In 1999, a 19-year-old Marlon Peterson was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, attempted robbery, and criminal use of a weapon. He was convicted of first-degree assault and third-degree weapons possession, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Fourteen years later, after his early release in 2010, Peterson tours the country, encouraging high school students and at-risk youth to look beyond hardship in order to overcome the challenges and struggles often inherent in an inner-city upbringing.
In June, Peterson delivered the commencement address for the 36 graduates of the Newark Leadership Academy's class of 2013. There, he sought to strike the balance between celebrating a student milestone, while assessing the undeniable realities that lie ahead.
"I know that you all have dreams and goals—and I know you've felt, at times, that those goals were unattainable. I understand that," Peterson said, adding: "I know that it can feel like every day is a struggle.
Peterson, now associate director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center—a youth development and community organizing anti-violence project the Center for Court Innovation—has spent the last eight years reforming himself, leveraging his new role to empower youths who risk being where he was 14 years ago.
Graduations provide a good opportunity to engage young adults, Peterson said, not only to revel in a significant personal achievement, but also because graduations represent time where one’s next decision “could be the most important one they’ve ever made.
“I know that you all have dreams and goals—and I know you’ve felt, at times, that those goals were unattainable. I understand that," Peterson said.“But we need to remember and be aware of the fact that there’s someone that you care about – and someone who you care about. That relationship there is what will motivate you to keep it going to continued to do all of the wonderful things you’ve done,” Peterson said.
NLA Principal Semone Morant echoed Peterson’s sentiment. “Don’t forget what it took for you to get here—use that as the fuel to drive you to your next success and everything that you’ll soon accomplish.
"What you've done here is significant,” Morant continued. “Don't forget this moment. Don't forget how you felt when you walked down that aisle and people stood up for you. If things get rough look back at this moment and remember that these people applauded you and honored you for the work that you put in,” he said.
AUTHOR: Newark Trust
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