Segun Akinsanya

I spent my teens running with street gangs. They gave me a sense of power and belonging that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Then I got into a knife fight in a Coffee Time bathroom—and the other guy wound up dead

Iwas born in December 1987 in Lagos, Nigeria. My parents gave me a traditional Nigerian name: Oluwasegun Olufemi Akinsanya. Oluwasegun (Segun for short) means “God will help me conquer,” Olufemi means “God will have mercy,” and Akinsanya translates as “warrior who gets revenge.” When I think about my name now, I believe it meant my destiny was written: that I would go down a dark path, fail, and find redemption. I’m still working on that last part.

When I was two, our family moved to Canada and settled in rural Quebec—all trees and open farmland. My dad, Johnson, was a chemist who got his degree at the University of Waterloo and later ran a water filtration business in St. Bernardin. My mom, Mosunmola, pursued a nursing degree. Our house was huge, at the end of a long, winding driveway. We had to drive to a nearby farm to pick up our eggs, and our neighbours had two cows that I called John and Deere. For our first few years in Canada, it all went well. I won math awards at school and learned how to play chess with my sister. My dad would make me write essays when I got home—education was very important to him. He wanted me to become a doctor.

Everything changed one weekend in February 1996. My three older sisters and I were home alone when we heard a knock at the door. My sister Morayo answered and found a police officer looking for my dad. He whispered a few words to her, and she dropped to the floor and started screaming. “Mommy’s dead, Mommy’s dead.” It turned out my mom had been driving through a snowstorm on a nearby road—she couldn’t have been going more than 10 kilometres per hour. Another car hit her from behind and knocked her into a ditch, killing her instantly. I was eight years old.

Over the next few years, I acted out at school. First I kept getting detention. Then I was being sent to the principal’s office. Once, when a group of older boys on the school bus called me nigger, I started throwing punches at them. I came home with a bloody lip, and soon, for one reason or another, I was in trouble for fighting practically every week.

By Grade 7, we had moved to an apartment in Toronto, near Victoria Park and O’Connor, so my dad could be closer to a woman he was dating. One day, I walked down a huge grassy hill to the basketball court behind a nearby housing complex. I was trying to make friends, and that was where everyone went after school. I saw a few guys from my class, and when they asked me if I wanted to hang out, I said yes. One guy socked me hard in the nose—and then everyone joined in. They didn’t stop kicking and punching me until I was crying on the ground. Suddenly, everything was fine, and we were back to doing kid stuff. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was an initiation into the crew.

Segun Akinsanya
BOYHOOD The author’s family immigrated to Canada from Lagos, Nigeria, in 1987. Mosunmola and Johnson are shown here with their children, Titi, Abi, Morayo and Segun (in his father’s arms). (Image: Courtesy of Segun Akinsanya)

A few months later, I noticed a man hanging around the neighbourhood. He was a tall, quiet guy—he seemed ancient to me then, but I realize now he was probably in his 20s. We called him Mr. T. He used to give us $5 here and there, or buy us a Big Mac for lunch. He was nice to us. He took care of us. So when he asked me to help him out one day, I jumped at the chance. He gave me and my friend a brown paper bag, and told us to stand outside a convenience store and hand it off to another guy. I didn’t look inside the bag, but I knew it was full of drugs.

We loitered outside the store, and the owner came out to shoo us away. I argued a bit, but eventually I left—and went straight to Mr. T to tell him what happened. He walked back with us to the store and told us to wait outside. Then I watched him go inside and bash the owner’s head on the counter casually, like it was nothing. After a few minutes, the owner came out and apologized to us. It was like magic. One second we were nobody, and the next we had the power. A few weeks later, a bunch of friends and I were caught stealing some yo-yos from another corner store, and the cops brought me home. My dad was so disappointed. Neither of us knew then that it would turn out to be the first of many times I’d end up in the back of a police cruiser.

Cops always talk about getting young black men off the streets. Stopping us before we take that first step. But they have it wrong. Nobody takes a first step into gang activity. Toronto police use the term “gang” to describe anything from four boys playing dice on the corner to a full-fledged Hells Angels crew. I don’t like the word. What they’re really referring to is a group of people banding together—opportunists without opportunities. There are an estimated 6,000 kids involved in gang activity in the GTA, but these groups are a lot smaller than many people think. And they’re not organized into intricate hierarchies like you see on TV. Most of them are based on where people live, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods or community housing complexes. Lots of these crews don’t even think of themselves as gangs—they’re just a bunch of guys trying to get by.

I entered that world in the summer before Grade 9, when my family moved to a townhouse near Morningside and Lawrence. My dad was still running his business in Quebec, and he was travelling so much for work that I barely saw him. I felt like I didn’t have anyone in my life. The summer before high school began, I met a kid my age—I’ll call him Michael—at the local community centre. (I’ve changed his name and a few others to protect their anonymity.) I was in awe of Michael. His pants were perfectly baggy, creased and tucked into his socks. His parents had good jobs, and he would always have the new Air Force 1 Nikes. We hung out all the time, smoking weed and playing Cee-lo, a dice game. By the time I started school in September, I was smoking and gambling every day.

I quickly discovered that Michael’s older brothers were associates of the Galloway Boys. The gang formed in the late ’80s, and over the next three decades was involved in drug trafficking, gun running and prostitution. I wanted to be just like them, so I started wearing gang insignia—including blue bandanas, the Galloway trademark—as a way to let the world know I was part of it, too. I used to walk around with a baseball bat to intimidate people. I didn’t even need to use it: just holding it was enough for me to feel powerful. I didn’t want to be that good guy doing his homework in the corner. He was invisible. I wanted people to see me. And for the first time, they did. I was popular.

One day, I was walking down the street with Michael and another friend when we saw a kid with a nice CD player. So we snatched it, pawned it, bought McDonald’s for dinner, and saved the rest for dice. That night, at home, a cop came knocking on my door—the kid had reported the theft, and Michael and our other friend had snitched on me. I was the new guy in the neighbourhood, the lowest on the totem pole. It was my job to take the fall for them. I got house arrest and one year’s probation.

It was my first criminal charge. I should have been terrified, but back then, it didn’t faze me. It was a street stripe—it helped boost my reputation. Guys were more afraid of me, less likely to start a fight. And we were always fighting. If you didn’t retaliate, you were a punk, a baby. Guys would even flash guns on school property. Once, I was at a party in Cataraqui, a housing complex near Warden and Danforth. We were outside smoking a joint, when about 30 guys from a rival gang showed up, and one had something in his hand. Just as I registered that it was a gun, I heard a pop. I ran as fast as I could, jumped over a fence into a field and sprinted all the way back to Warden station. Only then did I realize my shirt was ripped and I was bleeding. I’d been grazed by the bullet.

I skipped school one day toward the end of Grade 9 to play dice with three Galloway Boys in one of their basements. Within an hour, I’d lost $1,700. I’m sure they set me up. I didn’t have the money, so every day for the next month, when I saw these guys at school, I’d give them a payment of something, anything I could scrounge together. They didn’t even have to threaten me; I knew what happened to people who didn’t pay back what they owed. They’d get beaten, robbed, sometimes even shot. I would do whatever it took to clear my debt.

Soon, I was robbing people with my friends from the neighbourhood. You know those subway rats, who loiter at Kennedy, Vic Park and Main stations? That was us. We’d target anyone with money or nice stuff—stereos, headphones, shoes, glasses, anything we thought we could pawn. It was easy: there were enough of us to just swarm somebody and pounce. We’d flash a knife, maybe grab them or push them around. Sometimes we just threatened to beat them up; other times we went through with it. Most people never screamed or resisted: they just handed over their stuff. The police only got involved if the TTC collector saw what happened and reported it. I used my take to pay back my gambling debt.

My family didn’t stay long in Scarborough. My dad married his girlfriend, and just before I started Grade 10 we all moved to Whitby, where I attended Father Leo J. Austin, a Catholic high school. As a kid from Galloway, I had instant cred. I told my new friends about all the stuff I’d done, all the people I’d robbed. To kids in the suburbs where this stuff rarely happened, I seemed cool. Before, I was a follower, but now people turned to me as a leader, and I liked it. There weren’t any power players in Whitby. The guys I met were looking for somebody to follow. Everyone was always turning to me, asking me what to do. They called me Young’un.

One night, a bunch of us were at a house party in Whitby, and a beautiful girl came in on the arm of a guy from another school. My friends decided they didn’t like that she was dating him—it was like, “How did he get her?” They wanted to do something about it, but they needed my say-so. So we jumped the guy. Later, over MSN messenger, he said he wanted to fight me. Galloway thinking popped back into my head: I knew I couldn’t back down. The next day, I skipped school with my friends. I was so popular by this point that half the school left with us. I was like the Pied Piper—a whole line of kids snaked behind me, eager to watch the fight. When I got to this guy’s school, he came out shaking, but I was revved up. I saw his fear. “You can either fight me or embarrass yourself,” I told him. He backed away, and I knew it was over. He’d chosen humiliation. I told him to take off his pants and left him outside in his boxers. Then, my friends told him he needed to pay me $50 twice a month for the trouble he’d caused.

He called the police and exaggerated the story—in his version, I’d pulled a knife and threatened to kill him. The next day, I was arrested at school, and charged with extortion, possession of a weapon, threatening death and violating my probation. I was sentenced to three more years of probation and 150 hours of community service. My dad was furious. He grounded me and forbade me from hanging around with those “street boys,” as he called them. It didn’t matter. He was still working and travelling a lot, and I took advantage of that. As soon as he left, I was gone—back out with my friends, smoking weed, causing trouble. My three older sisters—straight-A students, all of them—were sad about my behaviour, but they weren’t surprised. It seemed normal to them that a young black guy would act that way.

After six months in Whitby, my school’s vice-principal suspended me for the rest of the semester for being drunk at school—he said I was a bad influence on my peers. While my sisters were preparing for university, I was starting Grade 11 at Durham Alternative Secondary School, or DASS, in Oshawa. It’s where kids go when they’ve been kicked out of the regular school stream. At DASS, we only went to school for half a day. Most of us took two classes, max. If you took three classes, you were a nerd. They didn’t teach us much—mostly cooking and crafts. We had to take English and math to earn a diploma, but the academic expectations were much lower than at a regular school. I spent a lot of my time there gambling, smoking weed and trying to hook up with girls. I hated it there. It seemed like a place they dumped kids the system had given up on.

I was walking home with some new friends one day when I spotted the kid I’d stripped and embarrassed—the one who reported me to the police. I told my friends who he was and how he’d lied about me to the cops. They ended up chasing him down the street to his house, where he ran inside. When I got home, I saw a police cruiser outside of my house. My heart sank. I ended up pleading guilty to violation of probation and was sentenced to 30 days at Brookside, a juvenile detention centre in Cobourg.

The day I was released, my dad and sisters were supposed to come get me. Three or four hours passed, and nobody showed up, so I took the bus home. When I got to my house, I found it all locked up, with an eviction notice posted on the front door. I broke in and realized my family hadn’t been there for a while: the heat was off and the fridge was full of rotten food. I couldn’t reach my family, and I just snapped. I stole the keys to my dad’s van, which was still there, and used it to go visit some friends. We decided I needed to hustle to make money, so we planned a string of robberies—we stole drugs and around $2,000 in cash from three or four drug dealers.

I slept at my abandoned house and crashed with friends for about a week before my oldest sister, Morayo, finally called me. She said my dad’s diabetes had gotten bad and he was too sick to work, so he’d gone to live with one of our aunts. Then my sisters had moved out. They figured I’d be fine. Segun can take care of himself, they thought. My sister Abi, who was studying health management at York, agreed to let me move in with her at her apartment near Jane and Finch. No regular schools would take me, so I enrolled at Monsignor Fraser, another alternative school. Just like DASS, it focused on life skills instead of academics. I was back to cooking breakfast for class credit.

When I first started running with gangs in Grade 9, it was so I could be cool, so I could fit in. By the time I became involved in gang activity near Jane and Finch, it was because I didn’t see another option. I thought maybe, if I made some quick money, I could become a real estate mogul. I started selling drugs, mostly weed and coke, some ecstasy. I even tried cooking crack. My friends and I were always planning. Plotting. Smoking weed and thinking about our big hit—the one that would make us enough money to stop. As a small-time drug dealer, I was barely making minimum wage; you have to sell a lot of dime bags to get rich. In the year I was living at Jane and Finch, I only earned about $15,000. I spent it on a 1992 Nissan Altima. I didn’t want to sell heroin, or meth, or large quantities of weed. You have to decide where you draw the line, and when you’re moving hard drugs, you have to be prepared to die—or to kill someone in an instant. I couldn’t do that to my family.

At this point, I wasn’t in any specific gang—I was friends with a lot of different crews. And most of my friends were carrying guns. One day, early in 2006, I was at my friend Tyler’s apartment, and he was cleaning his gun. He asked me if I wanted to hold it. I’d seen a lot of guns. I’d seen people threaten to shoot. I’d been shot myself. But I’d never had my own gun. It was a 20-gauge pump shotgun. When I shoved it down my pants, it went from my hip past my knee. I thought, Now I know why we limp. I asked Tyler if I could borrow it, and he agreed that we could share it. It was just like when I was 14 and carried a baseball bat: it made me feel powerful. Guns are made to take things. And that’s how I used mine. While I never shot it, I always flashed it when I was robbing drug dealers. I thought I was untouchable. I soon realized I wasn’t.

Segun Akinsanya
STREET LIFE The author pictured in 2005, a year before he was convicted of manslaughter in the stabbing death of Danilo Celestino. (Image: Facebook)

On April 20, 2006, I finished an English exam at school and went searching for some weed—it was Bob Marley Day. I met up with some friends at Downsview Collegiate and walked to a Coffee Time at the corner of Keele and Wilson. My friend Nathan saw Danilo Celestino, a 17-year-old kid he knew who he thought might have some weed for sale. When we walked to the bathrooms to make a deal, I went in and Nathan stood outside to guard the door. Before negotiating, Celestino asked me about the people I knew. I was friends with somebody who had beaten his friend with a metal pipe for trying to rob his car. Things quickly got heated between us—we argued about the pipe incident, whose fault it was. I turned to leave. “Fuck this shit,” I said.

Suddenly I felt like I’d been punched in the head, twice. He’d stabbed me in the back of my neck, close to my cerebellum. I turned around to see he was holding a knife with a dragon handle. It was covered in blood. I don’t remember what happened next, not really. I remember him coming at me with the bloody knife. We fought, and I got the blade. I ended up stabbing him three times; I learned later that one of the cuts sliced his aorta. He staggered outside the Coffee Time and crumpled on the ground.

Nathan came running into the bathroom and told me we had to go. I remember looking in the mirror. I had on a white Mickey Mouse hoodie—it was now red, soaked through with blood. Nathan shouted at me to move. I splashed some water on my face, grabbed the knife off the ground and ran. At that moment, nothing was registering. I was in shock—I couldn’t believe what I’d done. As I ran away up Wilson, I saw a cop driving down to the coffee shop. We made eye contact as she drove by. Then I was gone.

I dumped my bloody hoodie in the park, then raced to a friend’s house. I didn’t want to go home. I turned on CP24, where the incident had made breaking news. They were reporting that Celestino had been rushed to the hospital. For a moment, I was hopeful: maybe he’d be okay. I kept watching the news, feeling sick to my stomach as I waited to hear more about Celestino. My face was soaked in sweat, and I could barely breathe. After a few minutes, my friend called and told me he’d heard Celestino was dead.

I didn’t want to believe it—I knew my life was about to change forever. I went to the park and sat on a bench, trying to figure out my next move. For a few days, I waited. Even though I knew I’d have to turn myself in, I wanted to put it off as long as possible. I went to class. I took my exams. But I couldn’t think about anything other than what I had done. Four days later, I found out the police had security footage from the Coffee Time before the fight. My time was up.

My lawyer believed the Crown would charge me with manslaughter. I was shocked to find out that they’d slapped me with second-degree murder, which means they thought the act was premeditated. I was facing a potential life sentence. The court sent me to Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton for a few months, and then to the Don Jail while I waited for trial.

The Don was just as bad as I’d always heard: grey, rusty and overcrowded. The other prisoners mostly left me alone, because my charge, second-degree murder, gave me a certain amount of respect. I was lucky that my cellmate liked me—he was happy to have someone he could play chess with. He was also violent: he’d been fighting so much that the warden had sent him to solitary for a few weeks before I got there. He wasn’t back in the cell for long before he retaliated against another inmate—the guy was supposed to sell drugs for him but stole them instead. People smuggle all sorts of things into jail: heroin, coke, oxy, weed, hash, anything. I even heard about people smuggling gun parts into the Don, stuffing them up their asses. My cellmate used his pull with the guards to get the inmate he was after, who was a drug addict, transferred to our block. He and some of his friends yanked the guy out of his cell shortly after, and beat him, badly. They pissed on the guy, then took paper towels and rolled them into wicks, lit them and burned him all over. By the time they dumped him back in his cell, he was covered in blood. He lived, but barely. All of us in the range were confined to our cells for a week.

I’d been in custody for 13 months when 15-year-old Jordan Manners was shot dead at C. W. Jefferys near Jane and Finch. The public was clamouring for a crackdown on street violence. My crime had made all the papers, and the Crown wanted to make an example of me. If I went to trial, they said they’d get my friends to turn on me. There was a good chance I’d be convicted. Or I could take a plea: they were willing to settle for manslaughter, with a five-year sentence, including the time I’d served awaiting trial. That meant I’d be in prison two years and 10 months, max. I didn’t want to risk a life sentence. I pleaded guilty.

The hearing was surreal. I think about it every day. All of the victim’s friends and family—his parents, his brother, his cousin—filled up one side of the courtroom. The other was packed with school kids who were there on a field trip to learn about the judicial system. Celestino’s family read victim impact statements. His mom sobbed through her words, talking about how her son had hoped to start a career as a computer technician and how he’d volunteered to help with Pope John Paul II’s Toronto visit in 2002. His dad, who’d moved the family to Canada from the Philippines, lamented how hard he’d worked to make sure his kids would have a future.

I did my time at Fenbrook, a medium-security prison in Gravenhurst that’s now part of Beaver Creek. It looked like a big college campus. There were five ranges around a circle, and in the middle, there was a soccer field, community centre, gym, library, programming room and barbershop. There was even a grocery store and a wood shop where you could build furniture. It didn’t seem so bad at first.

I relied on the same old power structures. I used my conviction as a street stripe. But as the weeks went by, I fell into a depression. My dad was still sick, so he couldn’t visit me very often, and my sisters were busy with school. I was all alone. At one point, I remember talking on the phone with an old girlfriend and telling her I felt like I’d died. Like the old me was gone. I was still just thinking about myself.

One day, after I’d been in jail for about a year, my dad came to visit. I hadn’t seen him in a few months, and his health had improved. It seemed like everything had changed between us—for the first time, he treated me like a man, not a wayward kid. He walked outside with me, his hands behind his back, telling me he could help me change, but only if I wanted to. At the same time, I started meeting every few days with a priest who worked at the prison. We’d talk for hours about my past. The mistakes I’d made. The person I wanted to become.

Throughout all this, I’d been attending anger management sessions as part of my sentence. One day, I was talking to my facilitator, who was giving us exercises for controlling our frustration. When he told me to count to 10, something bubbled up inside me and I just lost it. I thought, He doesn’t even know why I’m angry! He doesn’t know what led me here. At that moment, I realized that neither did I. I needed to sit down and think about what I had gone through. Many young men in jail had faced the same barriers as I did. If I figured out where I went wrong, maybe I could help myself and others like me.

For the next six months, I became obsessed with writing a manual based on my own experience—a book that would help kids avoid getting into trouble. I conducted written surveys, asking fellow inmates what happened to bring them to incarceration. I was looking for common threads. And I found them: peer pressure, single-parent households, racism, low incomes, getting shunted around the education system, precarious housing. We were all just living up to our own stereotypes. I wanted to break the cycle.

I made a decision: as soon as I got out, I would look into launching programs for marginalized kids. I turned my manual into a curriculum that I could teach once I was released. It outlined three levels of criminal activity. There are the kingpins, who commit robberies and kidnappings, who are involved in drug and gun smuggling, and embody a “kill or be killed” mentality. There are the Scarfaces, who deal some drugs, steal cars and have a sense of invincibility. And there are the soldiers, who follow the crowd, commit minor thefts and buy drugs for personal use. I developed a curriculum to give kids the training they’d need to make better lives for themselves. They’d meet with reformed criminals and survivors of violence to learn about the impact on both perpetrators and prey. They’d learn leadership skills and take career-aptitude tests. They’d spend time with prisoners and ex-cons to see how they live and reintegrate back into society. I counted down the days until I could get out of prison and begin teaching my program. For the first time in my life, I was filled with hope and purpose.Segun Akinsanya

AFTER PRISON The author working with kids at Bright Future Alliance; at Currant with colleagues Nahum Mann and Presley Durga. (Images: Bright Future Alliance courtesy of Segun Akinsanya; Current by Luis Mora)
I made parole in February 2009, at age 21, after two years in prison. When Abi came to pick me up, I did a backflip in front of the jail. I remember looking back at the gates thinking, Wow, I was in there. As we drove along the rural roads near the jail, my brain was on autopilot: I’m free, I’m free, I’m free. We stopped for a Subway sandwich, and she bought me a new pair of shoes. That day, I moved in with my dad in King City, north of Toronto. It was my first time living with him since he got sick when I was 16.

I was still committed to my youth program, which I named Bright Future Alliance. For the first few weeks, I was on the computer every day, emailing philanthropic organizations, community centres and social justice workers about my idea, and I carried my 60-page program manual with me everywhere in a briefcase my family bought me. After a few months of cold calls and knocking on doors, I hooked up with an organization in Markham called Pathways, which later changed its name to 360 Degree Kids. They gave me the opportunity to run my first program: a martial arts class for youth ages 14 to 25. From there I was introduced to the Remix Project, a United Way partner that does programming for marginalized youth in underserved communities in the GTA.

At first, I kept in touch with a lot of my old friends. I thought I could maintain those relationships while still moving forward. My buddy Nathan brought a few girls to see me in King City one day. The whole time driving up, he’d bragged about what I’d done—he thought it would impress them. By the time they got to my house, he’d finished the story. They were horrified: they called me a murderer and took the bus home. It was heartbreaking. I wanted to move on—to be defined by something good—and Nathan was glorifying his association with me to gain credibility in the ’hood. I was more careful after that. I needed to cut those ties.

My first big break came in December 2009 from one of my mentors at the Laidlaw Foundation, which supports youth-run projects. One of my grant applications was successful, and they gave me $5,000 to run a pilot program. They said, “Let’s see what you can do.” It wasn’t much, and yet it was everything. I dropped to my knees and cried. I used the money to start a life skills program on Tuesdays and Thursdays for kids in my old neighbourhood at Vic Park and Eglinton. Around the same time, I enrolled in U of T’s bridging stream at Woodsworth College. I’d received my high school diploma in prison, but the course would help me get into university.

Soon, Bright Future Alliance received two more Laidlaw grants, for $25,000 and $35,000, which we used for our education programs. I was teaching in schools and running event-leadership seminars. Then came a $10,000 City of Toronto grant, from the Identify ’N Impact Investment Fund. Then a $5,000 Telus grant. I used it all to expand my programs: I was teaching kids how to transcend stereotypes and build their social capital.

But while my business was growing, I was struggling to keep the rest of my life afloat. I needed to make money—all my grant funding was going toward keeping my programs alive. For the longest time, I couldn’t find work. Interviewers liked me until I told them I was on parole for manslaughter. I applied for one job at a call centre, and as soon as it was done, the interviewer asked me when I could start. When I told him my backstory, he went to speak with his boss, then said he’d get back to me. He never did. And that’s how it always went. There were times I was broke. I was on and off welfare. I wasn’t eating very much. And I was depressed. I thought I’d never be able to escape my past.

After two years, I was appointed to a provincial advisory board called Stepping Stones, designed to help young people with their social and emotional development. Through that experience, I met members of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, an organization that works to address racism in the court system. They put me forward for a job opportunity with the clinic’s Youth Justice Education Program, which had received $2 million in funding to hire eight young men who would work with at-risk youth. In March 2012, I got the position—my first paying job. When my new boss called to tell me, I just cried on the phone.

The job gave me the boost I needed. It was so strange being on the other side. Some days, I was required to go to court with my team. I sat at the front of the courthouse with the lawyers—for once, I wasn’t one of the accused. We even travelled to Ghana to learn about the slave trade; it was my first time on a plane. The legal clinic paid off my student debt so I could start my BA in human geography at U of T. They also gave me a gym pass and medical benefits. I got a side gig selling branded credit cards at the mall, and I finally had enough money to buy myself a new car.

A few years ago, I teamed up with two other entrepreneurs: Nahum Mann, who ran a program called Youth Nation, and Ameen Binwalee, who founded Out of the Box, an organization for marginalized kids. We joined forces to form a co-op called Currant. We received a $25,000 Ontario Trillium Grant from the Youth Opportunities Fund to start a trades program, and participated in a two-day celebrity basketball game and artist showcase at Maple Leaf Gardens, which raised another $25,000. Around that time, someone from a charity called Working Women Community Centre reached out, inviting us to come work out of the Victoria Village Hub, a community space at Vic Park and Eglinton. It wasn’t cheap— $2,500 per month—but we took it. (Working Women was eventually able to help subsidize our rent.) We turned it into a workspace where we offer resources for local entrepreneurs. I work with amazing people who inspire me every day. Together, we’re helping others contribute to the health of their communities and giving those on the fringes a chance to succeed. In February, for example, we’re holding an event called the 6 Social at the Royal Conservatory of Music, designed to help kids improve their lives by using social media and technology.

At age 28, I wouldn’t say I’m “successful” in any conventional sense of the word. I’m struggling emotionally and financially—the work isn’t easy, and neither is life. I wish Danilo Celestino didn’t have to lose his life so I could find mine. But my career gives me a larger purpose. People always ask me if I’d change what happened, and I say no; you can’t change the past, but you can create your future. I’m alive today so I can share my story and heal. It’s been a long journey. My whole life I’ve wanted to be part of something bigger, but I always sought that out in negative ways. Now I’m part of something important and productive. I’m defined by something good.