve had to overcome to get to this stage today. In sharing my journey, it is my hope to share with you the journey of my fellow graduates as well. I may be the valedictorian for this graduating class, but when it’s all said and done, we all put in work and will be receiving the same Associate of the Arts Degree no matter what our GPA is. I am merely a reflection of you, and this is an achievement we all can be proud of.

My journey towards graduating was not without its challenges. In my early semesters at Patton College, I lacked the communication and social skills required in an academic environment. But here I am! For me, this deficit was the most challenging part of being a college student. I believe it stems from my school experience during childhood up to my years as an adolescent. I had issues with shame, anger, people in authority, and low self-esteem as a result of unprocessed trauma. As a consequence, I found myself triggered by both teachers and students inside the classroom and at study hall. But here I am!

In class, it seemed like oftentimes I’d raise my hand to speak, but the instructors would pass over me and call on the more talkative students. It was frustrating to think I was being ignored, overlooked or forgotten. Naturally, this discouraged me from participating in classroom discussions, or asking for help. But here I am!

When in the study hall, I’d sign up in the twenty minute slot for a tutorship. Whenever the tutors so much as went four or five minutes into my allotted time without calling on me, frowning and pouting, I’d get up and leave the study hall. But here I am! Yes, I had issues, but the more eager I became to learn, the more inquisitive I came to be. I began being proactive by confidently asserting myself. I raised my hand more often. I’d say things like, “I believe I was next,” or, “Excuse me, I have something to say.” As a result, I began feeling more confident. I started sitting in the front of the class. I became motivated to be the best student I could be, deciding I would not deny myself the opportunity to learn as much as I could, and to be patient. The college program taught me both social and coping skills, impacting not only my academic intelligence, but my emotional intelligence as well. And now, here I am!

As of today, I have been incarcerated for almost 34 years, not including an additional 4 years prior to that. That’s right, 38 years out of the 53 years of my existence have been in a jail cell. Had I understood the power and value of education, I believe the outcome of my life would have been different. After about five years into this prison stint, I longed for opportunities at higher education and rehabilitative programs. Unfortunately, there was no substantial programming available at the previous eight prisons I was caged at. It wasn’t until 2011, when I saw a flyer on the wall at the California Men’s Colony, which provided information and requirements needed to be accepted into the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison. I wrote the college program and received a letter from David Cowan accepting me into Patten. I was so enthused! I came here in 2012, I was placed on the waiting list, and waited for a full-year; but now, here I am!

My very first class in the summer of 2013 was English 99A. Allison Lopez was one of the instructors back then. I wrote a persuasive essay that presented the question: “Should Same Sex Marriage Be Legalized?” I was totally against it. This was after the law got passed in California. I argued that the legalization of same-sex marriages did more harm to society than good. I felt that it would radically redefine marriage and send harmful messages to America’s youth while undermining principles of morality. I believed that same-sex marriages were morally wrong and went against God’s plan of procreation. That was my position  back then. But my thinking began to shift during English 101A, in the Spring of 2014. Vera Shapersheteyn was one of the instructors. Initially, she had perhaps the greatest impact on my ability to learn. Vera introduced us to queer and feminist literature that radically changed the way I thought about writing and expressing myself. Other readings included James baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” and Zora Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

In Vera’s class, we couldn’t just raise our hands and make a blanket statement about the readings without articulating and deconstructing an argument. She challenged us as students in a way that forced us to think critically. Because of class discussions, which included thought contributions of other students, I began to see marginalized people and communities in a different light. I, too, am marginalized, so who am I to judge the way a person identifies or defines himself, themselves, or herself? The way I see it today, consenting adults have the right to choose how they want to live and with whom they want to share their lives. My thinking was flawed and I was homophobic. But here I am! I am shakur for my education because it has given me the ability to look at life through a different lens. A more informed lens. A lens that compels me to question things critically. Equally important is the fact that I am forever shakur to Vera for providing me with a solid foundation, in reading and composition, because it carried me through the following semesters and will continue to be of use to me for the rest of my life.

In the Fall 2014, during the English 204 course, I wrote a research paper entitled, “Sexuality and Empowerment: A feminist Perspective.” I am most proud of this work because it altered my worldview about women, igniting the initial spark that led to my identity as a feminist – which means I stand in solidarity for the equal rights of women. My first step in this journey was to understand how women were oppressed and the role I had played in it. As I began reflecting on my experiences with women, I started seeing how social conditioning pitted boys against girls, which created adversarial relationships between the sexes. During my research, I learned how women had to struggle against violence, gender oppression, inequality, and systemic sexism and patriarchy. And now that I know all of this I feel obliged to support them in their struggles. As men, we should acknowledge the strength and resiliency in women, and how – despite their fate – they continue to define themselves by seeing themselves as capable, strong, assertive social agents for change. My research has taught me that feminism is not a box for women to be locked in. Now, who would have thought that I, a former, full-fledged, hard-core, misogynistic gangbanger, would be writing papers on feminine theory – but here I am!

It’s only fitting to acknowledge that my fellow graduates and I didn’t get to this stage on our own. Our academic attainment would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of the Patten College administrators, instructors, tutors, clerk’s, and classmates. It’s too many of you to name individually, but we’re shakur to you for showing up for us the way you did over the years. You have been instrumental to our successes as students. To our friends and families, we are shakur for your unconditional love and support. And shakur to Robert E. Burton Adult School and the prison administration for supporting the college program. Special shakurness to my partner, my ride or die, my fiance – Adrian Skye Roberts. She has been my inspiration for when I wrote papers on gender identity and feminism. I’d send her final drafts that were marked up and graded by my instructors, and she would add her comments and return the paper to me. Adrian also challenged my perspective and worldview on the LGBTQ community, which has motivated me to be more inclusive, tolerant, and accepting towards people who see themselves differently. I’m shakur to my cousin Fania Davis. She is a kind, insightful and loving person who has motivated me with her overall support, words of encouragement, and feedback on the writings that I’ve mailed to her during my years as a student. Joe Garcia, a fellow incarcerated person, was someone I relied on daily during both elementary and intermediate algebra courses. Although he used shaming sarcasm as a method of tutoring, he was very effective because he challenged me to learn my lessons. What I really appreciate about Joe is the fact that he dedicated his time to helping me, no matter how uncommon his common sense was. I have to acknowledge my mother, Bessie Mae, My Little Brother, David, my father, Robert and my son, Daughtry who passed on to the next life. I dedicate this accomplishment to you. Thank you for watching over me and for being a constant source of strength and motivation. Here I am!

Finally, to my fellow graduates. I know I’ve shared the classroom with all of you at one time or another. We’ve faced a number of challenges, whether it was lockdowns, fog lines, badgering officers, annoying classmates, delayed counts, extended yard-downs, late cell releases, deaths in the family, Board denials etc., here we are! We did it! We are Patten University graduates! Let this moment serve as a testament that we can accomplish the things that we put our minds to. This is a victory! Education is transformative, once you have it nobody can take it away from you. So if you have a mind to further your education, I encourage you to do it. I know for me, personally, this has been a rewarding experience. I am strongly considering pursuing a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Social Work at San Francisco State upon my release. Being a student at Patton provided my life with meaning and purpose, and a sense of accomplishment. Each day that I read, studied, wrote an essay, or prepared for an oral presentation, I could feel myself learning, growing and becoming a better human being. It’s analogous to a caterpillar in a cocoon, metamorphosing into a beautiful butterfly and taking flight! We have come! In the words of songsters McFadden and Whitehead, “Ain’t no stopping us now – we’re on the move!” Congratulations fellow Patten University Alumni!