It was a very cool autumn evening. My partner Bria and I had just left our birthing class, both of us hungry and tired and excited, her bump fully developing—our daughter, our first child, growing inside of her. It was while I crossed the street and refreshed my Twitter mentions that I saw the tweet that made me do a halfhearted Moonwalk in the middle of the road: I had been asked to give a TED talk.
I had watched TED talks while I sat at my desk in the South Bronx, answering phones and emails, while waiting for formerly incarcerated men and women to walk into my office for metro cards, for a shoulder; to have their appointments scheduled for mental health and methadone and parole. Before I worked at Taylor, before I started a career working for marketing and creative agencies, I worked at a non profit that serviced the homeless community for seven years. While I penned essays on sites like Medium and A Plus about racism and art and fatherhood, I tended to the wounds of those most marginalized… and watched TED talks. I applied to be a TED Fellow, for the opportunity to speak at the annual TED Conference. I was rejected. Every year. For five years.
From 2013 to 2018, I became a father, contemplated suicide more than once, published two books, quit my social services gig and started working at my first creative agency, was laid off, unemployed for three months, and then eventually hired by Taylor. In that time, I learned that storytelling was so much more than the impulse I felt guided by, but something that could be honed carefully, with skill and intentionality. That skill has been put through the fire at Taylor: Chris Shreve taught me that nothing is too small to be edited; Dane Ogilvie taught me no idea is a bad idea; Brianna Bishop taught me that being clever is not as important as being succinct; Brad Mancuso taught me the bigger picture needs to be understood by everyone in the room, even if you’re not there to explain it. Storytelling as an art, as a way to not only garner applause as a performer, but to deliver a message, is a skill I am still learning at Taylor. It’s a skill that would find itself bleeding into my work, not only as a copywriter, but as a creative who would be tasked with delivering a message on co-parenting and fatherhood to a room full of dynamic women for the TEDWomen Conference 2019.
As I sat in the theater and watched, surrounded by women, women who show up as mothers, as sisters and cousins, as daughters and professionals, as comedians and humanitarians and caregivers, I was reminded of just how much privilege I have as a man walking this earth. When Helen – the head curator at TED – emailed me, I told her directly I did not want to show up as a cis male, able-bodied ally who would be taking up space that would otherwise be given to a woman from a marginalized community: primarily a Black woman or Black trans woman. I was informed that the list of already-selected speakers was diverse and that my voice would be of value. With that, I began crafting my talk. Helen would serve as not only a curator, but an invaluable editing resource, stripping the fat from my talk. But, I would have been ill-prepared for finding the right ways to tell this story, my story, most effectively without the work I had already been doing at Taylor.
I have no college degree. No fellowships or internships. I graduated my performing arts high school firmly believing I would be a rising star in Hollywood, a name in lights, smiling on red carpets while simultaneously prepping lines for a Broadway premiere I would be acting in and helping to produce. A degree was a safety net I didn’t need. Some failed FAFSA applications and unpaid student loans later, I left Temple University with my tail between my legs, but poised to be the rapper slash poet slash actor I always knew I was supposed to be.
Supposed to be—an interesting turn of phrase. If there is anything my TED talk has taught me, it is that our journey, as planned and as mapped out as it may appear to be, begets room for detours, for pit stops and the scenic route. Our journey is not a linear one. TED would never have happened without my father’s schizophrenia, my eldest brother’s drug charge; without Lilah and Lilah’s mother, without D telling me to keep writing raps. I fell and failed and started and stopped enough for two lifetimes in my thirty-six years. But, the journey has always been mine. So, when others told me I should say “go,” and I waited, I am thankful. When others told me to teach, or become a pastor, or stop dreaming, I trusted that my story wasn’t their job to tell, but mine. My story, like the stories of so many others, is the story of an immigrant mother, of an ancestry of storytellers, all finding their voices at agencies, in media, on stages and in classrooms. Stories filled with sorrow and grief and joy and laughter; stories of promise and weighty ones and lofty ones. My journey, my story, is no better and no different than anyone else’s. I am just fortunate enough to be alive to tell it. And just as fortunate that Taylor is a part of that journey, too.
Thanks for coming to my TED talk.