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CHICAGO – Last summer, Devin Howard, a young man in a bright gray suit, attended the graduation ceremony for the first-ever female electrician’s course at Project HOOD community center and stole the show with a phrase: “Poverty ruled my family until it fell on me.” He had been invited to speak because of his success. Several years ago Howard graduated from the Project HOOD construction class and landed a job as a project manager at one of Chicago’s leading construction companies, Reed Construction. His path, however, was not straight.
On day 52 of his 100-day rooftop vigil to raise funds to construct his transformative community center building, Pastor Corey Brooks greeted his star student for a fireside chat in the freezing cold. He said he was telling everyone that the example to follow was Devin Howard.
Devin nodded in appreciation. He then began to tell his story. He graduated in 2017 from Urban Prep at Englewood where he played football and maintained a GPA of 3.8. He then moved on to Eastern Illinois University where he joined the football team while majoring in nursing. But something was wrong.
“I realized I didn’t like nursing,” Howard said. “And while I was there, I started to realize some things that just weren’t right for me.”
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He soon realized that school was not for him. So what was the right path?
He started reading books on financial literacy, from “Rich Dad Poor Dad” to “7 Laws of Leadership”. At the same time, he was eager to do something and made the thoughtless decision to join the Navy. He stepped back on the day he was due to go.
At this point most people would have lost patience with Howard, but he kept looking for the right question to give him direction in life.
“I started to learn practical things like real estate, carpentry and painting. I started to fall in love with these things,” Howard said. “My mom has been in real estate for a minute and I leaned over her a bit and looked at her. And I would start to think how can I bring generational wealth to my family and to myself?”
He went out and got his real estate license, but there was one problem: the market was cold.
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“My mom called me, she tells me about the carpentry program [at Project H.O.O.D.]Howard said. “I said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ The next thing you know is she says, ‘You’re not doing anything right now. Real estate hasn’t really picked up yet. Let’s go. And she was right. Time is your greatest commodity. “
“You were the top student in our construction class,” said the pastor. “You did everything we needed you to do. You took all the training, got the certifications.”
Howard nodded, humbled by the praise.
“While I was in the program, I met a man named Bill, the CEO of Reed Construction,” Howard said. “He provided me with a business card that day.”
Then COVID-19 hit, halting Howard’s progress. As Chicago closed completely, he even considered stopping. A year later, he was in his room throwing away business cards when he stumbled upon Bill’s card.
“It was crazy because I had just cleaned my room, throwing away business cards. And he called me the same day,” Howard said. “He offered me a job with the company as a project engineer. So from that point on it’s just great. Great opportunities.”
Howard became a project manager and now oversees several projects across town. The task is not easy as he must know all the responsibilities of the subcontractors to ensure that they do their jobs efficiently and on time.
“How good do you think it would be for a lot of guys who are in gangs, who got lost – maybe some got back from jail – how good do you think it would be for them to ‘be in a trades program like the one we offer at Project HOOD? “asked the pastor.
“It would definitely be beneficial,” Howard said. “I know to myself that personal friends haven’t left at least four blocks east, west, north and south. Some have never seen downtown. And when I see some of their reactions, when I expose them to some of the things that I’ve done before – and it’s not like nothing serious to me – but when I see their expression, it gives me a feeling of happiness at the ‘inside. “
He smiled, continuing, “I wish I could do that for the next person over and over again. So I feel like with people who are in gangs you should be able to give yourself a chance in life because that life is short… I just don’t want to have any regrets knowing that I didn’t give myself a chance. “
At 22, Devin Howard has just started his journey.
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Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is “What Killed Michael Brown?” Twitter: @Hebro_Steele.
Terrell Allen camera.