I'm excited for today's interview with Jerry over at Peerless Money Mentor as he talks about his experience growing up poor in urban America.
I've followed Jerry's blog for some time. We had the opportunity to meet in September at the FinCon conference in Orlando.
I had read Jerry's post, Growing Up in the Ghetto: From the Projects to Home Ownership. I was moved by the story and asked if he'd be willing to do an interview for my series. He agreed.
He told me a couple of very troubling stories about encounters with police. You will hear them in the interview. I've heard similar stories from other African American men. Each time I hear them, I cringe at what it must feel like to be treated this way. It's something I can say I've never experienced as a white male.
When I sent him the questions for the interview, it prompted him to think of some things he hadn't thought about in years. He called his mom to help clarify those memories. You'll hear what he discovered in that conversation as well.
It's a powerful story of triumph, perseverance, and courage.
With that, let me introduce you to Jerry and his story.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Hello, Money With A Purpose readers! My name is Jerry, and I am a freelance writer, avid reader, and thrill seeker.
I have been blogging at Peerless Money Mentor for the past year.
There I have been documenting my journey from broke to financially woke. To make a long story short, I made a series of financial mistakes that caused me to have a negative net worth (approx. -50,000, including my student loans).
Some mistakes I made were:
- Purchasing a car I could not afford ($22,000)
- Maxing my credit cards out ($10,000)
- Cosigning for my ex-fiancée’s car loan ($10,000)
- Contributing zero dollars towards my retirement accounts
To turn things around, I moved back into my family home with my siblings, refinanced my credit card debt by taking out two personal loans, and applied financial principles I picked up from reading finance books and blogs.
Now that I have paid my car loan and two personal loans off, my net worth is positive! Breaking up with Sallie Mae is the next financial goal to scratch off my list.
Tell us a little about your career path.
After graduating from college, it was tough to find employment, but I finally found a job working for a print production company. I started in the mailroom and eventually worked my way up to becoming a printer fleet manager at LSU. It was a great learning experience. Unfortunately, after I was given increasingly more responsibility, my income never increased. I got calls from within the company from out of state, but I wasn’t in a strong enough financial position to make a move.
Instead, to supplement my income, I started moonlighting at one of the local libraries. As soon as my shift at my main job would end, I would rush from one end of town to the next.
Eventually, I grew tired of doing both, so I decided to go full-time at the library since it paid more. The plan was to stay for a year or two, but I found myself drifting. I have been at my current job for the past four years.
Last year I focused primarily on side hustles to boost my income, but in 2019 I intend to refocus on boosting my primary source of income. I’ll start with re-reading ESI Money’s post Seven Steps to Increasing Your Career Income.
You wrote an article on your blog about growing up in poverty. Can you talk more about that?
When I was five years old, my mom, siblings, and I moved to the projects in South Baton Rouge, La. At the time, I had no clue what the word poverty meant. I just know I hated the taste of the “government cheese” my mom would get every month.
I also took a mental note of the fact that our courtyard pool was filled with dirt, instead of water.
Despite my inferior living conditions, I wore a kool-aid smile most of the time, especially when I was doing backflips off the swings at the local park!
That smile started to turn upside down in middle school when I realized that we were poor. I started comparing my surroundings with that of the neighborhood a few blocks away.
After comparing the two, I became angry at the lack of beautiful landscaping in my neighborhood. I wanted to escape the ghetto. My master plan was to become a millionaire rapper or basketball star.
To make a long story short, I did not make the basketball team, and my father tore up the rhymes I wrote in my composition notebook, effectively ending my rap career.
Eventually, my would get a higher paying job at a plant in St. Gabriel, La, and we were able to leave the ghetto behind and move to a decent area.
You told me you thought your parents’ divorce contributed to your poverty. You mentioned abusive behavior. Can you talk more about that?
Before moving into an area known as the projects in South Baton Rouge, La in 1992, my family and I lived in a decent neighborhood. We lived in a three bedroom rent to own home.
I don’t remember much from that period (I was five), so I spoke with my mother to get a clear understanding of what happened. Why did we move from our decent neighborhood to the ghetto?
What she shared with me is truly painful to write. I found out that the reason we moved was due to my father’s abusive behavior.
While she was pregnant with my younger brother, my father punched her during a heated argument.
An ambulance rushed my mom to the hospital where the doctor demanded that she flee from this abusive environment. If she did not, he would call child protective services on her.
Shelter for battered women
Following the doctor’s orders, my mom checked into the battered women’s shelter, where we spent the next 45 days.
After she got out of the shelter, we returned to our rent to own home where we continued to live (my father still paid the rent). A woman from the battered women’s shelter name Wanda stayed with us for a couple of months but did not contribute anything towards the bills.
We continued living there until my father quit his job. When he left his job, my mother could not pay the rent since she was unemployed and pregnant.
With nowhere to go, she applied for government assistance and found a place for us to live in the projects of South Baton Rouge, La. My mom filed for divorce soon afterward.
What followed could be made into a Lifetime movie. There were multiple restraining orders filed against my father. And even attempted murder. My mother poured gasoline on my father one day when he knocked on our door. She tried to strike the match, but it would not light (Thank God).
I love my parents, but the abusive nature of their relationship had a negative impact on myself and my siblings psychologically. As a kid growing up in the ghetto, I remember shedding crocodile tears some nights, while praying for a functional family.
You told me about a couple of pretty crazy run-ins with police. I’ve heard similar stories from African American friends. Please tell my readers what you told me, and how long ago they happened.
The first incident happened during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The other incident occurred when I was in a Walmart parking lot.
Both of these incidents took place when I was a freshman in college, which was 13 years ago (I feel old).
Mardi Gras Incident
The most terrifying night of my life occurred while I was walking down a street in New Orleans with some friends for Mardi Gras. I had on a light blue North Carolina hoodie.
We were just out to have a good time and enjoy the scenery until the unspeakable happened.
I remember seeing a cop car come speeding down the street, so I screamed out to my friends, “Get on the sidewalk!” They complied, and we continued walking towards Bourbon Street.
After taking a left on a side street, I saw this man approaching me with a gun pointed towards my chest. I screamed at my friends who were in front of me. “Help!” They turned around, but there was nothing they could do to stop the man from pulling the trigger.
Then I realized that the guy in front of me was showing me his police badge. I had not noticed it before because my eyes were focused only on the gun in his hand.
He told me to come with him so he could run a background check. “I did not do anything officer” I screamed. “Why did you pull me over? I was just telling my friends to get out of the street…”
“Because you looked suspicious. It looked like you were trying to sell your friends some drugs.” was his response.
He sent another officer to grab my friends. We all walked over to the cop car together to be questioned. During the questioning, I was somewhat combative. I kept asking, “Why?” and repeating the fact I did nothing wrong.
As a result of this, one of my friends and I were handcuffed together. When our background checks came back clear, I swore that I would stay away from New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
A decade would pass by before I step foot on that street again during that time of the year.
One cold winter night, I was making a left turn out of a Walmart parking lot. As soon as I completed the corner, I saw a set of red and blue lights flashing brightly behind me. I had forgotten to turn my lights on, so I was guilty of doing something wrong this time.
The officer behind me motioned me to pull over so I obeyed his command by turning into the closest parking lot I could find. As soon as the officer stepped out of the car, two more cop cars decided to join him on the scene
The first thing out of one of their mouths was, “Usually when someone has their car lights turned off; they are a drug dealer. Give me your driver’s license and insurance so we can run your record.”
I was taken aback by his comment because I have never sold drugs. After running my record, it came back clean, and I headed home.
You must dread seeing police officers. Do you feel like you have to act differently than the majority community around police?
I would not say that I dread seeing police officers, but I am definitely a bit more cautious around them. As I mentioned above, I have the utmost respect for the police officer who does his or her job well, which is to protect and serve.
The majority of police officers, in my opinion, are good people who just want to get home to their families. My paternal grandfather was the police chief of a small, rural town called St. Gabriel, La.
Furthermore, there have been times where a policeman has helped me out.
For example, one day a police officer helped me change my flat tire on Southern University’s campus. Another gave me a boost when my car broke down on LSU’s campus.
At the end of the day, officers are people, and it is never a good idea to generalize because no group is monolithic.
I remember being deeply disturbed by the death of Alton Sterling, along with Deputy Brad Garafola, Officer Matthew Gerald, and Corporal Montrell Jackson here in Baton Rouge, La two years ago. That was an incredibly difficult time for the Baton Rouge community.
What lessons did you learn growing up in poverty and how have you applied them?
While growing up in poverty, I can say that I learned two critical lessons:
- Without education, you’re not going anywhere in this world
- Stealth wealth is a significant key to financial success
When I was growing up in the projects, one year I was in danger of failing a grade because I was reading at a level below my peers. My mom fixed that issue by using a questionable pedagogical method (she whipped my behind). She forced me to read and summarize articles and made me look up vocabulary words I did not know the meaning of.
I’ve applied this lesson by becoming a lifelong learner. My mom is the reason why I am a voracious reader. If you let her tell it, she is the reason why I know how to write today.
Not to be outdone by my mother, my father would encourage this habit by purchasing my siblings, and I books to read for Christmas. I practice that continues today.
While growing up in a low-income environment, I saw that a lot of people were concerned with the appearance of being rich. To be honest, I desired to have the latest version of Jordan sneakers myself. I remember wearing a pair or two after begging my mom to purchase me some, so I could be “cool” and fit into my peer group.
My father, on the other hand, did not believe in purchasing brand name shoes for himself. He was not concerned with appearing wealthy to others. As a child, I remember him telling me these incredibly lame stories about how he wore one pair of tennis shoes until they fell apart.
In addition to not caring about shoes, my father never spent money on new cars; he would purchase used cars from a mechanic he trusted.
Instead of spending money on those items, the majority of his money went towards supporting my siblings and I. He invested heavily in our educations and took us on family vacations during the summer.
Unfortunately, I did not follow in his frugal footsteps. That is the main reason why I ended up broke.
I am applying this principle now by limiting the number of depreciating assets I purchase and being more intentional with how I spend my money.
What encouragement would you offer anyone who grew up in similar circumstances to you?
I would encourage anyone who grew up in similar circumstances to me to honor their mother and father. Although growing up in a sometimes abusive household was not ideal, my parents always provided my siblings and me with unconditional love and support.
Beyond that, I would encourage anyone who grew up in a similar environment to never feel inferior to anyone.
Whenever I start to feel inferior to someone, a quote by Carter G. Woodson puts things in perspective for me. In the Miseducation of the Negro, Carter writes, “If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”
While the mindset piece is essential, I also think it is equally important to challenge injustices within the system such as:
- Housing discrimination
- Loan discrimination
- Racial disparities within the criminal justice system
The first step in challenging these injustices is acknowledging the fact that they exist. The next step is having a conversation about them.
Things are changing for the better. Louisiana voters recently scrapped a Jim Crow-Era split jury law. We have come a long way in this country, but we still have a long ways to go! I believe it is possible for us to get along and make this world a better place for everyone, regardless of their background.
Whether we like it or not, we are all apart of the human family. Let’s rise together.
Thanks, Jerry, for sharing your story so transparently. I admire the attitude you have in spite of the challenges you faced growing up and as an adult. I hope your story offers encouragement to anyone who finds themselves in similar circumstances.
You beat long odds to get where you are. I look forward to continuing to follow your journey as you do even bigger and better things.
Now it's your turn. Did what happen to Jerry at Mardi Gras surprise you? Have you experienced something similar to this? If so, how did you handle it? If you grew up poor and overcame it, please share your story.