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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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)