My guest today, Andre Norman shouldn’t be here. As he explains it, his life initially followed the trajectory of what you might expect from someone who grew up in poverty and dysfunction. Gang life to juvenile detention, to a conviction at 18 and sentences totaling 100 years in a maximum-security prison. Once in prison, Andre fought his way to the top, becoming known as one of the most dangerous gang leaders in the Massachusetts prison system.

But today, Andre’s life looks much different. He’s a free man, a husband, and a father. He’s also known as the ‘ambassador of hope’. Demonstrating what can happen when we choose to redirect our lives in a positive direction, no matter how unlikely that may seem. Andre uses his own story as a source of inspiration.

Once illiterate, he obtained his GED in prison, and went on to play a key role in ending the protest in Ferguson, Missouri once he was free, and even earned a fellowship at Harvard University. In this episode of Author Hour, Andre talks about his journey and his new book, Ambassador of Hope: Turning Poverty and Prison into A Purpose-Driven Life.

Nikki Van Noy: Andre, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your new book, Ambassador of Hope.

Andre Norman: It’s a pleasure to be here and thank you so much for inviting me on.

Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. Let’s start by talking about why you wanted to write this book and why the time is now?

Andre Norman: I wanted to write the book many years ago. I’ve just been so busy and focused, trying to be helpful and do what I do naturally, I didn’t have time to actually write the book. So, I finally got to a place where the book had to be done. I’d been doing this work for 28 years and it’s no guarantee how many more years I have. I wanted to get it done as a memoir, as a legacy piece, and a guidepost of what people can do if they put their mind to it.

Nikki Van Noy: You have quite a story to tell so let’s start back with your childhood and tell me what your circumstances were like growing up.

Andre Norman: Well, back in the 70s, it was really drastic and different and in the 2000s, this is probably like 30 made for TV movies about the single mom with the six kids who can’t afford to do everything the kids want. I was the fifth of six kids and I went through the domestic violence with mom and dad and went through illiteracy up until the third grade.

It’s a bad story now and I didn’t fit in, my mom couldn’t afford to buy me the cool stuff, so I gravitated to the streets to compensate for what she couldn’t do and then I just found my way into the streets and I got stuck. Like so many before me.

Nikki Van Noy: You ultimately joined a gang, correct?

Andre Norman: Yes, I mean, when you’re out in the streets, you against the world doesn’t always work. So, it’s like you are getting what you fit in to because other kids out there who have the same issues, a lack of parenting, a lack of education, a lack of purpose, or goals. So, it’s kind of like a band of people who just got together. And the society calls a gang, and I call a bunch of lost souls.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, how old were you when you found the gang, Andre?

Andre Norman: I started in sixth grade so I was probably 11, 12 years old.

Nikki Van Noy: Okay, how did things roll out from there, you ultimately landed in the juvenile detention center, correct?

Andre Norman: It plays out classically, first you’re in school, you’re getting in trouble, they send you to the principal’s office and they send you to detention and they send you to alternative school and they send you to juvenile probation and then they send you to the county jail and then they send you to the state penitentiary. It just is one step after the other, it’s like a manufacturing system. It’s like a conveyor belt, roll down the line, stamp you till they finally drop you at the state prison.

Nikki Van Noy: A cycle. Tell me, I mean, we’ve all heard about this system and that you’re right, the very typical chain of events. Tell me from your perspective, what it was like to live through that?

Andre Norman: The hardest part, living through it, was you didn’t know if you were going to live through it, that’s the hardest part. There’s no guarantee that you’re not going to be the guy shot tonight. You’re not going to be the guy ran over by a car tonight, there’s no guarantee, you’re going to be the one to live through it.

Every moment, when you’re in the street and every moment when you’re in a maximum-security prison, there’s no guarantee that 10 minutes from now, you’re going to be alive. Which makes you uber-focused and super serious about every second. Because, if you don’t pay attention, those are the moments that you’re mostly going to die.

Facing a Lifetime in Jail

Nikki Van Noy: Having not lived through that experience, it’s so difficult to wrap your head around what the impact of that would be, especially because you were feeling this way from such a young, formative age.

Andre Norman: The best way I can describe it for someone who has never been to prison is when we’re kids, we went to the pool, we go on a high dive for the first time and you looked over and you were terrified. But you couldn’t go back because there were 20 kids on the ladder behind you so you had to jump, but you didn’t want to jump.

You didn’t want to be uncool, but you don’t want to be the kid trying to say excuse me and go back down the ladder. You’re just standing there terrified and even when you jump, you’re still scared. The fear doesn’t go away until you hit the water and you come back up. The entire time you’re standing on that diving board, you’re just terrified and there’s no exit. In prison, it’s even worse because there’s no ladder to go back down. Once they throw you in there, you’re in there.

Nikki Van Noy: To be clear, you weren’t just in prison, you were in a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts with sentences totaling over 100 years. Talk to me about what it felt like to be in that position where presumably, this was the rest of your life that you were looking at being incarcerated.

Andre Norman: The toughest part that you try to get your mind around, is when you go to the courthouse and they say, the United States of America versus Andre Norman. I’m an 18-year-old black kid who can barely read, who grew up in a poverty situation and doesn’t have much. It would be at war, be in competition against the United States of America, it’s just crushing, it just takes all the air out.

When you sit in the courtroom and they call your case, it’s the United States of America versus Andre Norman. You’re just done, you’re defeated before you start. I can’t even describe it. Fighting the United States of America as an 18-year-old kid who can barely read, it is not a good feeling.

Nikki Van Noy: I can’t even imagine. I mean, just hearing about that, the word overwhelming just comes to mind.

Andre Norman: Imagine if I put you in a ring with Mike Tyson and said, go for it, in his prime. And you had no boxing training, you’re hoping they don’t ring the bell for real, that’s all you can do, somebody tell me this is a joke, they’re not going to ring the bell, this man is really not going to punch me in my face. But then they ring the bell and it’s you against Mike Tyson and you’re going to lose and lose badly. When they rang the bell, it was Andre Norman versus the United States of America and I lost badly.

Nikki Van Noy: At that moment, as you were awaiting your sentencing, was there any feeling of hope at all or were you just waiting to hear the verdict that you were going to spend the rest of your life in prison?

Andre Norman: There’s no hope in that scenario. You’re just crushed and however you go through by whatever means is now irrelevant, you’re about to get handed a sentence from a judge that’s going to take, for the most part, the rest of your life and put you behind a cage. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it’s just a horrible feeling to say, I’m going to spend the next 30 years of my life locked in a cage.

Nikki Van Noy: Once you were in that cage, you were considered one of the most dangerous gang leaders in the Massachusetts prison system. Talk to me about how you escalated to that level and what being in that position felt like?

Andre Norman: When I first got to prison, I want to tell people the honest truth, I was scared, I was terrified. I didn’t know if I was going to be raped, I didn’t know if I was going to be stabbed, I didn’t know what was going to happen. And I walked in, I’m 18, I’m scared to death, I’m in a maximum-security prison, I got too much time to count and I’m saying to myself, “I have got to set a tone, I have got to let people know that I’m not the guy to be messed with.”

My plan was, to just beat up the first guy that came near me and let people know that I will fight, they’re not going to do something to me or take something from me because I’ll fight. When I got to the unit, the shocking thing was, all of my friends from special needs were in the room. All of my friends from the principal’s office were in the room, all of my friends from juvie probation were there, all of my friends who got kicked out of school were there.

I knew a third of the prison, my first day. My friends were like, “Hey, what took you so long, we knew you were coming.” And, I was amazed that my fear went away and it became like a reunion with all my friends from the past.

Nikki Van Noy: That’s crazy. It’s like college.

Andre Norman: It’s a college for kids who don’t fit in. I tell people all the time, prison isn’t really for criminals, there are people in the streets who have never gone to jail who have committed crimes, prison is for quitters. I quit on myself early. I had excuses, I had justifications, but the baseline is I quit. The one thing we all had in common at the prison is we all quit on football, on band, on church, on education. We all quit at some point, and they collect all the quitters up, and they drop us off at the prison.

Nikki Van Noy: When you were in prison though, it sounds like in a way, you sort of thrived there, you were at the top of the heap, is that correct?

Andre Norman: I fought my way to the top of the heap. When you’re in junior high school, you might be the coolest kid in junior high school but when you go to high school, you’re in the bottom of the pile, you’re a freshman. You fight your way to the front of the line, you’re the senior, class valedictorian, captain of the football team, everybody loves you, you go to college, you’re a freshman again, at the bottom of the bowl. You fight your way till four years of college, you did great, everybody loves you, you go to grad school, hit the bottom of the bowl.

Regardless of what you did at the prison before, or the level before, when you get to the state prison, you have to reprove yourself. For the first six years of my sentence, I fought daily to prove myself and to earn the status of being respected and being feared. I fought people daily and I went through a lot of turmoil, two and a half years in solitary confinement, two attempted murder convictions, nine state transfers. I’ve been around the country–I’ve had riots on airplanes. Anything and everything I could do to build a reputation of Andre is invincible, I did.

An Epiphany

Nikki Van Noy: What was your epiphany with that? How did that come to an end for you?

Andre Norman: I’m in maximum security solitary confinement, locked in a cell for two and a half years by myself. My mom came to see me and when my mom came to see me, she asked me, “How did you get in jail, in jail?” I said mom, “I been working hard.” She just looked at me and she kind of cried and she walked out. I thought my mother, what is she tripping about? I’m winning, I’m the third-ranking gang member in the state, I control this, I control that.

I thought I was winning, I’m locked in a cell, handcuffed and shackled to come out of my cell at any time and I think I’m winning. I’ve convinced myself that I was winning. When my mom came to see me, she just looked at me like, my son is gone. I didn’t understand and it took me a couple more years actually before I realized that it wasn’t my mother who went crazy. I had gone crazy and I came to realize I was in the wrong place. I had set myself up to become the king of nowhere, that’s how I termed it.

I was a king of nowhere–I was a king of a prison on a side road that nobody cared about, it was all made up stuff for the most part of the rest of the world. It was kind of like the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is a great movie until you get to the end, everybody loved the Wizard of Oz, it was a great movie, down the yellow brick road, the scarecrow, the tin man.

Everything was great about the movie until you get to the end and it’s just some guy pulling levers. I’m running down the yellow brick road of prison. I get to the end and lo and behold, the Wizard of Oz is a scam, it’s all a scam. I said, “What is this?” It’s a scam. It just broke my heart and it broke my spirit, and I said, “Wow, this is crazy.”

I have almost killed myself too many times to count, gotten myself locked up for who knows how many decades and it is all a scam, it was just a false dream. When I reached the end of the yellow brick road–which I’m really not supposed to, is not designed for you to get to the end, you’re supposed to die en route–but I made it to the end and I saw it was a scam and I said, “I’m the king of nothing.”

I said, “I don’t want to die the king of anything.” So, I changed my direction and said, “Well, I want to go home, and I want to be successful.” I said, “Where do successful people come from?” I decided college, so I picked a college called Harvard University. I go home, go to Harvard and be successful. I made up my mind the same way I made up my mind to become the Wizard of Oz, I made up my mind to go to Harvard.

Nobody believed me, everyone thought I was crazy, but I went back to school, got my GED and I went to counseling as I had a slight anger management problem. I started going to classes and teaching myself the law and every day, for 20 hours a day, I worked on the goal of going to Harvard University and being successful.

It took me eight years to overturn cases, educate myself, heal myself, and prepare myself to be free. On November 15th, 1999, I walked out of prison with a goal, and I just started working. It took from November 15th, 1999, all the way to January 2015 before I got a fellowship at Harvard University.

Nikki Van Noy: Amazing. I want to go back to that epiphany really quickly where you had your Wizard of Oz moment. Was there a moment when you realized wow, I’m on the road to nowhere, I am the king of nowhere, or was it more of a slow dawning realization for you?

Andre Norman: For me, actually, I was in solitary confinement for trying to kill some people. I had a dispute and I was about to try to kill a few more people because that was my goal, it was my Wizard of Oz moment, had I attacked these people, I’d have gone from number three to number one.

But instead, God spoke to me and God challenged me to change my direction and when God challenged me, I got mad. I said, “God, why are you talking to me?” All of my life, there’s been no God and I’m obviously beat to the floor, there was no God. When kids threw rocks at me on the bus and called me nigger, there was no God. My father walking out of the house and didn’t come back, there was no God. Every Saturday I sat on the porch waiting for him to come take me out, no God.

Free lunch kid and people make fun of me, going to school in dirty clothes, I can go on a list of things and I told him that day, “You’ve never been there for me so leave me alone,” and God stuck with me and he said, “Hey, don’t do this life choice,” and he won the argument, I went back to my cell and people say, “Well how do you know it was God?”

If you look at my life now, look from where I started and look where I’m sitting, there’s no other explanation other than God. I’m not this smart, I’m not this cool, I’m not this swift, this is an act of God. It took me from the basement of a prison, put me to Harvard law school, put me in London Business School, had me in the White House, had me all over the world. I’m here with you now. I’ve just been blessed the whole time and didn’t know it and when he finally showed it to me, I just came to understand, and I rolled with it.

Nikki Van Noy: Wow. Talk to me about from the moment that God made himself apparent to you in that cell and then I believe you said it was the eight years that it took for you to get yourself out of prison. What did that look like, what were you doing in that time to turn things around and to get yourself headed in this new direction?

Andre Norman: I didn’t know the scripture at the time, but it says, “Faith without work is death.” If I had not worked, I would have died in prison. But what I did is I went to a GED class and I taught myself how to read. Once I knew how to read, I went to anger management classes–I had anger management issues.

I went to anger management every day and I started going to the law library and I taught myself the law, because fighting on the prison yard wasn’t going to get me out of jail, it was going to keep me in jail, so I started fighting my case, and I won my appeal. After that, I went through every class that was available and I went down and I asked somebody for the most part, “Where’s the angry black man class?”

They said, “We don’t have one.” “How do you not have an angry black man class? You got about a million black people locked up. You should have an angry black man class, that’s easy.” They said, “It doesn’t exist.” I had a friend of mine, he came to me and he said, “Andre, come with me,” and he took me to AA. I said, “Gordon, I don’t drink.” He said, “Just sit down,” and he introduced himself and he introduced me to the group.

He said, “Listen, Andre, when you hear us talk about alcohol, you substitute it for anger,” and he took me to NA, and being a hothead, “I don’t have a drug problem, I don’t use drugs,” he said, “Just sit down.” And the group told me the same thing. “When you hear us talk about drugs, you substitute it for anger.” He took me to every program, and he said, “Andre, there is no perfect program. You have to get what is available and make it work for you to the best of your ability.”

I went for eight years, I never had a substance abuse problem, but the self-help tenents apply and that is what I did. For eight years law, library, training, classes, programs–everything I could get my hands on, newspapers, books, anything. And I didn’t know if it was going to work but I know if I didn’t use it, it wasn’t going to work. There was no guarantee it would work but it was guaranteed that if I didn’t use it, I would end up back in prison.

A New Focus

Nikki Van Noy: Earlier in this conversation we were talking about this notion of survival and how your first day in prison you came in and you were ready to fight because that is how you knew you were going to survive. When you had this period where you decided to turn around and turn toward learning to read and getting your GED and taking this different path, how did you survive in prison when you weren’t willing to fight anymore?

Andre Norman: Oh no, see you added that. You sound like my wife now, you added I wasn’t willing to fight. I never said I wasn’t willing to fight. I’ll say this here right now, I am still willing to fight.

Nikki Van Noy: Okay, I got you.

Andre Norman: I would go to programs every day and there was a time or two people would try to challenge me. One guy stopped me said, “Hey Andre, what are you doing in a program building?” I said, “Man, getting my life together.” He said, “You’re the smartest guy in the prison, you don’t need counseling.” I said, “Dude, I need counseling, me and my father, it’s just been bad. He got all of this stuff in my head, I am trying to get out of my head, get it out of my heart so I can learn to be better.”

He said, “Man, listen, what’s really going on over in that program building because there is nothing wrong with you, because you are the smartest guy here.” And he was challenging my integrity. So, I said to him, I said, “Listen, my plan is to go to counseling and that’s easy. That is one of two things I am going to talk about. I can go to my unit, I can get my knife, and come back and stab you in the face, I can talk about that or I can go up there and talk about me and my dad and our bad relationship. You pick, but either way, I am going to counseling.”

And he said, “Dre, it is horrible what you’re father did to you, you need to go and get that fixed.” I said, “All right then, you got that.” The truth is he pulled me to the side, then he said, “Yo Dre, why don’t you come teach me some of the stuff they’re teaching you because I got problems with my father too.” I kid you not, I would say 85 to 95% of people in prison got daddy issues and the number is the same for people who haven’t been in prison.

Nikki Van Noy: Did you see as you started to go to counseling and to change in prison, did you have a trickle-down impact on other prisoners that you were interacting with?

Andre Norman: It had a huge impact. Again, I was the third-ranking gang member in the state. So, when you come to prison you can only do what the bosses do. So, if the bosses don’t go to school, you don’t go to school. If the bosses don’t do X, you don’t do X. So, as a former boss, when I decided I was going to school it opened the flood gates for other people to go. When I decided to go into counseling it opened the flood gates for other people to go.

When I first went to the anger management program, I went in, and the guys pulled me aside and said, “Hey Dre, you are going to be in here for six hours a day in a stupid program.” I said, “I get it.” I said, “This is how you beat the program, there is always a way to beat the program.” I said, “What’s the way?” He said, “You answer one question in the morning, you answer one question in the afternoon session, and you’re program compliant they can’t kick you out.”

I said, “Okay, cool.” I said, “What do you learn?” He said, “You don’t learn nothing, but you are going to give these people your business.” I was like, “Man get out of here.” I went to programs and I asked a ton of questions in the morning, I asked a ton of questions in the afternoon and by me asking questions you couldn’t challenge me because I am the shot caller. It gave leeway for other people to be in a conversation and discussion because people were sitting in these groups scared to talk. They didn’t ask for help because the shot callers were saying you couldn’t. But I was the biggest shot caller in the room, so I said you could, therefore you could.

Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me about the process of appealing and gaining your freedom, what did that feel like?

Andre Norman: I went into a program in a Catholic church that’s outreach to the prison. I had been studying for 18 months with Todd Schafer. I wasn’t trying to be Jewish–he wasn’t trying to be black, he was just a teacher and I was a willing student and the things that Todd taught me was all about humanity. I don’t really remember the religious stuff–I remember the human stuff that he taught.

Then after studying with Todd for 18 months, I got invited to a Catholic program. It was a weekend retreat at the prison, and I got saved that weekend, June 12th, 1999 at 7:00. Fort Lamont from St. Bezos I did my savior prayer with him. And I didn’t go home for another six months and I tell people all the time, I got free on June 12th. I went home on November 15th, and there is a distinct difference.

There are a lot of people who get out and get free, and they go home but they are not free. There are a ton of people who go home but none of them are free. They are still locked in the mindset that they had before they got out. You know getting out was just a formality. It was really a waste of time for most of them.

Nikki Van Noy: And then once you were out, you fulfilled that dream of going to Harvard, correct?

Andre Norman: Yes, I did.

Nikki Van Noy: Wow.

Andre Norman: I started going to Harvard to do lectures on campus. I gave lectures at the Divinity School, I give lectures at the Law School, I give lectures at John F. Kennedy School of Government. I was hanging out almost every day in the African American Department. This is crazy, when my friends call me like, “Dre, what’s up?” And I am hanging out at Harvard. They invited me.

So, I got to meet Cornel West, I got to meet Charles Overton, I got to meet Henry Louis Gates. I got to meet all of these giant black professors in academia and they know who I am and they’re talking to me and it’s like, wow. I saw that with my insights and wisdom, I can hold a conversation with the smartest black men on the planet and I was like, “How does that work?” I am a guy from prison. I came to realize it wasn’t that I was the guy from prison, I saw myself as the guy from prison, so therefore I was. When I saw myself as a valuable person, therefore I was.

Nikki Van Noy: That’s amazing. So, you were not even literate at the point when you first entered prison and you went all the way from illiteracy to Harvard in the span of a relatively short amount of time as you were largely in prison, making a lot of that journey.

Andre Norman: I have been in prison since I was a little kid, I just didn’t know it. Most people who are listening to this podcast are in some form of prison. It could be a job you hate, it could be a relationship you hate, it could be addiction to gambling, it could be addiction to a lot of things, and because you are not in a physical locked cell doesn’t mean you’re not in prison. I have been home for 20 years and I’ve helped more people get free who were never even in jail.

Nikki Van Noy: What do you think most people need to hear when it comes to finding their way out of their own personal jails and toward freedom and hope?

Andre Norman: The number one thing you need is to have somebody who will listen to you. That you are not alone and that there is someone who cares for you. That is the hardest part, finding someone who is actually going to listen to your problems and be concerned and caring and reflective and helpful and will guide you out of that. It’s not what you can say but who is going to listen to you say it and that they give you real critical, honest, loving feedback to get you to a better place.

I have a friend out in Tampa, his name is Joe Polish and he’s huge. He’s like my brother, on helping people see the humanity and the treatment whatever addiction or strife that they are dealing with. I used to help people because I am good at speaking and I am good at interventions and he taught me to add a compassion and humanity piece to it, which was what I was missing. So, I could go and talk somebody off a ledge–I might damage them in the process, but I would get them off the ledge.

Working with Joe, he taught me how to be more thoughtful of the person than I was before. So, there are definitely new things to learn in being helpful. You just need to know that you matter, that somebody cares about you. It is not an overnight fix, but it can get fixed.

Nikki Van Noy: So, we live in a world where there is increasingly all of this noise, but people feel more and more isolated. How would you recommend people go about finding those people to listen to them?

Andre Norman: If you want to find your tribe as it has been called in many circles, the first thing you have to do is understand who you are. I am Andre, I am 52, I spent a lot of years in prison, I spend even more years helping people, what do I like to do? I love movies, I love traveling. I just have to make a list of who I am.

So many people live for others, so I live for my kid. So, my kid likes baseball, so I like baseball. My wife likes fancy food, so I eat fancy food.

My boss wants me to do something, so I do it. If you look at your day, most of it is spent living for other people. It’s not actually living for yourself. So, you have to sit down, I had to sit down and say, “Well, who is Andre? What does Andre like? What does Andre want in life?” Because when my life is over, all the service to others is great but did I live my life and be true to myself at the same time?

I found the thing that I love the most, I identified it. Then the second, the third, and fourth and I identified them. I made sure that they weave into my day, not into my weekends, not into my summers, but into my day. I have ten things that I love, and I weave them into my day. So even though I am working for somebody or helping somebody or going someplace, I count too and oftentimes, when you can’t connect to yourself, it makes it almost impossible to connect to somebody else who is trying to help you.

The Impossible is Possible

Nikki Van Noy: That makes a lot of sense. What do you want people to walk away from your book understanding? What is the key message that you really hope people take from your story and now from this book?

Andre Norman: The key message that I want people to take away from this book is that the impossible is possible. People said I’d never be alive past 18. People said I would never get out of prison. People said I’d never learn how to read. People would even dare to say I couldn’t go to Harvard. I couldn’t make it to the White House, I couldn’t make it to business school. I couldn’t make it to Saudi Arabia or other places I have been in the world.

People will always tell you what you can’t do based on their limitations and fears for their own selves. So, stop listening to the noise. What I want people to take away is for every person who told me I couldn’t, there was somebody standing behind them who wanted to tell me I could but I was so busy listening to the person who told me I couldn’t, I didn’t have time for that. When I stopped listening to the people who told me I couldn’t, then I could hear the people who told me I could.

I can go down the list of people every single day, all the people who speak great things to me and have expectations for me, I can hear them now, not because they’re there, but because I got rid of the people I used to listen to, “Dre, you ain’t nothing. Dre you will never make it. Dre, you are not going to amount to nothing. Dre, you’re black. Dre, you used to be in jail. Dre, you got a criminal record.” I spent so much time listening to naysayers, there is no room for Tucker Max to talk.

There is no room for Joe Polish to talk. I was stuck with who I wanted to be stuck with. When I let them go then there was room for other people to come in and give me the positivity.

Nikki Van Noy: I am just curious hearing you say that and bearing in mind the background that you had growing up, when you look back do you think that those positive voices were out there somewhere when you were a kid but you just didn’t know how to listen to them through the noise?

Andre Norman: They were 1000% there. They were always there, I just wasn’t listening to them. I was listening to my friends. I was listening to what popular culture said and I wasn’t listening to the people who really had my best interests at heart. There are six billion people in this world. There are a lot of people trying to help you. I am just one in six billion but often times, we gravitate to the people we’ve locked ourselves into.

Now if you were in a bad situation and you are living a bad life and the people around you are doing the same, listening to them is not going to get you where you want to go. If you want new places and new things, you need more information, and it’s going to come from new people. It’s very rarely going to come from the people in your current circle because the people in your current circle are most likely suffering in some form or fashion in the same trauma as you are and that is why they are with you. So, they are not the ones to ask for advice. You don’t have to un-know them, but you have to unhinge yourself from them to help yourself, and you can come back and help them later.

Nikki Van Noy: Bearing in mind everything you have been able to overcome, which is incredible, in an ideal situation, a child won’t have those circumstances, where they have this path that is not predestined entirely but this likely for them to follow, what can we do for kids to help them find a different way to go? So that hopefully they won’t have to create this incredible story like you have to rise above their own circumstances.

Andre Norman: The kids in our current lives, I’ll take my son as the first example. I have the ability to control his environment. So, if I want him to be around certain types of people, I send him to certain types of camps or certain types of activities. Because I have the ability to place him in these different situations, and Genius Network has a youth camp during an annual event. So, I brought my son, you have the number one mastermind group in the world having this annual event and they had a thing for kids this year.

My son is in the room with 10 other kids learning from the best of the best. I got to control his environment. When I was a kid, when I was 14, I was in a park hanging out with guys selling drugs. That was my environment, that’s what my dad left me. So, controlling your child’s environment is step one. You can’t pick their friends directly, but you can pick them indirectly.

All the kids in that room, my son made friends with half of them. I choose the room, he picked the ones he wants to be friends with. Now for kids that you don’t know or the kids from the other side of town, how do we help the poor and downtrodden? Well, the first thing you have to do is not feel sorry for them. But just understand that they don’t want to be there either. I say this, you can go to your prison and try to help a 28-year-old guy who is willing to deal with 10 years getting his life together.

But that 28-year-old man used to be a seven-year-old kid in first grade and in first grade, he just wanted a hug and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If you would have given him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a hug in kindergarten, he would have been your best friend. He was hungry and he was alone. That’s the time you want to talk to somebody. Don’t try to catch him at 28 when he is a hardened criminal, not that he doesn’t deserve or want help.

That seven-year-old kid who is just looking for attention and something to eat, those are the ones we need to go get. I need everybody listening to this podcast to reach out and say, “Dre, not how can I go to prison, but how do I get to an elementary school?” Because if you stop the school to prison pipeline now, prisons will run out. There are thousands, if not millions of kids in kindergarten, first and second grade who are just looking for a hug and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

It sounds simple but I know that kid because I was him and you could have saved the state, and the country, and myself a lot of misery and headache for a peanut butter jelly sandwich and a hug.

Nikki Van Noy: So powerful. All right Andre, the book is Ambassador of Hope: Turning Poverty and Prison into a Purpose-Driven Life. Let’s let listeners know where else they can find you?

Andre Norman: You come to the state prison, you’ll find me. I run a program at the state prison right now. Last year there was a disturbance and seven people got murdered at a prison and the state reached out to me and said, “Andre, can you come here and help us solve this problem.” I’ve been working in the state for the last nine months, setting up and running a violence intervention program behind the wall, the top gang leaders and top influencers and help them learn how to socially get along and not kill each other, then teach others to do the same.

Our unit has been open for approximately nine months, we haven’t had one fight, we haven’t had one stabbing, we haven’t had one assault. If you want to find me, come to the state prison and come hang out with me and see some guys, real time, learning to get better.

We also have a video conferencing center where people can beam in or Skype in and talk to the guys in person. That’s for real, we have a thing called Genie Cast where the guys all the speakers in the world can Zoom in and talk to our guy,s but you can find me there, you can go to my website,, social media, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, it’s all @andrenorman, at some form or fashion, it’s just my name.

Nikki Van Noy: Just to clarify, state prison, is this Massachusetts or have you moved since then?

Andre Norman: I’m actually in South Carolina right now.

Nikki Van Noy: Okay.

Andre Norman: I’m in South Carolina State Penitentiary, come on down and hang out.

Nikki Van Noy: Awesome. Andre, thank you so much for joining us today, what an incredible story.

Andre Norman: My pleasure, thank you for having me.