2016 Young Leaders Retreat – Aaron Kirkland

Oct 20, 2016

Aaron’s Story: Cities United Youth Leaders Retreat 2016

The Cities United Youth Leaders Retreat held in August and hosted by Casey Family Programs was not only centered around the beautiful infrastructure that makes Seattle so pleasing to the eye, but connecting beautiful minds to unite in the effort of freeing our young black men and boys from a condition that must change. Lauryn Hill has a song titled I Get Out describing the many psychological locks that has kept her mentally incarcerated. She speaks of the social purgatory in which she lives and realizing that she must change her condition. She sings “knowing my condition is the reason I must change”. Before any changes can be made we must first understand our conditions. Many people are becoming desensitized to the urgency of changing these narratives for our young brothers. Many young brothers have been caught in a social misconception believing that it is ok to kill each other. This is totally unacceptable and change is on the way.

It was not until I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, sitting on the edge of my bunk in my small cell, that I realized my condition. When I closed the book, my eyes opened and I wanted everyone to see what I saw. I was granted the opportunity to look inside of a world of systems that assist in keeping our black youth at the starting blocks in the race of success. I was not only saddened by the history of these systems post Reconstruction Era but enraged that just like me many of us are unaware. When I discovered this, my purpose was defined. I realized that I did not want anyone to walk the path my dad, uncles, friends and I had taken. I use my story and my life to provide credible insight on how we are fighting this war against violence in our communities.

Violence is invading the minds of our young people and it may be a symptom of a far greater issue.  Cities United has discovered a way to bring great young minds from all over the nation in one room to share strategies that are working in their communities in this national fight against gun violence among young men and boys of color. Though we all come from different cities, backgrounds and Institutions, we share the common theme of changing the narrative for our young men and boys of color.

One of the themes that emerged from the gathering was Strategic Sharing. We defined it as safe and effective storytelling meant story to bring attention to an issue followed by a plan of action. Our facilitator, Gregory Davis, Manager for Technical Assistance with Casey Family Programs, emphasized the importance of credibility when getting ready to use strategic sharing in campaigning and policy change.  We were greeted by Mr. Davis with a question that we had to ask ourselves: “What is your genius?” By defining our genius we were able to identify what gifts and talents we can bring to the table as individuals in order for us to move as a combined force.

To see the direction in which Cities United is going is very refreshing in this fight against systematic oppression. I am charged and ready to continue mentoring my young brothers who are battling the conditions of self-hatred, anti-self and miseducation. At the end of Lauryn Hill’s I Get Out she changes her compelling lyrics, “knowing my conditions is the reason I must change” to “knowing my condition is the reason I must die”. I believe Lauryn is saying that only through the death of my old self did I change into my new self. The mind set of these young men must change, and it is up to us to do all that we can to pry open the eyes of these blind young men and boys, so they can join us in transforming minds all over the nation.

I want to give a special thanks to Anthony Smith, Dr. William Bell and Erica Atwood for the invitation. The insight we all gained as young leaders in our communities is the beginning of something great. As Lauryn says in I Get Out “what you see is what you get and you ain’t seen nothing yet”. We will continue to do the good work so we all can be free from the many boxes that keep us oppressed.

~Aaron Kirkland


Aaron Kirkland is a Philadelphia native who is a proud alumnus of AmeriCorps and PowerCorps PHL, serving over a thousand hours in their environmental stewardship program. He currently works for the Philadelphia Water Department where he performs Green Stormwater Management field. Aaron is currently taking evening classes in order to obtain a degree in Environmental Science.

After being released in 2014 after a five-year prison sentence, Aaron committed to change, helping others who were at risk of being swept up by the system and working with other organizations to curb the violence of young men and boys of color across the nation. Aaron believes that the school system has failed our communities.

“The high school I attended was very similar to prison. Everyday my friends and I were greeted by long lines to enter through metal detectors, teachers that didn’t care and if they did were too afraid to really teach and text books that were of no use. I realized I was not equipped for higher learning when I failed both the Math and English portion of the placement test at The Community College of Philadelphia”.

Aaron has initiated several efforts to promote growth within his community. He has organized a community book bag giveaway for low-income families as well as coordinated community clean-up events. Aaron’s speaking engagements include:

  • co-presenter at The Urgency of Now Symposium,
  • story teller at the Reinvention Stories of Philadelphia for the Funders Network conference,
  • panelist at the #Fight4aFuture 2016 summit in Chicago hosted by Generation Progress,
  • panelist at The Urgency of Now Summit,
  • featured panelist at CLASP’s Annual Forum on Youth of Color.

Aaron enjoys sharing his story with the expectation that it will enrich, inspire, and motivate others and especially touch the lives of young men and boys of color across the nation.


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