ROCHESTER — The turning point for Robert Harris’ life was when Barack Obama became this country’s first African-American president.
At a time when Buffalo’s mayor and New York’s governor also were African-Americans, Harris said that he was sitting in the Elmira Correctional Facility.
"The greatest moment in black history in America and I was behind bars," said the Buffalo native. "That was when I decided to be part of the solution."
He decided that in order to transform his own life, he would dedicate himself to keeping other youths from going down the same path. To help him do that, he created the Youth Prison Prevention Program four years ago.
On July 26, he brought the program to Rochester as part of a tour of cities across the country to spread his mission of steering kids from the streets to such positive activities as music, dance and writing. He has helped several Buffalo teenagers produce CDs of hip-hop music and rap, sales of which help fund the mission, he said.
"I say to them, ‘Instead of standing on the corner, I will give you a stage,’" he explained.
Additionally, his program offers workshops on such topics as anger management, anti-bullying strategies, maintaining a positive attitude and encouraging positive peer pressure.
While his July 26 conference at Asbury First United Methodist Church drew a smaller than expected crowd, he is hoping Rochester organizations will join the effort and offer his program here.
"We want to build committees and get the curriculum adopted in schools, churches and community centers to run the program," he said. "Our goal is to do some fundraising and make it happen."
Rochester Police Officer Moses Robinson, who attended the conference at Asbury, said that Harris’ approach offers a creative and positive outlet for teenagers to express themselves.
As a school resource officer, he also is working on an initiative called "Not in our Town" to bring people of different races and cultures together to work out conflicts before they lead to violence on the streets, he said.
That initiative could be well-served by a program like Harris’, Robinson noted.
"We need to reach out our hands; there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel," added Robinson. "It is all about synergy right now."
The Youth Prison Prevention Program conference featured several speakers involved in prison re-entry and support programs, as well as a presentation from the one of Harris’ youth participants, and closed with a hip-hop performance from Buffalo teens.
Keynote speaker Willie Price said that he has known Harris since they attended the same elementary school. His motto is, "If you can dream it, you can do it."
He has proved it with his own life: He went from being a teenage father to a real-estate agent to a self-published author of books on housing.
But when he has led recent youth workshops, Price said that he doesn’t start out with the trials and tribulations he faced having been kicked out of several schools throughout his childhood, or changing his college major five times, or almost dropping out when his grade-point average hit rock bottom.
Instead, he begins with the story of his fall 25 feet off the roof of a house in January 2012, he said. He shattered his left ankle, which was replaced with a rod and hinge, and has screws holding together his right foot, Price said.
Doctors told him he’d likely never walk or would walk with a limp and require the use of a cane, Price said.
Not only did he walk on his own into his doctor’s office after four months of physical therapy, but he walked down the aisle and was married last July. And shortly after that, the former college track star ran his first mile.
And he made it through his recovery without any pain medication so he would not become addicted to it, Harris noted.
Price said that he accomplished his goal of walking because he followed his "4 Ws": "Who am I? Where am I trying to go? What is it going to take? Why am I doing this?" And he encourages young people to keep those "4 Ws" in mind whenever they are faced with difficult choices, as so often happens in adolescence, he said.
"No dream is impossible when you trust and believe in your ‘4 Ws,’" Price said.