This is the second in a series of interviews with Baltimore change makers, old and new, working in the trenches and behind the scenes for a better Baltimore. By talking to baby boomers who have been fighting for social change since the 60s and millennials working to improve lives now, we hope to understand more about the big challenges in Baltimore, and how best to address them, from different perspectives. – The Eds.
Millennial Alan Upshur, founder and CEO of Get Out and Stay Out, can talk the talk because he has walked the walk. Born and raised in West Baltimore, he excelled in school and attended University of Maryland College Eastern Shore, but got into trouble and was convicted of felony crimes related to drugs and violence. He has been incarcerated twice, and after his second stay, he realized what he needed was a plan to “get out and stay out.” For Upshur, that meant getting a job and finishing college. Now 27, he is enrolled at BCCC as a fashion design major, studying to get his real estate license, and working at Lexus of Towson.
His hardscrabble experience inspired him to form the GOASO Live Life Foundation, a nonprofit mentoring program with a companion for-profit motivational lifestyle clothing and foot wear brand.
Upshur hopes that through GOASO he can motivate children and teens to build better lives through education, personal and social development, leadership training, entrepreneurship and more. He plans to recruit youth from schools, churches and community programs and motivate them to break the cycles of poverty and missed opportunity by teaching them how to succeed after failure.
The GOASO clothing line serves as an important tool in the program by employing teens, and spreading the message of GOASO through branding. It also helps to fund the charitable activities of the nonprofit.
Alan shared with us his perspective on the struggles in Baltimore, and how he feels we can make a change.
We have been working on these issues for decades. Why do you think we are still so behind?
Our community needs to look within. We need to focus on the success stories in West Baltimore to be role models for our community. There are people out here who have gone through rough times, and have come through and want to make a difference for others. We need to show the community that there can be success after failure; that a single mom with two kids can get back in school, or that a drug dealer who comes back to the neighborhood after prison can get a job. We don’t only need to hear it from a pastor or a politician. We need to highlight the success stories of real people who have seen a struggle, and come back to overcome it.
Also, we need to get to our kids sooner. There are drugs and violence in elementary schools. We need more money in education, and more passion for the kids. They need resources and opportunities to reach their dreams, because they have dreams. The young kids in West Baltimore want to grow up to be fire fighters, sports figures, and poets. But they need someone to come in and show them the way. Inspire them. Tell them the steps to make their dreams reality. They need better opportunities.
When you think of your personal successes, what makes you most proud?
I am most proud of being a mentor, helping others who have walked in my shoes. I have seen people make a change because of the things I tell them, or the things they have seen me do. When I left prison, I knew I had to figure a way to stay out, so I started the company, with the idea of helping others. I think I have inspired people around me to live a better life, and I am a good example because I have been through what they have been through. I have drawn my inspiration from those who have gone before me and overcome obstacles, and negative situations. Thinking I can do that for others makes me proud.
Which sector do you think is more effective for making change, business or government?
Business, especially local business, can really make an impact in the community. Small businesses are really connected to the people they serve, and could partner with nonprofits (even government) to get important services out to the people. For example, barber shops and hair salons could offer GED classes.
Do you think the arrest of Freddie Gray and the aftermath have brought much needed attention to the lingering, hard-to-solve problems we face?
No. There is too much ego and competition for attention in the way people are responding. We should be trying to accomplish unity and peace; instead some people are just trying hard to get attention. They say “black lives matter.” But I think all lives matter. Freddie Gray’s death and the events that have happened since then bring awareness to the public about some of the problems, but no good comes from that unless we are working for unity and peace.
How are you feeling, personally, about the Freddie Gray incident and the unrest that has followed?
There is so much pain. The people’s response is an outcry. There is injustice, and people need to speak up about what is unfair. We need to push against what breaks our community, but the anger and pain are not productive, unless we turn them into work for a good outcome. The youth in the community blew up under the pressure of Freddie Gray’s death. We need to give them a positive way to respond. We need to use their anger to make something better. We need to use their pain to accomplish some goals.
What next? What are your thoughts about how we try to make change moving forward?
Just like Langston Hughes used his pain to write poetry, we need to show the kids in West Baltimore how to use anger to create beauty. We need to give strong examples to the young people living in my community of successful people who come from my community. Young people can believe that they can be successful too if they see someone from their own neighborhood doing it. We need to use their anger to power their own gifts and passions.
We need to provide more opportunities for the youth, especially in entrepreneurship. This is a way to make something out of nothing. I have two thoughts in mind all the time that help me advance my shoe line, and they are “keep thinking on your feet,” and “appreciate the land you walk on.” I think if we can teach our kids these lessons, and show them role models, people that have gone through negative situations and overcome them, we can help our kids realize their own dreams.