“Basically, if you come from nothing, you wanna have everything you can get your hands on. The only people you see that have those types of things are basketball players, football players, rappers… and drug dealers. And you identify with those people because they look like you and they come from your surroundings.”
TJ Griffin grew up in the city of Lancaster, dealing with the same issues that many inner city kids deal with. His parents split up; his family lived on welfare. He was lucky in that he had a stepfather who provided for him, and his father was always in his life, but by the time he reached his teenage years, his mother and stepfather separated and he started hanging out in the streets. “What grabs a youth’s attention in that environment are flashy things like money,” TJ explains. “At a young age, I wanted the nice shoes, I wanted the nice clothes, dreamed of the nice car, the nice house, the jewelry, and all that good stuff.”
Even when he tried his hardest in school, TJ was a ‘C’ student, and higher education seemed like a pipe dream. “I wasn’t a good athlete, so I wasn’t getting into college through that. And there was no money from my parents to put me through college, so basically it was like, settle for a good job that would pay some bills—maybe a factory job—and that was basically it.” He shakes his head. “I didn’t like that.” Deciding his best option out of the inner city after high school was to become a rapper, TJ went the same route as many of his friends, selling drugs to pay the bills while he worked on his rap career, all while trying to support his girlfriend and son.
As years passed, however, TJ’s rap dreams started to take a backseat to the drug dealing and partying. His girlfriend kicked him out, unable to deal with the constant stream of drunk and high people coming in and out of their house. After seven months on his own, TJ confides, “I would look around at everybody and I would just be disgusted. I’d be like, ‘This is the life I’m living when I know I have this ex-girlfriend working two jobs and going to GED classes during the day?’ I would be disgusted with myself.”
“I ended up hitting my knees one day,” he continues, “praying for a change. Praying for something I could do that could change my life… I cried for about 45 minutes, got up, and I knew I was done with that lifestyle. I went back to my girlfriend’s house, pounded on her door… and I got a job for $7.00 an hour.” One frustrating night, he wanted to buy a pair of sneakers and realized that even though he and his now-wife were both working full-time jobs, he still couldn’t afford the shoes he wanted. His wife happened to be watching an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show on television, and, inspired by Oprah’s guest, Robert Kiyosaki, she bought TJ a copy of Kiyosaki’s book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
“I started reading the book and couldn’t put it down,” TJ laughs. “For the first time in my life, somebody that was successful was telling me that even though you’re not academically sound, even though you don’t have all these degrees, even though society told you this and that, you could actually be very successful. I had never heard that before. It was life-changing.” TJ started believing in himself more, reading more books, and working his way through various jobs that eventually led to entrepreneurship. Through MySpace, he found his way into the music industry and became the manager of 90s-era hip-hop star Armageddon. He started living the life he had always dreamed of, going to California, getting invited to celebrity events, shooting music videos, and going on tour. A few years into his management career, however, TJ realized that his dream wasn’t all it cracked up to be.
Searching for more meaning in his life, TJ started volunteering part-time with juveniles in a residential drug treatment program: “I could see in their eyes how they believed that every rap artist, everything they say and do is real. But it’s not. I’ve seen the director say ‘cut’ and all of the rapper’s things leave. The guy from the hood comes and picks up the rapper and they go back to the hood. The cars leave, the watch leaves, the jewelry, the fake money that was shipped in from Amazon leaves. I’m like, ‘Guys, it’s not real.’”
Feeling called to share his truths and experiences with inner-city youth, TJ formed The Vision Program: “It stands for Values Inspiring Students in Overcoming Negativity,” he explains. “I have credibility with the kids now. I can go in front of youth, show them I was in the music video and was around stars, and I know it’ll hook them.” Through the program, TJ provides workshops, mentoring programs, and school assemblies offering guidance to kids just like him. Now an accomplished motivational speaker, he also recently did a TED Talk called “The Paper Plane Effect,” explaining the impact of offering hope and belief to inner city and incarcerated youth.
“It’s amazing that you can go from being this C-average kid that has no belief in himself because his environment stole his belief away, to being able to influence kids. It’s such a blessing.”
For more information on The Vision Program, visit www.thevisionprogram.com.