My stepfather’s connection with my mom started in high school. After high school, they went their separate ways but eventually found their way back to each other. I remember when I was four years old, my dad asked my permission to marry my mom, that’s the kind of stand-up guy he is. Seeing him and my mother never give up on their goals and dreams has really shaped the person I am.
My stepfather is a magna cum laude Harvard Law graduate and co-founder of Nilan, Johnson, Lewis, a Minneapolis law firm and at one time the largest Black-owned law firm in the Midwest. He is the smartest person I know, and always made me work for what I wanted. He gave me a lawn mower with a full tank of gas for my fourteenth birthday, along with a message that said you can have anything you want if you work hard enough.
My grandfather was also an exceptional man and someone I looked up to. Growing up Native and Black in St. Louis, Missouri was not easy for him, but he managed to get an education and move to Minnesota, where he met my grandmother and became the first Black licensed realtor in the Midwest. He was instrumental in several large projects in Minnesota, including the first indoor shopping mall in the nation. To watch him succeed in a predominantly White industry was inspiring to say the least. His path was not easy, but he taught me that no matter what you do, do the best you can.
A unique path to education
Growing up, I was a knucklehead and probably too smart for my own good. I wasn’t a bad kid, I just wasn’t focused on the right things. I didn’t do my work in school because it was boring and I didn’t feel challenged. At sixteen, I decided to put my lawnmower to use and work full time, part of the reason why I didn’t finish high school. I discovered that yard work paid well and I could get anything I wanted with hard work. I’m pretty sure that’s not what my dad meant when he gave me the mower.
I got my G.E.D. when I was seventeen and started an automotive engineering program at Dunwoody College of Technology the next year. At the end of my second year, I dropped out of the program with an associate degree in automotive technology. I worked at UPS for three years while working on cars on the side. I loved and still love anything that has to do with cars — driving, building, repairing.
In 2003, I joined the Army at age twenty-two and was deployed to Iraq. Three years later, I was medically retired due to injury which was very difficult for me as I had anticipated making a career of it. Retirement from the Army led me to Savannah, Georgia where I tried to raise my family. But it didn’t work, I wasn't the same person I was when I deployed. Instead, I came back broken; I didn’t get the help I needed, and my marriage ultimately ended in divorce in 2007.
Feeling alone and broken, I went back to school at Savannah State University, where I double majored in PC repair, and Network Administration. Working in this field didn’t make me happy so I went back to working on cars and became a foreman. This also wasn’t working for me, and I still wasn’t getting the help I needed. In February of 2012, my stepfather came to Savannah and brought me back to Minnesota. He saved my life. If it wasn’t for that pivotal moment, I likely would not be sharing this story now.