Benneth Lee, Ex-offender activist

Though he grew up with two parents in the home, Austin native Benneth Lee still got caught up in gangs and spent time in prison. 

In fact, his entire 20s were spent behind bars. After being released by the time he was 30, Lee knew he had to “reinvent” himself. His story was among those shared at the annual Fatherhood Conference at Malcolm X College June 7. Once again sponsored by U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’ office, the event looked to promote fatherhood and the importance of male role models in the lives of young people.

About 300 people of all ages gathered at Malcolm X College’s auditorium to hear the congressman and a panel of professionals talk about fatherhood responsibilities, as well as topics like violence on the West and South sides.

Lee, who’s the founder of National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated, was among the speakers. He talked about his own experiences growing up and when he decided to change his trouble life.

“I had to see myself differently, other than a gang leader and a street hustler,” Lee said. 

That change took shape by the time he was 32 and enrolled into a GED class. “I had to…learn how to do fractions and multiplication,” he said.

Out of prison for 30 years now, Lee has since earned several degrees and is a professor at Northeastern Illinois University. He has also tried to be a male role model for the youth in his community.

“We somehow have to be more present to interrupt how our young people spend their time outside the home,” Lee said adding that there’s no “social development happening with young people at home and no social connection outside the home either.”

Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck also came from a poor neighborhood but a fatherless home. Still, he grew up to become the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Hasbrouck said young black people are facing a “deficit of hope and aspiration,” and they need to be taught to have self-value.

“What you think of yourself will really determine your outcome in life, and being in a deficit situation doesn’t mean you’re destined for something less,” Hasbrouck told the young men in the audience.

Law enforcement and the interactions young black men have with the criminal justice system were among the topics tackled during the panel talk, which included probation officers, judges and attorneys. 

First Deputy Police Superintendent Al Wysinger was among the panelists. The former 15th District Austin police commander said what’s going on in Chicago is not just a law-enforcement problem — it’s also a community and social problem.

Illinois Appellate Judge Marcus Salone, however, talked about how young black men are too often giving police officers reasons to be stopped on the street. Dwayne Johnson, a supervising probation officer, said it’s all about the choices young people make.

“Make decisions that keep you out of the system, because once you’re in it, it’s hard to get out,” he said.