DeShaun Williams

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Everyday when DeShaun Williams, 18, looks in the mirror and sees the dollar sign tattooed on his forehead, he thinks to himself, “that’s not the road I’m gonna take.”

He initially got the tattoo to represent the fast money of drug dealing. He also got the name of his “hood” North Philly, tattooed on his hands, and his gang nicknames tattooed on his temple.

Now he says he wishes he didn’t have them, but they serve as a constant reminder of the path he says he left.

Williams’ mom, who is a teacher in the District, used to drive him to school every day where he would stay for a few classes before leaving. He would walk out of Kensington Business High, choosing to pursue his reputation rather than his education.

“I wanted to be that man. I wanted to be the bull. I wanted to be the person everybody was talking about.

“I was running with so many groups, one minute I was in gangs, other minutes I was just ‘repping’ my neighborhood.”

But running the streets came to an end when Williams was sent to Glen Mills, a juvenile residential placement center, when he was caught at his school with narcotics. At first, he was skeptical of the program and still wanted to “keep my name up.”

But once he saw his peers gaining privileges for engaging in Glen Mills’ academic and support programs, he joined them. He stated participating regularly and gaining his own privileges. He raised his status at the placement and was able to visit home, sleep away from his “unit” and get a job. He said Glen Mills is about “getting yourself ready for the real world.”

He stayed there for two and a half years, accumulating credits, confidence, and life skills.

When he was released, he started at the District’s computer-based alternative school, ALA, but Williams found that wasn’t for him. He soon found Camelot Excel Academy- Central, and took immediately to the program. There, he went through a similar system of enhanced status based on behavior, attendance and academics. Those who rise through the ranks wear different color uniform shirts and get additional privileges like field trips.

At Excel, Williams said, “It doesn’t matter what hood you from, what [gang] color you wearing, none of that, because we don’t go by that here. We go by white shirts, black shirts, and grey shirts. That’s the only gang I want to rep about.”

He said the support from teachers and staff at Excel has helped steer him away from drug dealing and focus on his education.

“I’d rather have my diploma and apply for a job and know where my money’s coming from than watch people I know buy drugs from me knowing that it’s hurting them,” he said.

Williams is scheduled to graduate in June and has been accepted to a technical program to be certified as a mechanic.

He is happy to be making his mother proud. Williams, who has two children himself, said that watching his mother struggle to put food on the table, and his dad’s constant absence inspired him to succeed.

“My mom does so much stuff, so much stuff because of my dad, and I always told myself, when I settle down and get myself together, I’m going to be better than my dad was. I’m going to make sure she has everything she needs… I’m gonna be that man that my dad should have been.”

His three year-old-son and one-year-old-daughter live with their mother, with whom he is still in relationship, and he sees them every day. He said he wants to “show them that even though times get hard, you gotta keep fighting….Don’t give up, that’s one thing you can’t do.”