HHCF Diary: 5 Days in Juvenile Hall


Entry by: Adisa, The Bishop 





But I'm stay incogni', in places they can't find me/ Make my moves strategically, the G.O.D./It's sorta similar but iller than a chess player - Fat Joe, I Shot Ya Remix  

A few weeks ago the Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF) was invited to teach a 5 day intensive on Chess & Life Strategies. We were invited to be there by the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE). The classes covered the similarities between chess and life, so the inmates could make better life choices  after their release. I worked in three different units. The main juvenile hall HHCF works with is in St. Louis, MO. So I was excited to work with local kids locked down.


On day 1, none of the kids were sure what I was doing. One in particular sat down and said “What the f*** does chess have to do with Hip-Hop” mean mugging me from the back of the room. He was not feeling me. Dr. Elliot Gann from Today’s Future Sound (who was also teaching the same week as HHCF noticed this same youngster. Dr. Gann is able to teach algebra via drum programming. By the end of the program this kid was one of the strongest players and he recorded an amazing rap about chess and life with Dr. Gann.


On day 2, the connections were making more sense to them. We talked more than we played. I don’t think we played at all in one particular unit. There were some deep conversations about the authenticity of everybody’s pain. One kid told me how much he missed his mom. “I hate sleeping here. When I’m at home, I’m at peace. When I’m at peace I don’t dream. When I’m here though, I dream. Every morning I wake up from my dreams, it’s a reminder that I’m not at home. That is when it hurts the most.”


On day 3, we talked about Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. One of the students had actually read the Art of War. Many knew who Niccolo Machiavelli was because of Tupac’s work. However, none had really understood the role he played on Tupac as a thinker and writer. This also allowed me to emphasize the importance of literacy in art. I told them how much ‘Pac’s reading in jail helped him share his passion and pain on a higher level than most rapper still living room. They ate that up. It didn’t hurt me to share that we were friends.


On day 4, I had an unexpected run in with a young inmate in one particular unit. In all of my 10 years of working with at-risk, gang impacted and incarcerated youth this was a first kid who tried to tussle with me. The class was reviewing rook attacks. A kid (let's call him Fred) who was a constant interruption was asked to leave. He refused. I asked the guards to remove him. The classroom had big glass windows and the door was open. Six guards stood on the perimeter of the room and called out to him.


“No big deal, Fred. Come out. You can just chill in your room- it’s no big deal.”


Fred sat up straight in his desk, and looked at the whiteboard. But he did not move.


The air was electric. Fred was holding onto his desk in defiant silence. He hopped up out of his seat and approached me after I asked him to leave for a second time. “Don’t talk to me, man. Don’t talk to me” he repeated as he started to skip toward me with a boxer's bounce.


One of the guards waved me over  “Can you step out of the room for a minute please?”


“No problem” I said calmly as I exited the room.


About three minutes later the door reopened. Two kids had actually been removed from the classroom. It all went down peacefully. Apparently one of Fred’s friends was upset I asked Fred to leave and they were both sent back to their rooms.


As I approached one of the guards smiled and said “I could tell you been in the hall before. You handled everything super calm.” I just smiled. “You right” I said nodding and smiling. “But this is the first time a kid tried to get with me. I’m sure he’s frustrated about things bigger than me though. I’m not even mad.”


When I came back, the room was silent. The class of about 15 kids didn’t know what I was going to do or say. All of the interaction through the week had been extremely positive. I could see the adrenalyn from the situation was just starting to come down in their system. So, I sat down and just looked at them for about ten seconds. I scanned the room to make eye contact with each one of them. My face was relaxed like I was on a beach. I wanted them to be clear that I was not shaken in the least by Fred’s outburst.


Once the silence started to get awkward I pointed to the position on the board and I said “Chess and life is about choices. Fred just made a bad choice. Do you think I’m here to teach you about chess and Hip-Hop?” You think I’m only here to talk about chess and Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan??” My laughter confused them. They stared at me with attentive eyes.


“Do you think, that I think that- I’m your saviour?! I’m gonna come down with my chessboards from heaven and save the hood?!” I laughed harder.


“I won’t save you. Only you can do that. Don’t be confused about that. I don’t care about chess or Hip-Hop that much. However, I know the system out there is deeper than you can understand. The world gets way colder after you turn 18, trust me. All the counselors, and teachers and guards checking in on you to get your homework in and all that. They disappear. When they disappear, YOU have to figure it out. I’m here to save you from your own mind. The one that got you locked up here right now. The mind that made you think that last mistake you made on the block was a good idea. I’m here to get rid of that mind. If you will allow me to help you think better for yourself and make better decisions- I should never see you here again. I want to see you owning businesses or in college. That is the only other way I want to see you.” I paused again and made eye contact again so they knew I was not joking.


“Now, if you are here to learn about chess and life and you are ready to study these boards properly and play today- you are welcome to stay. But I don’t want you here if you don’t wanna be here. So if this is not want you want for yourself, raise your hand and you can go back to your room.” No one moved. No one spoke.


“OK then, let's get back to this rook on A6. What happened next was a pure stream of consciousness that had us all interconnected. We were all in the same space mentally. It was probably the best day in the hall.

IMG_7737.jpg

Dr. Elliot Gann and I between classes at Alameda County Juvenile Hall.



One of the guards walked in ten minutes later to the room and saw it quietly buzzing with focused young minds on the hunt for the others king.


“Hey! This is great, man” he said smiling as he gave me a pound.


On a day I don’t remember, I also had some powerful conversations with the same group about life in general. I always tell my students the importance of being drug and alcohol free. This is for the best clarity of mind and health reasons specifically. It is also a way to keep yourself out of juve and jail. The engagement got deep and they shared how many of them have tried promethazine, codeine, percocet, xanax, molly and more. This is on top of alcohol.


It was heartbreaking to me. I told them how J. Edgar Hoover worked hard to get heroin into the Black community but we never liked needles really. “Now these syrups are how they get the heroin in- they don’t need needles anymore. This was J. Edgar’s dream all along. Lil’ Wayne had to land his airplane from the seizures he gets from his addiction to syrup. I know you like the popular Future song called Lowlife. On the real, all that syrup talk is a fast track to the grave. Why do you think Rick Ross lost all that weight and trying to be fit? ‘Cause the Dr. probably told him. ‘If you don’t change you finna die, bruh’. Because no matter what Rick Ross is selling on wax he knows he can’t live on syrup, alcohol and pills.”


With a different unit I reminded them about chess, life and decisions making. “The choice you make at move 3 will determine the level of options you have at move 13. The decision and action you take at move 13 can decide if you make it to move 30 or if you have any chance of winning at all.”


I told them about two young men I mentored. Both came from tough backgrounds. Both were brilliant with academic and social skills above average. However, one could not hear me over the sound of his grumbling belly. If he wanted to eat he could listen to my talk of scholarships and college meals. He needed to eat now. He needed new clothes now. He would sometimes come back from hustling in new gear and belly on full. I understood why he did it, but I never stopped asking him to change.


The other kid had a rough journey. Sometimes he didn’t have the coolest clothes. Other times he didn’t have a full stomach. What he did do however was keep his grades on point as he applied for more scholarships and grants than any other person I’ve ever known. He walked off the graduation stage to a four year university. He is doing great right now.


The first kid I talked with before he walked the stage. I told him “You can be the Mayor of this city. Not the pretend Mayor. You can really be Mayor. But you have to get off the block. This is gonna kill you. I worry about you. Because so much Black brilliance is lost to the streets. The same mind that converts pounds to kilos can launch businesses. Do you hear me.


“Yup, I hear you. Thank you. I love you O. G. ‘Dis.” he said smiling. I told him I loved him too.


A few months later, he was killed sitting in a car. People said the other guy had a hit on him and when the shooters came my young friend had to take took bullets too. When I said that, one of the kids asked “Was that so-and-so?”. I answered that it was.


He told the class. “I knew him. That was a good dude.” The whole class was blown away. We spoke for a moment about the youngster and the things we liked about him. What a small world. I used that moment to remind the kids how interconnected we are even though it often does not always feel that way.


I went onto tell the kids how I always felt like I failed him after he got out. That I still wrestle with how much I could done, or should have done. That I wonder about how much support he had after high school. But ultimately, we all live and die by our choices.


I pointed to a chessboard projected on the screen. We talked about how one's survival depends on unity in diversity. The idea that the pieces don’t all move the same, but through their differences are able to achieve their goal if they support one another. I also reminded them that everybody who starts with you, does not finish with you. I followed with the idea that if they could stay strong (like the pawn who starts our powerless) and get to the other side they can be the most powerful piece.


We looked at a very famous chess game by Paul Morphy called The Opera House Massacre. I used that game to share ideas about understanding people's intentions. A person might move their bishop to attack your knight, but really they want the queen behind it. In real life people approach you asking for help with one thing, or another. In truth they want something greater you have- so be mindful.


I used the final moves to explain that one must be willing to sacrifice everything on the board (including the queen if need be) to win. You have to be willing to risk it all if you really want to win. That carried over into talk about the precision of sight. Is the situation really what it looks like? The group then talked about what sacrifices each of them would need to make to attain their higher goals.


The 5th day of classes things went smooth. The guards wanted to let Fred and the other kid to come out to apologize. I told the guards that I accept their apology, but today was the last day. I told them I wanted to let this day be truly for the ones that spent the week focused. They totally understood. One my one the kids came in. I greeted them all with a handshake as usual. Then I walked in and sat down. On the whiteboard was the words:


“Intelligence without discipline is a curse.”- Adisa Banjoko


“ I didn’t want Fred in class today because I wanted only those serious to be here” I told them.


“It is important to me that you take my time and your time seriously. I’ve been here all week listening to you talk about your homies on the block who got love for you. Some of you been talking about all of your family looking out for you. But you know what? I have not seen any of them all week. Ain’t nobody beating the door down to come help y’all!


So here I am, put my plan together for ten years. I have programs here in the bay and across the country. But then I walk in treating you like civilized young men and some of you take my kindness for weakness wanna waste my time? Why would you do that if nobody is beating down the door to help you?”


No one spoke.


I showed them a black and white photo of an inmate as I read the slogan on the board. “You are all intelligent. I’ve watched you all show amazing levels of intelligence this week. You must understand though that if you don’t do daily work to refine your skills, nothing will come of it. Once this guy took responsibility for his wisdom look what he became.”


“This man was doing everything you are trying to do. He was a real pimp, a real coke dealer, he ran with guns. This man was doing it for real. Then, he changed his mind about how he was living and what he could do with what he knew.”


I clicked the screen and you see Malcolm X.” It is the same man, but now he is living with a different purpose” I said.


None of the kids recognized Malcolm X in his Detroit Red phase. “You owe it to yourself put in the time to refine your gifts. If you don’t only you will suffer. “ I told them.


After that, we jumped into the best chess battles of the week. Some of the kids already knew the game when I got there. Others had actually competed and had trophies from their youth. You could tell in their by their openings who knew the realness. None however, had taken the time to apply chess to their life until I showed them how. It was immensely empowering.





Keep in mind we are talking about kids that for the most part have been written off by mainstream education systems. A good portion of them are on an IEP (individual education program), or are openly rebellious to traditional schooling methods. In some ways, I must admit the needs of the kids are wider than the public school system is prepared to manage. As I watch these kids with 2nd and 3rd grade reading skills speak and write in algebraic notation, I am further convinced these brilliant minds have many intellectual gemstones yet to be discovered. My goal is to help them mine their own mind for these gems and share what they find with the world.


Nevertheless, those same kids displayed what I believe to be high level expressions of executive function- through chess. A fellow educator Dan Gildea taught me about executive function. Executive function improves an individual's ability to self-regulate. You need a working memory, mental flexibility and self control to exercise it. A study at Harvard noted “These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of executive function skills requires them to operate in coordination with each other.”


That is what we believe the total fusion of chess and Hip-Hop does. That is why we use martial arts to help teach self-control. All three lead to heightened expressions of executive function. One of the boys said he used to train in LA with Mayhem Miller and Rampage Jackson, but was shot in the leg so he can’t do martial arts any more. When I made my connections from martial arts to chess, he got it. He was the same student who had read The Art of War.


One game with a kid we will call Kevin was quite impressive. As I approached him on the board as Black he used his pawns to shut down my forward advancement. In chess terms this is called zugzwang. Now, at the las Chess Kings Invitational in LA, RZA from Wu-Tang Clan talked about how many times kids in the hood use classic chess moves by instinct. So they may be using The Kings Indian, or the Sicilian Dragon but they don’t call them by those names. It is the instinct they play from. Kevin’s use of zugzwang was a living testament to RZA’s words.


The other day I checked my email and I was happy to find that HHCF has been invited to bring our full program to the hall. We meet next week to discuss the details. I look very forward to reconnecting with ACOE and helping the kids discover themselves and actualize their potential on another level. Finally I’d like to thank Mr. Fenner, Mr. Hopson, Mrs. Goree, Kamal Ahmed of (MBA) and all of the guards and staff at the juvenile hall for their kindness and support.

If you would like to pilot the HHCF Chess and Life Strategies program, Youth Entrepreneur Summer Program or Chess & Jiu-Jitsu classes visit  www.hiphopchess.com. You can new book by Adisa Banjoko Bobby, Bruce & the Bronx: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess.  

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