Mentor Steers Teens Toward Hard Work, Drive And Dictionaries
BY JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer
November 29, 2007
Whether you're just passing through or in it for the long haul, you've heard by now the rap on Hartford. There's no sense of place here, no unifying character. But let's stop to consider: Is that hype true, or is it a convenient myth we've bought into? We're on a hunt to find out, meeting the people who haven't given up on Hartford and who aren't looking to politicians and public figures to make this star rise.
They're the people you probably see about town but whose stories you don't know. They're the folks building community, as they define it and on their own terms — artists, activists, movers and shakers. In this space on Thursdays, we'll introduce you to 10 faces of Hartford that we think you should know more about. Today is the second profile of the series.
A McDonald's soda in one hand and fries in the other, the Hartford teen walks into the Albany Avenue learning center with a smirk and a swagger.
Anthony Griffin is hunkered behind a desk, his white shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows. The local business owner greets the high school senior with a firm "Hello, sir." He looks at the clock and tells him to finish his snack, get his binder and get ready for their three-hour session.
"There are so many opportunities available to our youth, and they don't even know it," Griffin says, returning to his train of thought from a moment before. "The greatest challenge is showing them that there's not only a consequence for doing the wrong thing, but there's a reward on the other side for doing the right thing."
Griffin knows consequences and rewards.
A one-time drug dealer, he hustled the city streets until it caught up with him. He twice served time in the 1980s, converting to Islam during his second stint and promising to clean up his act for good. He kept his word. By the 1990s, the face once known for gang-banging became better recognized as the one behind Anthony's Clothing, a retail and design shop that has thrived on Barbour Street for nearly 18 years.
Yet, for all life's blessed consequences and rewards, Griffin didn't want to be forever remembered as an ex-con turned clothier. The husband and father of four had a hunch that maybe all his business success was preparation for something bigger.
These days, with his family holding things down at the store, Griffin's face is most likely to be seen five afternoons a week at the vocational enrichment center he launched in 2004 — his something bigger. Called ANT (a nod to himself, to the studious and resourceful insect, and an acronym for Affection New Thoughts), the 15-week course has graduated more than 230 youths, mostly from Hartford. The first half of the course, underwritten by local agencies, teaches kids practical entrepreneurial skills; the second half hooks them up with local apprenticeships. In restaurants, landscaping firms and law offices, they work alongside professionals for weeks at a time, with some even landing permanent jobs.
Why does Griffin do this, and do this for free? Because he believes the people of Hartford are themselves precious, yet untapped resources capable of building up their own community. "And because in 10 years, we're gonna pay," says Griffin, 46. "If we don't invest in these kids now ... " He doesn't finish the thought.
Unburdened of his McDonald's after-school snacks, the high school student returns to the room. A senior and resident of Riverview Hospital, a psychiatric facility for youths, he's the first student Griffin has agreed to see in private sessions. He asks that his name, in print, be abbreviated to J.
The teen takes a seat across from Griffin, a bear of a man who balances business polish against street credibility, who is in parts patient and stern, and who regularly sends his students hunting for new words in the dictionaries they're required to keep at the ready. Three weeks in, it's already opening new doors for J.
"I have learned to use a dictionary and I was scared to say [that I didn't know how]," says J., who reads his assignment haltingly from a wrinkled page in his binder. "But now I see the light at the end of the tunnel. ... I feel so good about myself and my life. ... I started to write a letter to my mom. ... I told her about the words I learned, like 'appreciate,' 'ambition,' 'benefit,' 'responsibility' and 'manifest' and how I want these words in my life, and can help make my family closer and help my community come up."
Griffin gets choked up — proof, he tells J., that real men do, in fact, cry. They move on to practical matters, and a discussion about the relationship between consumers and producers. "The producer," explains J., "is like (rapper and entrepreneur) Jay-Z. The consumer is you or me who go into the store and buy Rocawear (his former urban clothing line)."
Griffin asks which J. would like to be. "Producer," his answer comes quickly. Actually, he'd like to be a mechanic, and to own an automotive business one day. And he'd like to go to college.
"But I just don't want to fail," he says. "I failed too many times."
To that, Griffin has this to say: "If you work hard today, if you dig the ground, dig up all that dirt today, you'll have a place for tomorrow."
And then, the student begins to sound like the teacher.
"We don't have the same schools in the 'hood, we don't have the best teachers ... but it doesn't mean you can't get out the 'hood. You just got to stomp that foot a little harder than most people do," he says. "If we put ourselves on a higher standard, we'll be on a higher standard, know what I'm sayin'?"
Griffin knows what he's saying. There's a word for it. Ambition. Look it up, he tells J. The boy thumbs through the dictionary. "Ambition," he reads. "To desire. To succeed. Drive."
"So to have ambition," Griffin says, "you don't want to fail. You want to win. If it's got your name on it, you want to do it right. Because, imagine if you could live and leave a legacy long after you're gone?"
J. nods. One suspects he's picturing his name stripped across his future automotive business. One also suspects Griffin is speaking about himself.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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