Living Out of Dreams, Not Fear

E-newsletter Issue #103 | October 25, 2012

Hasan Davis was on the wrong track.

He was a juvenile offender. Two brothers were serving life sentences. Family members had died because of gang violence.

And many people were telling him he was bad.

“I was afraid that I was a failure. I was afraid that all those people were right. I was afraid that my kindergarten teacher made the right choice to lock me in the coat room to keep me away from the other kids,” said Davis, now the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice and a 2012 CSG Toll Fellow.

“Young people hear so many voices and many of them are negative,” Davis said. “You hear a few of those positive voices.”

Two voices kept propping him up—those of his mother, Alice Lovelace, and Lorraine Wilson, the chief administrator of the Atlanta alternative school he attended.

He hoped they were right.

So he took a leap of faith—mainly because “I wanted desperately to see 19 either alive or not in jail,” he said—and made a decision to make dramatic changes. He had heard about a small college in Berea, Ky., that strived to help poor and challenged students find their way.

He had a 1.67 grade point average and had gotten expelled from school in his senior year before earning a GED. His application was rejected. But those voices prompted him to make that extra effort; he called the admissions officer, who told him, again, that Berea College had no spot for him.

About an hour later, the admissions officer called him back and said the college would give him a chance, what turned out to be the first of many chances he’d need at Berea.

He was expelled from Berea College—twice. But he kept going back and graduated, finally, in 1992 as president of the student body and homecoming king.

Through it all, Davis began working with at-risk children trying to get them to see themselves differently.

“I found myself counseling and, at the same time, finding my own advice about going back and realizing that I had the opportunity to be a great role model to these kids,” he said.

He would share his struggles with them, giving them reasons they, too, could overcome the challenges they faced.

He brought that background to Kentucky’s Juvenile Justice agency and, with it, an attitude to make changes that benefit the youth in the system.

“A lot of people have perceptions about juvenile justice,” Davis said. “A lot of people think the job is to hold kids back until they become adult criminals.

“Taking what I experienced from those who didn’t have to, but chose to invest in my life, I thought this is the perfect opportunity to shape a system that is a child’s caring system, not just a holding cell for whatever happens next.”

The agency is starting to have a conversation about family engagement and about how important it is for the agency to serve the whole family, not just the child in the system.

“If we don’t do anything to change that bigger system, even if we get a child that understands differently and processes their world differently, once you put them back in there, they default to the basic survival,” Davis said.

Another big piece of changing the system involves removing young people who shouldn’t be there.

“Young people should only come into my system long term if they are a threat to themselves or the community,” he said.

Many young people are status offenders, he said, which means they haven’t done anything wrong that would be considered a crime if an adult did it. Being put in the juvenile system doesn’t help.

“If they aren’t criminal minded, we don’t have the system to fix them. But we do have the system to take kids who are delinquent, who are neglected, who are afraid and running from something, … we have a system that will very likely give them a new skill set and new social network that will probably draw them into becoming more criminal,” he said.

He wants to give these children the same dreams his mother and the school administrator cultivated in him.

“The great thing about us as human beings is that we have the ability to live out of our dreams rather than out of our fears,” he said, “which is very different from most other creatures on the planet that respond to what happened yesterday to decide what they do today.

“We can go completely the other direction.”

Davis shares his aspiration to make sure young people understand that philosophy with his wife, Dreama, the director of external affairs at Berea College. She works with young people in some of Kentucky’s poorest counties to build an educational aspiration, career- and college-readiness.

The two met while they were students at Berea and both attended the University of Kentucky College of Law. They have two sons, Malcolm, 13, and Christopher, 8.

He’s happy he’s found a way to give back, just like his mother taught him to do.

“Even when we struggled as a family on food stamps, moving from house to house, … there was still a sense that we still had so much because we were a family,” he said. “Always watching her looking out for others and fighting for others. … There’s a sense that there’s a responsibility to be speaking out for those folks that don’t have a voice, stand up for those folks that don’t have the strength.”

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