We can't choose our parents, but we can choose our paths in life.
Tony Lewis Jr. of Washington DC epitomizes this notion.
He's the son and namesake of one of the most notorious drug kingpins in the history of the nation's capital, Tony Lewis Sr.
They also contributed to one of the most tumultuous and violent periods in DC history. While they reaped massive profits, the city's murder rate skyrocketed.
Ultimately, both men were arrested in 1989 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. According to the Washington Post, at the time of their arrest:
Sources alleged that the combined drug network of Edmond and Lewis employs more than 150 people and brings as much as 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of nearly pure cocaine into the District in a week.
Their names are still legendary in some circles in DC and beyond. Even in popular culture, Edmond and Lewis continue to hold relevance, referenced in songs by the likes of Jay Z and Wale, among others.
But Lewis Jr., aka "Little Tony," hasn't let his name, his upbringing or his father's fate determine his direction in life.
Today, Little Tony is a respected community activist, father, author and close friend of rapper Wale. This doesn't mean, however, life has been easy for him.
His father was arrested when he was 8 years old, forcing him to grow up much faster than most. The Lewis family went from living in the lap of luxury via drug money to struggling to make ends meet. Little Tony once described this transition to CNN as going from "riches to rags."
Lewis recently took the time to speak with Elite Daily about his difficult childhood and its continued impact on his personal and professional life.
While the District is hardly a paragon of safety today, it was particularly dangerous in the 1990s while Lewis was growing up. People were killed daily on the streets, Lewis recalls, a number of them his friends. He spoke of how his mother and he were once carjacked at gunpoint when he was around 10.
It was a lot for any kid to deal with, particularly one with a father who was locked up. But Lewis was careful to note he wasn't alone in these troubles, they were communal.
DC was a tough place to grow up. We had so much going on with people being addicted to drugs and people getting killed. We had this community in disarray. My friends' moms were addicted to drugs. My friends' dads weren't there, they were dead or in prison like mine. Teenagers became the heads of the household, and this had a real dire effect on the men and women of my generation. You had people having babies at 14 or 15 years old, young men dying and going to prison at 14 or 15 years old. This is what happened in my neighborhood.
Understandably, Lewis struggled to find his way during his teen years, at one point joining a local crew, 1st and O, around the age of 12.
He eventually received a full scholarship to attend Gonzaga College High School, a prestigious Catholic school in DC, after his aunt asked the archdiocese for assistance.
The school boasts alumni such as Martin O'Malley, current Democratic presidential candidate and former governor of Maryland.
At Gonzaga, Lewis found it difficult to relate to his peers, and his time there wasn't necessarily transformative:
I was just such a different kid than everyone else, to the point where I don't think people really understood fully where I came from and who I was… They had no idea.
It wasn't until after high school Lewis says he began to consciously separate himself from situations that might get him into trouble.
He ended up attending the University of the District of Columbia, where a lot of the students were in their 30s and 40s and just returning to school. Lewis said they helped him realize the value of education.
Around the same time, he got his first job, which altered his life profoundly:
When I was 20 I got a job being a youth outreach leader. That's what changed me. I saw the effect that I had on young people, and I couldn't bring them a message I wasn't living out myself.
Lewis didn't want to be a hypocrite. He knew he couldn't justifiably mentor at-risk youth while continuing to engage in reckless activities.
Since that time, Lewis has dedicated his life to serving the community. He knows firsthand what it's like to grow up with a father in prison, so he started Sons of Life, a non-profit dedicated to helping young people with incarcerated parents.
The importance of such initiatives cannot be overstated. There are over two million children in the US with incarcerated parents. Evidence shows they are more likely to experience myriads of problems in comparison with their peers: poverty, behavioral issues, mental health issues and poor academic performance, for example.
Simply put, children with incarcerated parents often need all the support they can get.
Lewis also works for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, where he helps ex-offenders find jobs.
His full-time job and philanthropic activities are intrinsically linked. He wants to help eliminate the stigma surrounding incarceration, stating:
I look at my work as activism. My goal is that if we're able to get more people returning from prison positively engaged in the community, there won't even be a need for Sons of Life. No program, no school system, can be as strong as it needs to be without strong parental support. We need parents to raise their children.
At the moment, however, Lewis says it's very difficult to help ex-offenders find jobs, particularly in the District.
He believes this can be attributed to the fact too much attention is focused on the individuals who come home after prison and reoffend, stating:
I could show you hundreds of determined citizens that have come home from prison and done great things, started businesses and raised their children, but we don't talk about that.
Consequently, he contends, not enough ex-offenders are given a chance, contributing to a vicious cycle of reoffending that perpetuates mass incarceration. Without being granted legitimate employment opportunities, people fall back into lives of crime.
Recidivism rates reinforce Lewis's arguments. A study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. Of all the released prisoners, around two-thirds (67.8 percent) were rearrested within three years.
If prison is meant to rehabilitate and help people reintegrate into society in a positive manner, it's clearly failing.
Lewis argues all of this is linked to many of the issues the Black Lives Matter movement is focusing on, and the perception of black communities in the inner city, stating:
We have to do a better job of showing what it's like for black people growing up in these communities. People need to start seeing the humanity in people. Period.
Correspondingly, Lewis recalled how one particular officer in DC personally harassed him for years. He claims the officer tried to plant evidence on him and even searched his car when he wasn't around.
Years later, Lewis brought a group of kids he was mentoring to meet with DC police in the Third District. The Captain of the Third District at the time was Diane Groomes, who is currently the Assistant DC Police Chief. Somehow, she ended up introducing Lewis to the officer who'd habitually targeted him.
It was a serendipitous and powerful moment, and the two were able to reconcile, he said:
To him I was always just a guy on the corner he couldn't catch. But in that moment he had tears in his eyes and he apologized. In that moment he saw my humanity. I only hope that he took that as an example. This is our community, this is where we live -- that doesn't mean all of us are bad or breaking the law.
Lewis' story is remarkable, particularly due to the fact he's been able to maintain a close relationship with his father throughout these years. He speaks to him frequently and considers himself lucky when compared to many of his peers, stating:
I talked to him this morning, I talk to him all the time. For 26 years we've been able to keep a tight relationship. Prison has a way of breaking down all bonds. I'm grateful to God we've been able to maintain a strong relationship. I grew up around guys who didn't know their dad at all or their dad was around the corner, but never spent time with them or went to their school or helped with their homework. But I was always grateful for the relationship we had. That may sound crazy, but I grew up in a fatherless community.
He doesn't condone what his father did but also isn't willing to resent him for it either. Indeed, Lewis seems to attribute much of his success, and overall purpose in life, to his father's relentless guidance.
When asked whether bearing his father's name has helped or hindered his work, Lewis welcomed the question and responded:
My name has its pros and cons. Professionally, sometimes I think I've had to work doubly hard to gain respect. I work for a federal law enforcement agency, you know what I'm sayin' (laughs)? You don't know how people feel about you, and they may not necessarily trust you. I've been working 15 years in the community, working with at-risk populations… At this point I feel like my work speaks for itself. I've definitely done enough where it shouldn't just be about that.
Lewis has made it his life's work to avoid ending up where his father is and to help others do the same. His story is a testament to the fact your roots don't have to dictate the entire course of your future.
But perhaps most of all, Tony Lewis Jr. exemplifies the importance of looking beyond labels.
People are more than their names. Prisoners and ex-offenders are more than the crimes they've committed. Sons and daughters are more than the sins of their fathers and mothers.
We're all dynamic and complex beings who can't and shouldn't be defined by any single aspect of our existence. We all have an innate capacity to change and grow.
As Lewis aptly stated, we all need to start seeing the humanity in people.
If you're interested in delving deeper into Tony's story, visit Slugglife.com.
Citations: Battling for Customers Crack Wars Leave D.C. Under Siege (LA Times), Son with infamous name seeks new family legacy (CNN), Once known as a kingpins son Tony Lewis Jr is redefining the family name (Washington Post), DC drug dealers son has same name different reputation (Washington Post), A Drug Kingpins Hot Selling Story (Washington Post), Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005 (BJS), Incarceration & Reentry (National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse), 5 faith facts about Martin OMalley A Pope Francis Democrat (Washington Post)