Newark teen wows Washington audience with his words

Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger | Email the author | Follow on Twitter

Taj Atkinson, left, Central High School senior in Newark with Lata Reddy, vice president of corporate social responsibility and president of the Prudential Foundation attend a forum in Washington, D.C. about “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative launched by President Obama to close the social and economic gaps of opportunity for young boys and men of color. (AP Images for Prudential)

The White House knew Taj Atkinson of Newark would be impressive when officials invited him to take part in a forum in the nation’s capital this morning.

What they couldn’t have anticipated is how much the 18-year-old young man would captivate the audience during his opening remarks at a gathering about My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge, an initiative President Obama launched last year to close the social and economic gaps faced by young men of color.

The Central High School senior invoked Confucius, telling the audience of elected officials, and youth and community leaders that a quote from the Chinese philosopher is his mantra when dealing with struggles in life.

“Confucius once said, ‘When goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps,’ ” said Atkinson.

He was 7 when his mother died, and Atkinson told the audience how he decided that he would not allow the loss to stop him from moving forward.

That’s determination.

“Her death played the role as a calm in my life, a separation and a gathering of thoughts – rather than a period, stopping me completely.”

He explained that, at times, he’s faced challenges that held him down like “weights on a swimmer’s ankle,” but he refused to be drowned, choosing instead to kick away all the negative waves of words.

“I worked hard to show those who look up to me that, no matter how small and dirty your pond may seem, you can still reach the great sea of success.”

He went onto talk about his school’s role in My Brother’s Keeper; Central was the location at which Mayor Ras Baraka first announced the city would be involved in the program, with an emphasis on finding ways to improve the relationship between the city’s youth and the its police department.

Central High School students, however, had already begun such an effort when they wrote a letter to the captain of the police precinct that is just up the street from their school building. Since then, Atkinson told the audience, there have been panel discussions with the cops, and trips and a basketball tournament are being planned to continue the fellowship.

Atkinson then turned his sights toward U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, saying to everyone that he understands why the nation’s highest law enforcement officer believes it’s important for America to have its values protected by law.

“My goal is to continue to uphold the quality of life, safeguard civil liberties and make the people of my community knowledgable of their power,” he said. “Just like our attorney general, I will continue to work hard to represent my community’s values.”

And just when you thought he was done, Atkinson, in a very presidential-like manner, said he was honored to introduce the 82nd attorney general of the United States.

Holder, clearly moved, shook Atkinson’s hand as he came to podium, telling him and the audience, that Atkinson’s remarks were great – and that the introduction was like coming on after Abraham Lincoln.

“That young guy,” Holder said to the audience. “He’s good. He’s really good.” Holder told Atkinson that he has shown a commitment that ensures Central High School is the kind of place where classmates can learn, grow and thrive.

“I applaud you for striving to build fellowship and trust among law enforcement and the youth in your community,” Holder said.

“I want to thank you for serving as, really, an inspiring model for the students at your school and really far beyond your school.”

The gathering in Washington brought together youth leaders from around the country, as well as mayors and directors of My Brother Keeper’s programs that need funding to succeed.

Representatives of Prudential attended the forum and Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to Obama, said the insurance company has committed $13 million in grants and technical assistance to coalitions that are creating partnerships and programs to remove the barriers to success for young men of color.

“We are proud to be supporting the president’s My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge, to provide support to communities who want to create cradle-to-college and career pathways to opportunities for boys and young men of color,” said Lata Reddy, vice president of corporate social responsibility and president of the Prudential Foundation.

Naturally, Newark is included in the funding as programs and initiatives are developed. Atkinson is definitely going to be on board, making an impact in some way before he heads off to college.

Until then, he’ll use today’s experience in Washington, D.C., to help him achieve the success Obama wants for young men just like him – and to show people that his hometown has kids who are more than a crime stat.

“He did a great job,” Central Principal Sharnee Brown said. “They heard about him, but they got a chance to see for themselves. He did it. He did it.”

Yes, indeed. He did.