After immigrating to the United States with his family at the age of ten, Jim St. Germain was met with the harsh reality that his hoped-for better life seemed nowhere to be found. But, after ending up in the juvenile justice system at fifteen, his life took a positive turn, defying the statistics of many children in similar circumstances. ABA Law Student Podcast host Meg Steenburgh talks with Jim about his book, A Stone of Hope: A Memoir, learning how mentors played a critical role in helping him forge a new path and eventually co-found Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring to at-risk youth in Brooklyn, NY.
Jim St. Germain is an author, speaker, and cofounder of Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT). Recently, Jim was a co-author of The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America.
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ABA Law Student Podcast
Against All Odds: Jim St. Germain’s Journey from Juvenile Delinquency to Community Leader
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Meghan Steenburgh: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I am Meghan Steenburgh, a 1L in Syracuse University’s College of Law, JDi program. This episode is sponsored by NBI. Taught by experienced practitioners. NBI provides practical skill-based CLE courses attorneys have trusted more than 35 years.
Discover what NBI has to offer at nbi-sems.com. Today, we are honored to speak with Jim St. Germain. Mr. St. Germain is the co-founder of Plot Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, which is a non-profit organization that provides mentoring to at-risk youth. He holds an associate degree in human services from the borough of Manhattan Community College and a Bachelor of Arts Degree and Political Science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is on the Board of the National Juvenile Defender Center and was appointed by President Obama to the coordinating council on juvenile justice delinquency prevention.
Mr. St. Germain is an author, storyteller and motivational speaker whose work encompasses issues related to criminal justice mentoring mental health, substance abuse, education and poverty. Mr. St. Germain is also the co-author of a newly released book, The Good Immigrant, and a memoir, A Stone of Hope, recently held by President Obama.
Mr. St. Germain has written and co-directed every nine hours, which tackles police shootings in the united states. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Jim St. Germain: Thank you Meg. I really appreciate you having me and I appreciate the great and undeserving introduction.
Meghan Steenburgh: Oh, I disagree, so very deserving. Truly an honor to have you with us to talk about your story and help provide guidance and wisdom to present and future lawyers and judges and yours is a story that I feel needs to be heard.
I finished your book, your memoir, A Stone of Hope, yesterday.
Jim St. Germain: Thank you.
Meghan Steenburgh: And your strength and determination despite everything pushing against you is just so inspiring. I encourage everyone to read this. Let’s walk through your journey. Let’s start in Haiti, where you were born. Because life there certainly sets the stage unimaginable, really, in so many ways.
Jim St. Germain: Yeah. So, as a kid growing up in Haiti, I — as you’ve mentioned, life is extremely challenging. I grew up with my dad and my mother. Left the family at a young age. They were having domestic violence issues and she left so my dad was left to raise the four of us on his own, and being a single dad in Haiti where resources are scarce, 70% of the population is unemployed. I grew up in a house where it was sort of like a thin foyer shack with one bed and there was about nine of us in there. And so, we were all on top of each other. No running water, no restrooms and food was almost a luxury. So, that was the first 10 years of my life and at the same time, it was in many ways the best 10 years of my life. Because there was a level of safety in Haiti that do not exist here for me and I didn’t know that at the time as a kid. There was also a community that regardless of who you were, we all belong to the same group of people. So, anyone can discipline you, anyone can love you, anyone can mentor you and anyone can feed you.
It was all about the collective and not the individual. So, the idea of rugged individualism which I think is a big part of the American way of life was not necessarily true in Haiti. It was a community, it was collective. Some of my friends tell me that it was more like what a Kibbutz would be in Israel minus the resources. And as a kid, the one promise that was made to us was America.
America was the place to be, the place to go. It was heaven on earth. That’s how we saw it on TV when we watch Home Alone with Kevin. Seeing that his hardest job was keeping Joe Pesci out of his two-million-dollar homes. I thought that coming to this country, me and my siblings would have the same problems, that our main job was going to be keeping Joe Pesci out of our two-million-dollar suburban homes.
And when I landed here at a young age and I landed in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the reality was completely different from what I saw on TV. I often say that I was promised Home Alone, instead I got the wire. And as a kid, it’s really challenging for you to come into a new country where now everything is faster, bigger, you were accustomed to being around, everyone that looks like you, had the same as you, speak the same language and understand the world the way you do to now being in a world where in one apartment building you can have 150 nationalities living in there on top of each other and all of a sudden now there was drugs everywhere, there’s guns everywhere, there’s broken schools, there are police.
And as a kid, none of this makes sense to your brain in terms of how you maneuver in that world and how you find safety and how you make it out of that trap. And that was especially true because I did not understand how the ghetto which I came into and most of the people that looked like me living, I didn’t understand how it became to be. I didn’t know how it was created. And because I didn’t know how it was created, it was even harder for me to fight and trying to get through it and make it to the other side.
Meghan Steenburgh: And to recognize from your memoir, I think you said it was that five square blocks was also the extent to your knowledge. So you didn’t even know what was through to the other side other than what you saw in a movie.
Jim St. Germain: Not at all. As a matter of fact, when I got in trouble with Deloin and was accepted into a group home in Park Slope, which is literally a 10-minute walk. You walk through the park, you ended up on Park Slope, which is a predominantly wealthy white neighborhood. It was a completely different world to me. Had never seen that before. And as a matter of fact, even when I first got to Crown Street, I live on Crown and Nostrand and right across the street, there was the Orthodox Jewish Community, right?
So, there were home ownership on that side. It seems like they had control over the affairs. They were businesses booming. They had their own schools. They had their own world within our, right?
So, that start contrast, right? The disparity was one of the first things that greeted me when I got to Crown Street, it was right across the street from me and it was even harder to understand because we didn’t have a relationship with the orthodox community. It was very tight-knit community. So, the idea of these two — the great divides in New York City was immediately apparent to me as soon as I got off the plane.
Meghan Steenburgh: So, you recognize them as racial disparities as well or socioeconomic or how did you recognize that that’s different from what I have. Did you see it as a racial issue at that point in time?
Jim St. Germain: Back then Meg, I wasn’t as aware — sorry I’m calling you Meg.
Meghan Steenburgh: Please do.
Jim St. Germain: I wasn’t as aware of American history as I am now. Remember, I am from a country that is black and it was the first black independent nation on earth and I grew up learning about black power, black sovereignty, black independence, black brilliance.
Despite the poverty and the struggles, I always knew that power looked black to me as a kid and we were taught that and it was a proud history. We were taught that we were the first country to defeat the napoleon really vicious army at the time. And that allowed me to carry a lot of pride with me even though when things were tough, I knew that I came from a place of greatness.
So, when I got to the US, when I saw those disparities, I at the time did not think to myself, oh, it was because of race but I knew that the people who had more across the street from me were white, obviously. But I didn’t fully understand the political aspect and the concept of whiteness at that time. It was just that, oh, those people are different. Not only they’re white but they’re Orthodox Jews, right? So, that’s a whole another layer of complication for 12- or 11-year-old boy to understand.
I had to make sense of the hats. So many things I didn’t know. So, in that sense, it was the most extreme side of the two world in some ways because it was right across from me but there was no contact and no communication. I was only used or needed when it was Sabbath and they couldn’t turn the lights on or the stove. And most of my friends would say no, but I would say yes because I wanted to see inside of their houses. I wanted to see why they had more than we did.
And so, I was always a curious kid which has been I think to me the most important gift that I possess is that I’m curious. I always want to learn. And so, that’s what it was for me most. So, I didn’t understand it as I do now.
Meghan Steenburgh: So, you mentioned that independent black power that you grew up with in Haiti. Do you think that also helped you survive because you felt that independence and you didn’t join a gang. You knew that that was, I think as you said, why would I follow some stranger, right?
Jim St. Germain: Yes, right. Yes and you know what else it did, which I think was critical in addition to that to what you just referred the leadership aspect. The other thing it did for me is I never had the inferiority complex which a lot of African Americans grew up with in this country. I mean, imagine this, if you’re a young black kid in this nation, everything that looks powerful looks right and everything that looks powerless looks black, right? And that’s your relationship. So, the people that seems to be your oppressors, the police officers, whoever they are, the people who are in charge of the institutions they look white. Whereas for me in Haiti, I didn’t have that.
So, in some ways, when I came here I saw myself as equal to white people, which then allowed me to open up a little bit more when I met like Marty or Christine or Ms. Olivia, (00:11:14) and so on and so forth.
Meghan Steenburgh: Some of your mentors, yeah.
Jim St. Germain: Right. Because in some ways I never closed myself off to those individuals because I didn’t grow up seeing them as my oppressor for the first 10 years of my life, which I think accounts for a lot.
Whether it was them directly or the system but the bottom line is that I didn’t grow up seeing that level of divide as a kid in Haiti and I think that really allowed me to open myself up to learn about other people and other culture and especially as I was going through the juvenile justice system.
Meghan Steenburgh: So, let’s back up just before that as you said in your memoir, you’re in super tough situations every day where really survival is at its core, at the moment any —
Jim St. Germain: Your life is literally in the balance all the time and that’s not — it’s not hyperbole to say that. I can certainly confirm that.
Meghan Steenburgh: And some of the things that I would have thought were potentially lifesavers you felt placed a further target on your back. For instance, the free lunch system. I think you said you’d rather starve than get in that line because it showed a vulnerability.
Jim St. Germain: Right.
Meghan Steenburgh: And the English is a second language classes. You want it out of there as fast as you could, because again, vulnerability. Some of the things that are systematically set up to “assist”.
Jim St. Germain: Right.
Meghan Steenburgh: Actually don’t for someone like you and your situation where you are trying to survive.
Jim St. Germain: That’s right. So, one of the challenges I think was a lack of resources and poverty and oppression is that it restricts your ability to be the full version of yourself. And what I mean by that is I knew that we didn’t have power where I grew up. So, therefore, we had to define what power meant to us as young boys and young men and some of the things we found power in were completely nonsense, right?
There were clothes, they were sneakers, there were status. They wear the way you wear your hair. The way you wear that sneakers. The way you wear that shirt. Who you know as a friend. Whether you eat free lunch or not, if you eat free lunch what does that say about you it tells the other kids that you’re poor and who wants to be poor when everyone in that group is actually poor, right?
Which is kind of ironic and weird in some ways. We all were poor but you didn’t want someone to think that you were and we didn’t know that as kids but I knew that the cool kids weren’t eating lunch. The kids that weren’t picked up on weren’t eating school lunch. They had money to buy stuff from the vendor machine and in my brain, I quickly realized that okay, if I eat school lunch, then I become a target, right? Because I’m already a target. I’m an immigrant. I don’t speak the language. I don’t dress like all of the kids. I don’t have some of the things they have and then hey I am standing on this line to eat lunch. And so, now, that is a visible marker of oh, he is less than us and when you are in an environment where everyone is trying to survive, right?
There is a saying we use where I’m from, we call it “the crab and the barrel mentality”. Meaning that if you put a bunch of crabs in a barrel when one tried to leave sometimes the other ones pull them back, not because they intentionally just wants to hurt the other crab but it’s just what they know, right? It’s what they know. They’re trying to pull themselves up themselves but as they pull themselves up they pull somebody else down who was on their way out. And so, that is a very real thing where I grew up in Crown Heights.
Because we didn’t have anything. We were really, really, really poor and that is still the case today. So, therefore, we had to create what power and status meant to us and unfortunately, most of the time, it actually compounded our problems than help us. Because we didn’t have the tools, we didn’t have the resources, we didn’t have the road map. And so, what you had is a bunch of 15, 14, 16 year old who have to grow really fast in this world and they have power dynamics issues playing out between them. And usually sometimes, most of that issue and that violence stays within that small group but every now and then it gets out of it and that’s when other people feel unsafe. But it’s always playing out between those of us living in that environment.
Meghan Steenburgh: So, you’ve used this word now a few times even in this conversation and on often in your memoir and you speak of things as gifts.
Jim St. Germain: Yes.
Meghan Steenburgh: One gift that many would not consider to be a gift is an arrest that happened for you four months before your 16th birthday, is that correct? So, you’re 15, 16 you’re treated as an adult in New York, is that correct?
Jim St. Germain: Right. Well, we’ve — fortunately, after years of fighting to change that, we were able to help New York raise the age, which they did. It wasn’t a perfect bill but now as we speak most young people who are 16 and 17 are being tried as juveniles now because of our efforts to lower the age and obviously that was huge for me because as you can imagine if I was just 16, as you were just mentioning, I would have ended up in the adult system in Rikers Island. Who know where I would be today, right?
We know what happened to Khalif Browder who had much of innocent charge than I did who ended up being tortured and killed at Rikers Island. So, I saw that opportunity to join that effort in that fight as a very personal journey for me and as something I can pass on to the other young people coming behind me if they happened to make the mistake.
Meghan Steenburgh: And because you weren’t an adult yet, you were able to take advantage of alternative or an alternate sentencing opportunity. Before we go into that, after your arrest, is this your first exposure then to lawyers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges?
Jim St. Germain: Yes. My first exposure to the system in general lawyers. I mean, I didn’t even know what a lawyer was or a judge or what they do and where did they go to school. I didn’t even know you had to go to law school to become a lawyer. So, these are all things I would find out later on, so yes.
Meghan Steenburgh: And what did you — your defense attorney has handed to you — was that Christine?
Jim St. Germain: Christine Bella, yes.
Meghan Steenburgh: Your first impression. I mean, as you’re standing there thinking what?
Jim St. Germain: I’m thinking what is this white woman knows about my life. What is her job, what is she trying to help, who’s paying her. I didn’t pay her, I didn’t choose her. I was just giving her. Why does she care so much but what I remember about Christine right away was that it was not about the intellect for her it was about the heart. It wasn’t about the brain.
She understood that in order for the brain to follow, she must lead with the heart. That’s how you help kids. Kids have to know that you care before they care how much you know. Especially, the kids who are coming from environments where they’ve been let down so many times by adults who are supposed to care for them and take care of them and Christine is naturally really gifted at that. She’s just a people’s person. She loves humans.
And I sensed that as soon as I met her. On the first day, I knew that about her and when she was getting ready to leave — well I’ll tell you a story. One day, something I wrote about this, I was leaving her office and I think she may have asked me how am I getting home and I matter of fact we just said to her well, I’m going to jump the turn stop. That’s just what we do, we didn’t have money and she said to me, well, jumping the turnstile will bring you right back here.
And so, she gave me like three bucks, one for a — at that time we had tokens. One for a token and one for a slice of pizza. And the truth is that most attorneys probably won’t be able to do that and I’m sure that three dollars was out of her pocket and I’m almost certain she’s done that very same thing for at least 200 other kids, that’s just who she is. But the bottom line was right away, I knew that this person cared and was invested because the other thing is this, my encounter with white people at the time that they were mostly cops.
So, I saw them as people who job was it to kind of like maintain my oppression, lock me up, beat me up, kill me, whatever they needed to do with me. That was my image outside of the Orthodox Jews. That was my image of white people, right? It was the cops. They were the one I came in contact with.
So, Christine was my first interaction with someone who was white but on the other side of that. So they say that first introduction is everything. For her and me, that was certainly true based on the circumstances which we’re talking about. As expected from her, when it was time for her to leave, the juvenile part of the work she was doing at legal aid, she said to me specifically, I want to hand you over to someone that I know would have your best interests at heart and that’s when she passed me on to Marty because she was leaving juveniles to go work with adults. And so, that’s when I met Marty but Christine was my first attorney.
Meghan Steenburgh: And I think you said as well you really felt as though you were treated as a human being and that that was — or was it the judge or that there was a time that you just felt they see me as a human. They’re not seeing me as some statistic to put into the system but rather someone who has a future.
Jim St. Germain: I mean, let’s be honest, the law that made sure that I went to the system was passed in the 1994 Biden And Clinton Bill. That was the bill that was responsible for my arresting — the judge having to send me away because it was crack, cocaine. That was the reality, right? That was the law that did that.
So, I understand that the law wasn’t designed to see humanity in black boys and languages like super predator and so many other languages that were used around the time this law was being passed, certainly played a major role in the psyche of those who are in charge and in power in this legal system and I saw it when I was a kid. I saw it as a staff member working with kids and I see it every day today. I see kids going to a courtroom whereas almost as if the kids do not exist. The judges almost never look at them, talk to them, everybody talks around them, talks about their cases and interestingly enough, I always see this as a great tragedy because here is a child who is at the most vulnerable position in their lives and here are these adults, some trying to help them, some trying to get justice for the victims and then there is the judge, all of them have major power and most of them don’t look like this kid. And I can argue that the way which they treat that kid, the way they look at the kid, talk to the kid, see humanity in the kids, like they see humanities in their own kids who are growing up in the Upper West Side and Park Slope, the same humanity they see in rich white kids.
If they can project some of that into our kids while they sit in a courtroom, while they go through this really cold and inhumane system, I think that is as valuable than the outcome of the case, if not more. Because it tells that kid one thing and one thing for sure is that you matter and you are not your circumstance and you are more than a docket number. And hence why I talked to you the way I do, hence why I look at you the way I do, hence why I addressed you the way that I do and so, I always see it as if — and this is hard to do, right?
Let’s think about a legal aid attorney who is underpaid and have a ton of clients, who stress who’s doing this work because they’re passionate about it and it’s not just for the money and they barely have enough time to look at files and look at evidence and make an argument for some of the clients sometimes. It’s hard because they have so many of these cases. And the idea that they can also make that kid feel like one of their own can possibly seem as a tough and a challenging thing for them. And not every kid may be open for that exchange.
However, I want to emphasize on the fact that those who are listening to this podcast, future lawyers, prosecutors, judges, whoever they may be, I think it’s important for them to understand that the way which they treat that child is as important as the results they get in the legal process.
And I believe that a big part of what helped me was whether it was at MS61 when I met Walton, who was one of my first mentors. What I got from Walton was that I knew I mattered to him. I knew that he loved me. I knew he wanted the best for me, so when Walton tell me to do something then I would listen to him, right? When he tell me that was wrong then I would listen to that because I knew that this man cared about me and that process continue from Walton to Ms. Olio, to some of the guys I grew up with in the neighborhood, to Christine, to Marty, so on and so forth, the connecting tissue was that I’ve always felt that some of these individuals saw more in me than just my docket number or the crime that I was charged with.
Meghan Steenburgh: We are speaking with Jim St. Germain, co-author of The Good Immigrant and author of a memoir, Stone of Hope, we will be right back.
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And we are back with Jim St. Germain, co-founder of plot, co-author of The Good Immigrant and author of a memoir a Stone of Hope. In your alternate sentencing opportunity, you were sentenced with this date to Boys Town?
Jim St. Germain: Right.
Meghan Steenburgh: Talk to us about how Boys Town led you really — I see how boys town led you but it was so much of it was you also being receptive to it. So, I’m having a hard time wearing that because so much of this was you as well but you had another opportunity to change things.
Jim St. Germain: Right. I’ll tell you this, you said something yesterday during our conversation that I thought was telling. You said to me that a lot of this was because of your own strength and your own doing, which I agree with and I also can see how someone else can flip that and said well, if you Jim were able to pull yourself up “by the bootstrap you never had” then every other kid from your neighborhood can do the same thing.
So, I’m always leery to not be the exception and I want to obviously as a human who has an ego, I want to believe that I played a major role in overcoming my challenges and my obstacles and at the same time, I know that the environment is as crucial. Meaning that the neighborhood, the level of resources that were available to us. The difference between Boys Town and Park Slope was just this.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, the medium income was about $15,000 a year. Just 10 minutes over to Park Slope, the medium income is about $95,000 a year. That’s an $80,000 difference. That’s the difference between what I saw in Park Slope, the clean streets, the clean homes, home ownership equity, the extracurricular activities, the karate class, the gyms, the healthy dog foods, the luxury sedans, the vacations, a lot of that was tied to the resources that was available in Park Slope.
And so, when I got to Boys Town, Boys Town had those resources available in addition to the fact that I was in an environment now where I didn’t have to worry about getting killed or being hurt.
So, when you have a young person who is struggling to overcome these obstacles, I think a combination between mentorship and self-will, the ability to look within and said I want better and also the tools and the resources which are available to them. I don’t think it can just be one of those things. I think it’s a combination of many things that helps a young man like myself in Boys Town, one of the things that did so well is they were able to bring all of those three things together. And so, for example, Boys Town had a model where every behavior you exhibit would be attached to some sort of positive or negative consequence.
So, for example, for this conversation I’m having with you, if there was a staff member around when I was in the group home, the staff member would say, “Okay, Jim. You’ll earn a thousand positive points for speaking without cursing.” Something as simple as that, right? They would give me a thousand points speaking without using a curse word. Now, why is that important? Because it incentivized me to use more vocabulary words. In other words, describe my feelings, my anger, whatever it may be without using curse words and that thousand point was then added to the rest of the points that I had earned some other things, and then at the end of each day, we would total it up and if you have 10,000 more positive points than negative points, then you have what we call your privs, your privileges, which then would allow you to have things like cookies and ice cream and to go to the park or go play basketball in the backyard. If you didn’t have enough positive points, then you just have your regular dinner, you have fruit snacks, you would have your vegetables, your water, and then you would have to go to bed.
So, there’s an attached incentive to positive behavior and also negative consequence. Whatever we did was counted in a way that also always give you a chance to come back. So, if you earn negative points and you accept the negative consequence, you always earn half back and that was extremely important because, psychologically, you want a kid to believe that they can overcome this deficit, and Boyce town was really masterful at that and they hired all the people who loved kids and cared about kids.
So, Issa and Damon were the parents that I live with. They had two daughters themselves, two infant daughters at the time when I got to the house. And then, there was myself and five other boys who were from other parts of New York City and we all were living under the same roof in Park Slope, Brooklyn. And the environment they created for us was one that every child should have, but we only had after we got in trouble with the law.
So, in the book, Meg, I described this thing where I call it that I learned quickly when I got to Park Slope that the ghetto, which I grew up in was not a natural phenomenon, right? That it was designed because there’s no way these two neighborhoods can be 10 minutes apart, and they have completely different realities, unless someone believed that the neighborhood, which I’m from is inherently violent or inherently doesn’t want to do well. And so, I understood that right away when I got to Park Slope and I wanted that. I wanted the things that I saw in Park Slope, and I wanted them and I didn’t want the cops to be chasing after me after I acquired them. And so, that was a major part in the changing the mindset in terms of from what I saw that I wanted back in Crown Heights versus what I wanted when I got to Park Slope.
Meghan Steenburgh: And that introduction exposure to college education and you went on to earn a college education as well, and what struck me was that you started it there. But to continue it, you graduated from there, and you went back to all the possible temptations of the neighborhood, same apartment with your family, same neighborhood you grew up, same — well, many friends who are still doing the same things that got you into trouble.
Jim St. Germain: Right, right.
Meghan Steenburgh: How did you push through that?
Jim St. Germain: The key word there, which I always like to emphasize on when I write or talk about is exposure. One of the things I believe is — and this is not my quote. I’m sure I got it from somewhere. Maybe, I made it up. I’m not surveillance. But, I strongly wholeheartedly believe this that a child cannot be what they can’t see. No child can. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what the color of your skin is, what’s your income, you know, your socioeconomic status is. A child must be able to see what they want to be in this world, which is why representation is so important.
And so, one of the things Park Slope and being in that group home and having those mentors in my life did for me is they exposed me to things, and one of those individuals was Issa Sedano, the woman who I live with in the booth, you know, she would leave often to go to class and I didn’t know why she was going to class. In my brain, I thought that if you’re an adult, you don’t go to school anymore like once you become an adult, school is done. And I remember saying to her, “Where are you going?” and she turned around to me. She said, “I’m going to school.” I said, “Why are you in school? You’re an adult.” She laughed and she said, “I’m in college,” and I said, “What’s that?”
And she stopped, and then I often say that one of the things you must have to touch kids is you must know how to market things. And so, I said to Issa what is college. Now, I may have heard the word college before, but I wasn’t in the right mind frame to actually hear it the right way and let it seep in and know that something i wanted. She said, “Well,–” she puts her bag on the table. She was rushing for class and she sat down. She sat right across from me. She said, “Well, college is this place where you go.” She said, “If you’re poor, the government will help you pay for it and if there’s money left over, they’ll send it to you.” So, I checked that. She said, “You get to make your own schedule.” Check. I’ve always wanted independence and power, right? When you grow up dirt poor like I did, the first thing you learn in life is that you want as much option as you can possibly have.
So, I check that box. And then, she said, “Most importantly, you’ll be outnumbered by beautiful young women,” and I was like, where do I sign up? Right? Financial aid, extra check. That’s like 1,500 in my pocket. I get to make my own schedule. I can go to school in the morning, lunch, night, check. And then, I’ll be outnumbered by beautiful young women, which is what she said to me, and I wanted to be in college and that was strategic on her part, right? She knew what would speak to me around that time.
At this point in my life now, you don’t have to sell me on those points anymore, right? You can just tell me I’m going to go and buy textbooks, and I’m like, “Okay, I want to go.” But at that time, that’s how she sold it to me and I said to her, “You know, I would love to come to school with you one day. She said, “Oh you can actually come and sit in the class with me.” And the following week, I remember actually it was a Thursday. She had class every Thursday at around six o’clock, right around, you know, this time she would be leaving. And so, one day the following week, I left with her. She took me to the campus at BMCC in Tribeca right on the west side highway on Chamber Street, and I remember just feeling like this was a safe space for me to be in, like this was a place where I can come and try all of the things that were bothering me, all of the things that I’ve learned about this country and my own experiences. I can come and play these things out here in this environment, and it would be safe. And so, I wanted that and that was one of the driving forces behind me going to college.
Meghan Steenburgh: So, if you had — and you successfully went through all of that. Now, you co-founded a non-profit plot mentoring at-risk youth.
Jim St. Germain: Yup. By the way, now we call them at promise. I’ve always struggled with the term.
Meghan Steenburgh: Yeah, yeah.
Jim St. Germain: Because that language matters, right? I want to use straight based language, and if I’m telling these future attorneys that language matters and humanity matters, I think the words we use when we describe kids are crucial and important, and I know that at-risk is more of a – I would say more of like a bureaucratic jargon in some ways, but I’ve been struggling with this for a while and, recently, I proposed to the board that we use at promise because I think that we invest more. Usually, humans invest more in things they think have possibility of becoming something great as a future, and I think at promise obviously states that clearly. But to answer your question, when I started working in the system, I thought that my experiences as a young man who’s been there who understand our kids in the world, which our kids come from and the circumstances, which they have to overcome in the challenges, I thought I was going to be able to walk into the juvenile justice system and just snap my fingers and just speak to them and it would change their lives.
You know, I was young, in some ways naïve. I didn’t understand that a lot of what they were facing had more to do with circumstances, which they inherited, you know, like structural racism and poverty, and the fact that they’ve been in segregated schools all their lives redlining the resources that are available in Park Slope and the upper west side and all these wealthy white neighborhoods are not available in the world, which I came from. And so, I said to myself, “Okay.” The reality is this. I cannot change all of these kids’ lives. I don’t have — you know, I’m not worth 80 billion like Bloomberg. So, I can’t go to every family and say, “Hey, I’m going to remove you out of the projects and give you a better life economically. I knew that wasn’t possible, and I realized that the talking and the work that I was doing that it wasn’t working fast enough. My kids are dying, you know?
From the time I started doing this work, which is about the age of 18 to now I’m 31. I’ve lost at least 30 young men that I’ve personally sat across from and had dinner with who has been gunned down, at least 30 that I’ve worked with, not even friends. That would be a tragedy if 30 kids from Park Slope had been murdered. That would be a tragedy, and we would do everything we can possibly as a city to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but it’s happening every day in the neighborhood, which I grew up, and I felt powerless. I felt angry. I felt as if I was played and I let these kids down. And one thing about me is that I’m always looking for action orientated things like, if something is wrong, I don’t care about what you think won’t work. I want us to work on what you think will, you know, I’m not into finding a problem in every solution. I’m into this is wrong. This is not working. This is killing these kids, my kids. What can we do to make a difference, right? That’s what I’ve always believed in life.
And so, at that point, I said, “Okay. What was the most important thing that happened to you, Jim?” I was having a conversation with myself, and the answer was that it was exposure. That was the most important thing I think that happened to me as a kid going through the system was that I met people like Walton, like Mario, like Ms. Olio, like Christine, who exposed me to things. And when once I was exposed to these things, I wanted those things. I knew that there were more outside of the five block radius, which I grew up in because back then, I didn’t know that. And so, immediately I said, “Okay. What does that mean?” For me, it was mentorship. That’s what it was. That was the word. People who were looking out for me mentoring me. And so, I called up Christine and Marty, and I told them I wanted to mentor kids, and I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I had no clue about what a 501(c)(3) status was bylaws and non-profit and all of that stuff. It’s not my strength. I had no clue. I didn’t know anything about that.
But, Christine, who is — yeah. She’s something else. You can say anything to her the most impossible stuff, the weirdest thing, and she’d be like, “Yeah, let’s do it” and that’s one of the things I love about her. So, when I showed her this, she was like, “Okay, let’s do it” and I didn’t know the amount of work that was going to come. And one of my closest friend, Edwin Raymond, who is a police officer now, which you guys should check him out. He has a documentary on Hulu. It’s called Crime and Punishment, which I think is extremely crucial and important for any future lawyers or prosecutors. But, Edwin also grew up with me, and he was one of the co-founders of plot. He understood the issues, and he was already working as a police officer trying to do his best. And so, me, Edwin, Marty, Christine, Judge Stanhoff, and so many others, Susan and Suzette Brown, and so many other good people came, and we invited them to Dr. Brown’s house.
I remember that day. It was about eight years ago, November eight years ago, and we ordered some Haitian food, and it was about eight of us and that’s how plot became. And so, we’ve been mentoring young people who parents are incarcerated or which are struggling throughout the city the same young people, which many of those of you listening to this podcast will be working with. And so, that’s how plot became.
Meghan Steenburgh: So, as we in this season and as we conclude this conversation, there are a couple more things I just wanted you throughout this, continue to speak of gifts and gifts in your world.
Jim St. Germain: Right.
Meghan Steenburgh: How has that word changed? What is the biggest gift today to you?
Jim St. Germain: My son, our 7-year-old son, Caleb. It’s the greatest gift, and it’s the greatest gift. It’s also the greatest fear in this country, and I like to describe him as imagine having your heart cross the west side highway. That’s what it’s like to be a black father in this country is to know that your heart is walking in between some of the most dangerous traffic that there is in this city, in this country. And for no other reason the fact that he’s a black boy, that’s the reality you come into in this country —
And that is terrifying that my beautiful son, as soft as tender, as kind as everything that he is, most of that do not matter when people see him. All they see is a black boy, and they assign all sorts of things to him including the willingness to kill him and not provide any justice, and even saying those words now is really painful. It’s tough, but that’s the reality, and he’s my greatest gift. And my goal is to be able to work hard enough to give him options to live this country and to know that blackness is not hated everywhere. Yeah, he’s my greatest gift.
Meghan Steenburgh: So, one final thought and we could go on forever, but one final thought from you. This is from you to all of us again your final professorial moment to one note for all the president and future lawyers out there.
Jim St. Germain: To be what you needed at your lowest moment. I want these young lawyers to think about the lowest moment that they’ve had in their lives or that they will have. At the lowest moment of your life, what would you need? What do you want? What do you need? And that thing that you want and need at your lowest moment in life is what you ought to give our kids every opportunity you get whatever side you’re on. If that can’t happen, then we’re in trouble.
Meghan Steenburgh: Powerful. Thank you, Jim St Germain, co-author of the ‘Good Immigrant’, author of the memoir ‘A Stone of Hope.’ I actually have to pause here for a second because that is from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Real quick, your inspiration for that.
Jim St. Germain: Yeah, yeah. While I was writing the book, I was also going back and forth to Capitol Hill to work and advocate for a bill called ‘The Better Option for Kids Act,’ and ‘The Better Option for Kids Act’ would diverse money from the legal system into schools, education, youth employment. Pretty much when people say the funded police, that’s what that means. To change money over from ballooning police departments to things that we know work, right? We know what works. It’s the same thing every white neighborhoods have resources. And so, I was on Capitol Hill advocating for a bill similar as I was writing this book, and it was about six years ago. And the bill was sponsored by Senator Chris Murphy, a really decent guy, and Congressman Bobby Scott, and the bill was introduced and the bill died in committees. The bill didn’t even get a chance to make it out of the committees, and I was young. I was about 25, and I could not believe for the life of me that someone would be against a bill that was to help kids and children. I just could not make sense of it, like who doesn’t want to help kids.
And I remember being crushed and, at the same time, I literally as I was testifying in congress, my phone vibrated and I looked down. It was a text that one of the kids that I was working with was just shot and killed. And then here, I am sitting in front of the most powerful men in the world asking them to see those kids with humanity and invest in them, and the answer was no. Now, I was really down, angry, and it was also beautiful like, I think it was September. I remember it was a little chilly, not super cold, and I walked over. I always loved walking on Capitol Hill and that particular day, I decided that I was going to go over at Dr. King’s monument, and I didn’t know where it was. I just kind of like I was asking people along the way and people guided me towards it, and I got there. I was the only person. As soon as I got there, I looked up on the side of Dr. King’s monument in D.C. A quote stated “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope” and in that moment, that’s exactly what I needed, and I remember writing about that.
And at the time, we were going to call the book ‘Bending Towards Justice,’ which is also a Dr. King’s speech, and the editor was like — my editor, Jonathan Jao at HarperCollins said, “Actually, I think the book is called ‘A Stone of Hope.’ I think that might be the title,” and I was like, “Hmm…” And I thought about it. I read the chord and was like, “Yeah, that’s the story. That’s this journey.” So, that’s how we came with the title.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, thanks. I just want to go back and revisit that because I knew that there was an inspiring story behind that as well as everything else in your world.
Jim St. Germain: Yeah.
Meghan Steenburgh: So again, thank you, Jim St Germaine, co-author of ‘The Good Immigrant,’ author of the memoir ‘A Stone of Hope.’ Thank you for joining us. Yours is a story of hope and how we can all contribute to a better world no matter what role we play in that, and thank you all for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Law Student podcast.
I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student podcast on apple podcasts. You can also reach us on Facebook at ABA for law students and on Twitter at ABA LSD.
That’s it for now. I’m Meg Steenburgh. Thank you for listening.
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