On the Record With...Steve Pemberton

From foster care to proud husband, father and force of change, one man’s inspiring journey proves that determination can turn tragedy into triumph.

Posted: 02/08/2014 12:00 AM EST

I remember the day when I finally managed to escape the foster home in Massachusetts which, for over a decade, had been more like a prison. I remember sitting there with my social worker and thinking, "I just need to stay somewhere until I can get to college." He's going down the list of families to take me in. But it's a couple of days after Christmas, I’m 16, I’m Black, I’m male and there's no place for me to go. For a short period of time, my fate was in somebody else's hands. What I didn’t know was that I was aging out, in essence. I was simply cast out into a society that, from the day I was born, didn’t know what to do with me.

I distinctly remember thinking that never again will my fate be in somebody else's hands; names on a sheet of paper, an anonymous voice at the end of the telephone line. The reality though is that many young people are aging out of the foster care system today and they're in the exact same situation as I was.

It's a crisis that we rarely talk about. Those of us who have survived our situations and circumstances often want to hold those victories privately. We don’t want to tell people about the struggle that we've come from. Had I read my own story at 12, 13 years old it would have affirmed what I already knew, that I can overcome this. That’s why I wrote the book A Chance in the World, that’s why I’m engaged in philanthropic endeavors, and that’s why I’m focused on education and employment opportunities in my role as chief diversity officer at Walgreens.

It's trying to get children who are aging out of the foster care system to see themselves through the lens of possibility not circumstance. Only 3 percent of children who are in foster care actually go to college because of multiple placements and so they're not armed with the skill set to enter the workforce or ranks of higher education. We can start re-framing the way that they see themselves and one of the ways to do that is not to lean away from adversity that they’ve come from, but lean into it.

Those many years of turmoil and struggle gave me a survival instinct that came from years of having to answer questions like "How am I going to eat today? How am I going to fend these people off me?" I had to size you up really quickly and figure out whether you were going to help me or not. That's a skill, but when you keep calling children in foster care underserved, at risk, underprivileged, they'll start to swallow that chain. It’s the other way around: despite it all they are still here. They’re just going to keep coming. In fact, the more that you try to break them down the stronger he or she gets.

So whether you’re talking about academic environments or a company like Walgreens, that's a skill set that we want. We know you're going to show up on time because there isn’t a safety net for you. You're going to work a little bit longer than is expected. You’re going to excel in college because there may not be a place for you to go back to. Your motivations are different because there is more hanging in the balance for you. In the end, out of adversity can rise forces that can shape communities, change the arc of generations and change lives.


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Now living in Chicago, my success and triumph throughout this journey begins and ends with my family. As a boy I dreamed of finding the family I came from and when that didn’t come true, I started dreaming of my having my own. And yet I still got it wrong, because they have been greater than my dreams. There’s no title more important to me than being Tonya's husband and father to Quinn, Vaughn and Kennedy.

The fact of the matter is when you don’t know what it's like to have a mother's love and a father's love you have two choices; you can lament and languish or you can believe and build. I was an inheritor of a circumstance that I did not ask for and I did not create but now as a man, I am responsible. A man is not measured by what he inherits, over which he has no say, but by that which he builds, over which he has ultimate say.

I want to change the narrative of how we look at adversity. I want to be an example of what is possible for someone whom society had forgotten and discarded. And I want my legacy to be that I took this crooked road that I inherited and I made it straight for other generations to build from.

Steve Pemberton is a trail-blazing corporate executive, child advocate, motivational speaker and author of A Chance in the World. He currently serves as the chief diversity officer and divisional vice president for Walgreens, and is the first person to assume this responsibility in the company’s 112-year history.

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(Photo: Earl Gibson III)

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