My name is Leno and I have a PhD. It stands for Public Highway Demonstrations and it comes from hard lessons through the University of Street Smarts.
When I was 11, I worked in the onion fields of southeast Colorado. As the son of immigrant parents with 12 children, I learned to give by watching my parents (who had no money) give generously to others who had less: rice and beans; a place to sleep; a smile. A few years later, my own giving highway began with the United Farmworker’s Union on a stipend of $5 a week and $10 for food. I joined the ranks of poor people that give on a regular basis but don’t call it philanthropy; they give to help others survive, all without ever getting a tax deduction!
Another defining moment in my life came when a social worker decided that my parents were “unfit” to care for my younger sister Rebecca, forcing them to turn her over to the state of Colorado or lose food stamps and other survival subsidies for the family. She was sent to a correctional institution run by nuns where she was abused by older girls. Spiraling out of control, she finally died of a drug overdose. I was unable to save her, but committed myself to saving other lives wherever and whenever I could, as a promise to my sister.
Over the years, I organized many a demonstration and my highway to philanthropy included several governmental and non-profit stops. My journey took a turn when I joined Sister Helen Prejean to organize against the death penalty and then came to a full stop on the gang-ridden streets of Los Angeles and El Salvador where God must’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. Growing up without the right “mojo” violence was part of my experience, but I had racked up enough mileage to begin paying it forward.
I started an organization called Homies Unidos and worked with the baddest gangs in town, reaching the human beings beneath the tough bravado. I tried getting support for this work, but funders wouldn’t touch it. So, I used my entire pension fund of $50,000 from my days at the federal government and then racked up another $40,000 on credit cards, all to support the work.
What do I have to show for it? I recently sat with a former Latin gang banger and, over Chinese food in San Salvador, he shared some good and bad news. Starting with the bad news, he told me that I had missed a good party. The good news? He graduated from law school. What price do you put on saving a life? And how do you calculate the multiplier effect? My PhD from Street Smarts tells me that it’s invaluable.
What did I learn? Life tells me that you have to get up on the edge of the ledge and occasionally jump off. I lived large when I was young because I never thought I’d make it to 25, and when I hit 25, I never thought I’d make it to 50. I invested my time and used up all my money trying to change and save lives. And now I am starting over, but I would do it all again in a heartbeat – for a heartbeat. Truth be told, my bold giving upset my family since we were not at all wealthy. At the same time, they were also proud of my work.
Continuing on my philanthropic highway, now a little older and with better lenses, I want to create an “on” ramp for people of color to give generously, following in the rich traditions we’ve inherited along the way. God doesn’t always get to the people who need the most, and I want more people to support organizations that take great risks, create new visions of hope, and help those who live on the edge rather than always playing it safe. There are many of us (99%) who don’t have a lot of money to give, but if we each start with a dollar (and however much more we can), we can really make a difference.
A minister once told me that come judgment day, we must have done enough good so that when they come to arrest you, there will be enough evidence to convict. While I don’t want to die early, I do want to create a trail through the onion fields and the streets of LA and El Salvador to proudly convict me alongside all those accomplices who made my work possible!
Since I reached 50, I might even get to 75, and who knows what life will bring next? Hey, you never know. Let’s all DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE and work hard to make it a reality.