Guest Voz: Former gang-banger turned civic leader creates special school curriculum to keep kids from making his same mistakes

LatinaLista — The way Robert Renteria’s life was going as a kid — poverty, domestic violence, drugs, gangs — it wasn’t surprising that people thought Renteria had a one-way ticket to nowhere.
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Robert Renteria
Yet, he surprised everyone by not just turning his life around but becoming an old-fashioned American success story — complete with the money, expensive car, suits and the title of CEO of his own business.
For most people, especially those who’ve had to fight for everything they’ve earned, sitting back and enjoying the fruits of their success would be natural, but not for Renteria.
He wanted to see the cycle of hopelessness, violence and low self-esteem broken among children who just needed to see how someone else made it out of the same situations and found success.

So last year, Renteria wrote the book From the Barrio to the Board Room and published it through Writers of the Round Table Press. He developed a companion web site, established a foundation and created an unique school curriculum incorporating his life’s lessons into exercises that give kids the tools to see the hope that exists for them.
Renteria shares with Latina Lista readers the new hopes and dreams he has, not for himself, but for those students across the nation who also have hopes and dreams but feel that dreaming is pretty hopeless for them.

Several years ago, a young man approached me and wanted to know the secret to getting himself a “phat” ride like my new Mercedes. He said he was 21, so I invited him into a nearby bar for a drink.
We made small talk for a bit and then he asked me again, “What’s your secret?” I told him to get a napkin from the bartender and to write down two words. “Hard.” He wrote down the word. “Work.” He penned that on the napkin as well. He looked down at what he had written, said to himself “Hard Work” and then looked up at me and asked, “That’s it?”
When I told the young man that was my secret, he placed the napkin into his pocket, shook my hand and then raced off as though I had given him gold. At that moment, I realized that countless children, teenagers, and adults are walking around — lost in a culture of darkness — and I needed to do something about it.

In April of 2006, after an extensive interview process, I partnered with writer and publisher Corey Blake, and From the Barrio to the Board Room was born.
It tells my very personal story from the ghettos of East LA, doing and dealing drugs and running with gangs, to my escape into the military, corporate America and ultimately to owning my own business.
The book was released in February of 2008 and has since been endorsed and utilized by police departments, youth prisons, mayors, middle schools, high schools, battered women’s shelters, foster homes, churches, social services, youth groups and others.
Seeing this unfold in real time, I have started the process of restructuring my life around this message and making a difference. I cannot express to you how it felt to have young Latina women at Aurora University cry in front of me as they shared their own stories of struggle after reading my story encouraged them to tell their own.
Or my experience at Mutual Ground with 40 battered women who cried with me as they read of my father leaving my family when I was three in search of alcohol and heroin and his being replaced by a stepfather who used me as a punching bag.
Police officers are telling me that gang bangers are walking around with the books in their hands. I’m hearing from parents about their kids reading the book and going back to school after they had previously dropped out, and from kids in gangs asking me how can they get out (of gangs).
One senior at Roosevelt High School in Chicago said, “All these books we read in school, it’s all picture-perfect and little rainbows, but when it gets to realistic stuff like gangs and shootings, that’s the real world…but we read [From the Barrio] senior year after the change occurred. It would have been better if we read it freshman year.”
How could I hear that and not make it my life’s mission to reach these kids before it’s too late?
So, with my publisher Corey Blake and another advocate of violence prevention in the community, Cheryl Maraffio, I have founded the From the Barrio Foundation. We are dedicated to helping eliminate conditions that foster violence, delinquency, drugs, and gangs. We promote education, a sense of pride and accomplishment, and self-esteem within the youth of our communities.
Our first accomplishment was the creation of a curriculum that we have now piloted within the Chicago Public School District. This fall, more than 2,000 students across the country will participate in our curriculum. The program centers around discussion questions and assignments that provoke conversation amongst students.
One teacher commented that, “I got to see another side of my students through the curriculum…You have these kids in your class for the entire school year and you think you know them, but then you open up a whole different world that they are living through with something like this.”
We’ve followed up the school curriculum with a spiritual-based curriculum and we’ll be working with multiple churches over the coming months as well. I have always had faith and said my prayers and now pastors will be using my journey as a launching pad for discussions around the Bible and its teachings.
I feel so blessed to be able to make a difference. And this journey has only begun. Next month, in August, we’re releasing the Spanish version of the book and last week, I was invited by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White to be the guest speaker at the Hispanic Heritage Reception in Illinois in September. I promise to do us proud.
What I have to say, though, is that I cannot do this alone.
I need the help of teachers, administrators, community volunteers and parents to bring this message to the kids. The From the Barrio Foundation is giving away the curriculum for FREE, but you have to request it, look through it and convince your schools to implement it.
So please reach out and contact me at Robert@fromthebarrio.com. Together we can make a difference.

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2 Comments

  1. Bianca said:

    Wow what an awesome man! I hope he can really reach out to the teens in Chicago, and everywhere else as well. I would really like to learn how to help out as a volunteer. I’d also really like to send this story and curriculum sample to my old high school principal…I don’t know how much good it would do on her opinion but it would be worth a shot…My high school is struck with adversity and apathy not just with issues like gangs but with problems like poverty and a broken home.
    I know he gives out his e-mail in the end but I’m not sure of how to help coming from Texas.

  2. Marisa Treviño said:

    Bianca, go ahead and email Robert. If you visit his site, you’ll see that you can download the curriculum too. At the least, you can forward the story on to your former principal and any teachers whom you think would like to know about the book and its curriculum. Lord knows, help is needed in Texas schools too.

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