Three Lessons I Learned from Shaka

In 1991, Shaka Senghor was sent to prison for second-degree murder. Today, he is a lecturer at universities, a leading voice on criminal justice reform, and an inspiration to thousands.

In life, it's not how you start that matters. It's how you finish. 
Shaka Senghor was raised in a middle class neighborhood on Detroit’s east side during the height of the 1980s crack epidemic. An honor roll student and a natural leader, he dreamed of becoming a doctor—but at age 11, his parents' marriage began to unravel, and the beatings from his mother worsened, sending him on a downward spiral that saw him run away from home, turn to drug dealing to survive, and end up in prison for murder at the age of 19, fuming with anger and despair.      Writing My Wrongs is the story of what came next. During his nineteen-year incarceration, seven of which were spent in solitary confinement, Senghor discovered literature, meditation, self-examination, and the kindness of others—tools he used to confront the demons of his past, forgive the people who hurt him, and begin atoning for the wrongs he had committed. Upon his release at age thirty-eight, Senghor became an activist and mentor to young men and women facing circumstances like his. His work in the community and the courage to share his story led him to fellowships at the MIT Media Lab and the Kellogg Foundation and invitations to speak at events like TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival.In equal turns, Writing My Wrongs is a page-turning portrait of life in the shadow of poverty, violence, and fear; an unforgettable story of redemption, reminding us that our worst deeds don’t define us; and a compelling witness to our country’s need for rethinking its approach to crime, prison, and the men and women sent there.


This book opened my eyes not only to another perspective on the penal system, but also to the clear symbolism of prisons. While many other reviewers will tell you about the book and what Shaka endures and how he emerges, I want to tell you about mental prisons.
 Often times we “commit crimes” leading to our being incarcerated in our own self-constructed prisons. What types of “crimes” have you committed against yourself or others?
 During his time in lockup, he developed a system enabling him to benefit from the isolation. This three-part system is quite novel, although not new. 



I recently read another book, The Mystery Box, where one character developed a way to remain amiable, even in the most awkward circumstance. Her father created a special box with a lock. If she had a negative comment, she scribbled it on a piece of paper and deposited the slip into the box. Later, after her murder, her nephew found the box. He discovered all of her negative comments, which she had diligently recorded allowing them to leave her lips unspoken.

Shaka decided to journal his feelings of hatred and, at times, homicide and contempt. Later, he would reread them and dissect the feelings giving birth to the thought.

When you feel down, anxious, or even happy, write down why you feel this way or describe the situation generating the feeling. You may choose to reflect on it like Shaka, or simply never look at it again like Ms. Montague. Either way, you have released the feeling and have not committed a regrettable act. Yes, you can, and probably have, made promises when you were happy, only to regret it later. 


Self-schooling, quite synonymous to homeschooling, means to teach yourself. Quite often, we reach out for nonfiction titles to help create a blog, write for social media , improve our LinkedIn profile, or to simply learn how to become successful.

When you are in a prison, it is efficacious to maximize the time and come out better than you were before. Decide what you want to learn while you are in this period. Develop a curriculum, which is simply a list of books or blogs you want to read.

Shaka decided to create his own curriculum and teach himself. 


This is NOT to be confused with book clubs or ladies’ literary circles. The discussion groups Shaka created and joined took reading materials and dissected them. He led discussions and required participants to articulate their learning. At one point, one of his teachers required him to write book reports on his latest reads and share them with the group.





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