Think Before You Move
Lemuel "Life" LaRoche, executive director of Chess & Community speaks with Chris Herron of Creature Comforts about how he is affecting lives of Athens' youth and the entire community one chess game at a time.
Q&A by Chris Herron, CEO/Co-Founder of Creature Comforts Brewing
Life: [My name is] Lemuel LaRoche. I’m also known in the Athens community as Life, or Life the Griot. I’m a spoken word artist. I’m a radio personality. I teach at the University of Georgia in the school of social work to help bring some social workers into the world that can make a huge impact. But, I’m known in this community as the Executive Director of Chess and Community which is a youth organization that develops young leaders in the Athens community and gives them the experience and gives them the platform that they need to think critically and make good choices so that we can have a greater Athens to come.
Chris Herron: So Life.
Life: Yes sir.
CH: Tell me a little about yourself man. Where are you from? Where’d you grow up?
Life: You know the accent. You know the accent. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and I came down to Georgia, I would say I was around 16, and I started in Atlanta. I made my way to Macon, Georgia. So, I came from the big city, and again, looking at the world as a small block, and I can remember as I was driving, I’m like, “Look at that deer! Look at that deer!” And they’d be like, “We see deer all the time.” “Look at that big ole rat!” and they’d be like, “That’s a possum!” Just a whole different way of looking at the world, but coming down to Macon, Georgia, and I’d finish high school there. I dropped out, came back, had the right people at the right time say the right things and let me know that I could use my mind to be of positive influence rather than of negative. And, from there, I started and went to Gordon College. You familiar with Barnesville, Georgia? And then, I transferred to University of Georgia. So, that’s what brought me into the Athens community, and I came to the University of Georgia as a social work student. So, I came with that “I’m going to change the world” type of energy.
CH: And now you’re doing it?
Life: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
CH: Very cool, man! So, how long was it? How long have you been here?
Life: I came to Athens in ’99 when I transferred here from Gordon College as a student. I think what really drew me into the Athens community, because I came to Athens I was like University of Georgia: 8 to 1 women to men ratio. What could go wrong? And whenever you get into the social work, you get into the community. You began to see, like hold on, outside of the University of Georgia, we have a community that’s in need and that’s what kind of inspired me and got me to the front line to say, “How do we coordinate the efforts of the University of Georgia and the Athens community.” And this is back in ’99. I’ve always been a community person. I went into the schools, developed programs like Clarke Central and Whit Davis Elementary. Just programs with poetry, programs that brought kids onto the campus to engage in plays. Before the initiatives that we see now, like these are things we’ve been really trying to do as a way to really get things moving in this community. When I began to intern at the Department of Juvenile Justice, first I started at Jackson County Correctional, and I would engage with all these men who were doing 20 years, 30 years, football numbers. And, it was like wow. I would try to tell them and teach them that despite where they’re at, that they can still have an impact in their community. Like, don’t give up on yourself. That kind of energy. But I ran into, “Why am I dealing with people who have already committed the crime?” I need to be focusing on people before they get there.
Life: And, that’s what brought me into the Department of Juvenile Justice. Interning there, I would see so many different kids, like a revolving door of kids just coming through, and the majority of them were getting in trouble for the same reasons. I saw my reflection, I saw myself at 16, at 15, and I was like “What inspired me? What guided me in the right direction?” It was the game of chess. It was always those elders that sat me down and said, “We’re going to sit down, we’re going to play some chess.” And, I would try to cut another block, and they’d be like, “No, come here! Sit down.” And, I just decided to use what they taught me as far as how they look at the world and how to understand the world. How to be more strategic and more critical and how I make plans. How I should make choices with my life. I took that same type of lesson; because every kid I would get from the Department of Juvenile Justice, I’d be like, “Sit down. We’re going to play chess.” Then I would just teach them chess. I would see how that changed how they began to have the whole impulsive behavior. I would always teach them, “Don’t react. Respond.” Reacting is if you hit me, I’m going to hit you back. You do this, I’m going to do this. If I get angry, I’m going to act this way. Responding is let me at least put some thought into what I’m going to do first. Even if you decide to punch them in the face, at least think that through first.
CH: Think through all the consequences first?
Life: And then go do it, you know, if you’re ready to deal with the consequences. I was able to teach that type of lesson through the chess with each one of the kids, and they got it.
Life: They got it, and they understood. It’s one thing to understand it; it’s another thing to implement it. When we see them begin to implement… and I like to boast about one of the kids that I picked up from the juvenile system. He’s actually right now in his last year in the psychology department at UGA, and he’s the one that’s being kind of vetted so he can take over because he’s been through all of it. He’s been through everything that we’re doing. He’s the best one that can take it with his energy and take it to the next level. So, some work with all these kids, I noticed that we would have 30 or 50 kids that would call me and say, “Life, man, I’m mad. I need to play some chess.” Let’s go. I would get them to Little Italy, get pizza, and we would just play chess. After a while, I was like, man, I’m a social worker. I don’t really have that kind of bread. So, it would be easier if we acted as some type of non-profit.
Life: In the sense where the community could get more involved, because I would take them one on one to Atlanta, do these different things, take them to play chess with homeless people in the parks, so they could really see like the way you see the world as one way.
Life: It’s a lot more to learn. I got things to learn. Let me just show you a different way of looking at the world, and doing so would change a lot of their perspectives; take them to Stone Mountain and give them a macro-view of Georgia, and then a micro-view of when they get to start on one end of Peachtree Street and drive up the other end all the way up to Lenox Mall, so they could see the social-economics of how the world works in so many ways. The homeless people on one end, rich people on the other end, and allow them to see, “You see that building from the top of the mountain. We’re about to drive to that building.” It changed their perspective. So, I just decided to incorporate a lot of that into the work that I was doing with the chess. Chess and climbing.
CH: Is that sort of why you stayed? So many communities to go to with that, right? And, coming from all of these big cities, what is it about Athens that has kind of kept you here?
Life: It’s an energy. It’s an energy in Athens that, you know, it’s different from other parts of Georgia. I’ve been to Macon. I’ve been to Atlanta, been to Savannah. Some of these are beautiful. Some of them have their issues. Athens has a kind of energy that it’s different from the rest, and with me, I’m always big on you don’t start things and don’t finish them. So, when I began these programs and this and that and while I was in my Master’s program, and it was one thing. But, now I’m about to graduate and it’s like, what am I going to do with all this? We always hear that assumption word, the turnover. These kids come and volunteer and give to these people’s lives. Then these students leave after a semester.
CH: You always hear of like Athens, in general UGA, where are you going to go after you graduate. It’s like nobody talks about, “So what are you going to do in Athens after you graduate? You know it’s always about going somewhere, so certainly we’re fortunate to have you staying here.
Life: And that’s what it was. It took a while, you know I’ve got people from all over the world that are like, “Bring what you’re doing here. Come here. We’ll pay you, Athens isn’t paying you. We’ll at least pay you to go do this.” But, it’s like, I’m not trying to go to a big city. I’m always like I’m a city boy, but I’m a country boy at heart.
CH: I hear you on that.
Life: I like to be on the farm and that kind of stuff. So, I think that’s what kept me in Athens because I’ve started something and it was like if I’m going to go anywhere else, let me at least finish it. Let me at least put the youth that’s been through this as an Executive Director, as an Assistant Director, so that youth can run it with his or her energy. And then, I can at least start to… because I’m a poet, I’m a writer. I’ve got two books. There’s so much more that I want to do, so much more inside of me that I recognize that is so important to at least develop. One thing, I got to UGA on a scholarship, and so far, we’ve given away 22 scholarships. We don’t have any major funding. All from grass root community building. So, it was a way of really paying it forward. Those brothers, those sisters, those others that spoke to me and pointed to me when I was at my crossroad. Now, it’s an opportunity for me to point to another youth, many other youths at their crossroads. Now, what brought me to college was the scholarship. I didn’t have any money. I was living in the restaurant in high school. We were in deep poverty. It was the right people saying the right things that engaged me, that put me in the right direction. It was only right for me to pass forward, so I’m not going to start something, and not at least finish it.
CH: Would you say that a lot of those elders were sort of at large the biggest influences on you kind of moving in this direction and starting it?
Life: It was a combination of things. I think they helped to develop the foundation. I would say my father played… he was an altruist. He would give you the shirt off his back. That was the kind of energy he was. So, I know I have a lot of that. You know, I wish I could just take it off and focus on building me. It’s like, if I want to do that I can, but my wife is on me like come on. So I get it. My father and a lot of those elders helped me build the foundation. It was a combination of me traveling. Me going to Zimbabwe, Israel, to other places and everywhere I go, I go with this chess board. I would give whoopings and I would take whoopings. You know, old Russian men… it was a way of experiencing, meeting other people, and we would play chess even if we didn’t speak the same language. It was a way to show them that, man, maybe this could be a tool that I could really use to bring to Athens to really start engaging and working together. This is why through this we have whites, blacks, Asians. You come every Monday, they call it the little UN. We have like sixty-something kids in there from various different backgrounds laughing, playing chess, and that forces the parents to get together. When we do chess and pizza, that forces parents regardless of your religious viewpoints, political viewpoints, to at least begin to befriend each other. “The kids are connecting with each other, maybe we can.” That goes across social-economic and political viewpoints. Now we’re, in some instance, helping to build a sort of community. We have to, with chess, see a long term strategy. When we look at the problem, when we look at the poverty, do we have the workforce we need? Do we have the soft skills we need? Do we have the next generation of worker in the Athens community? How are we going to develop them? I’m focusing on 13 year olds, 12 year olds, 15 year olds. In 10 steps on the chess board, this is 10 years. We’re developing that. They read it, they’re doing it.
CH: It amazes me with kids, as a father, and you have young kids, I’m not sure where it is but it’s like, when does it change? Because right now, kids are kids. They are not born with these prejudices, so at what point does it develop them? It’s a very interesting thing. It’s obviously a chance to get them together, but why couldn’t we do this with grown-ups?
Life: But, it’s the youth that are going to have to lead that.
Life: That’s what I’m bringing with the whole Chess and Community. People are really inspired by it because they see that it brings people together, regardless of where you’re at. Even when you see and you hear some of the viewpoints that are coming and their repeating from their parents, that’s an opportunity to not say, “Your parent is wrong.” But, more so say, “Hey, let’s talk about that. A different way.” And then talking to the parent and being like, “Now, your son said this.” “Oh I’m so sorry. Where did you get that from?” “It’s not a judgment thing. Look, let’s talk about it.”
CH: They’re learning everything they hear. They’re listening, they’re sponges.
CH: So, let’s switch it up here, let’s talk about Athens. What do you think are Athens’ greatest assets, you know? What are the things we have going on here?
Life: It’s the minds. Athens has huge potential. You have access to the University of Georgia which has access to some of the brightest minds in the country, in the world, in the state, right in our back yard. When we utilize and we tap into that mind… When we mind the mind in a more positive way for the positive resources, we can have a greater impact. It’s a lot of research, a lot of data collecting. The rule should be if we’re collecting the data, if we’re researching these communities, then the absolute least we could do is to use whatever the findings to better implement them into this community. So, I think Athens has access to some great minds on the University side, but also in the community. There is some brilliance in these communities that are not being tapped. And through our programs, it’s about how do we tap into that. What happens when we bring industries, non-profits, for-profit businesses, churches, when we include all of these different aspects into Athens together, the music scene, into a way that it gives us a new energy that can be utilized. But, if everyone is operating in their own silo, that’s what’s keeping this division and why there are so many different issues on one level. I think one of Athens greatest assets is untapped potential of entrepreneurs, of new minds, of businesses, of people with heart. People with “I want to make money, but I also believe in the community that I want to raise my kids in.” That is one of the greatest assets in Athens that can project and carry on and on long term.
CH: If we can harness all of that, what would your Athens look like? Like if we can say like, man, this is what I want Athens to be.
Life: Athens would truly be what they call the Blue-dotted Red Sea. It would be that purple county, not just in color, but in energy. It would truly be that where we’re engaging, where we’re working, where there is not a this community, music community, business community, black community, the pinewoods, the Hispanic community… It would be a more integrated community if we engage all of those different aspects. As well, it would be a community where we could clearly see the trajectory as far as where kids and how kids are growing. We’re talking about a town with 38% poverty; we have to find a way to spread it out a little bit, and make this thing work. Let’s not just concentrate downtown, let’s not just concentrate in certain areas. How do we build collectively the entire town? If we can successfully engage, and that comes with dialogue, it comes with these kinds of conversations. It comes with people being honest and open, and being willing to engage in a positive way. I can see Athens as a very inclusive community, and we can really do some great things.
CH: What do you think the biggest needs are, or what can Athens do for Chess and Community? Or what are your greatest needs for your business to grow and stay here in Athens? You mentioned all these big cities, how do we make sure that Athens doesn’t lose the work that you’re doing?
Life: Just from continued support. Regardless, even though I haven’t gotten any major grants or major foundations, it’s been the generosity of this community that’s allowed me to function for the last five years. We’ve had five different conferences, given 22 scholarships away. We’ve inspired thousands and thousands of kids. But it was through the generosity of this community, though. It’s more of the saying goes, “Not what can Athens do for me?” “What can we do for our country? What can I do for Athens?” And the long term trajectory, the long term plan is to host three days of international, big chess tournaments and have kids come from all over the world into Athens to explore the city, explore the town, and engage with our kids. This is why we’re doing the Ethiopia trip. This is why we’re doing these trips, as a way to bring more kids into our communities. What can Athens do for me? It’s more support, just you to support the process. When you see us, hear about the things we do, come out. I mean you hear about the chess and ice cream, the chess and pizza. Bring your kids out. Even if you don’t know how to play chess, you come learn how to play chess, but as a way to be involved, be engaged with what we’re trying to do to this community, and be a part of that process. And I like to tell people that even regardless of your political viewpoints, whatever extreme views, when you come to us, let’s just enjoy ourselves. You know, let’s not come here and have a debate about your political views while you got a whole bunch of kids in the back. We don’t have time for that kind of energy.
CH: Awesome. What’s inspiring you in this community? I mean what are things that you do look at, you know we talked about the minds and the abilities, you know those assets that we have, what stuff do we have going on that is inspirational to you?
Life: When you see the minds of these kids, because it’s like one thing with me, I can do it all day long, but if I’m not developing something behind me that can carry on, then I’m kind of playing myself, I’m wasting my time. So, to see the minds that are coming behind us and to be in that position to really guide in the right direction, that’s inspiring, as well as businesses like yours. Creature comforts, it’s inspiring when you have a model that we’re not just here to take and leave. But, we’re here to get, but we’re also going to give back. It’s that kind of business I’m inspired to see this new energy that taking place in Athens right now. People want to engage, people want to do things. It’s a new youth leadership that coming, that’s surfacing, that’s kind of breaking this good-ole boy mentality that Athens has. Sometimes good-ole boy mentality is needed to keep the structure in place on certain levels, but we can’t grow. We can’t allow that mindset to stop and prevent this town from growing to the economic power that it can be especially with the Savannah River deepening, with all of these things that are about to take place within the next five to ten years. So, it’s inspiring to see all the changes that are coming, but to know that the mindsets that are here to… you know we got our foundation here, we’re grounded. We’re gonna move forward. They have the right intentions, they have the right heart, and they have the right passions.
CH: Fantastic man. Anything in particular that you’re working on that excited you the most right now?
CH: That’s what I thought, softball right there, you know?
Life: I’m about to dunk it, you but the alley-oop, I’m about to dunk it! So we just finished our fifth annual Chess and Community conference, and we just brought Charlayne Hunter as the keynote speaker. She was the first African American woman to integrate UGA. Our conferences bring about 400+ there as far as people, communities, schools, so we’re bring people together. We’re bringing together the schools, the communities, we’re integrating UGA, and we’re bringing all these things together. But one of the things that I’m extremely, extremely excited about is we call it Collective Hands. This is allowing kids from Athens to experience the world, you know, experiencing the world in a real way. Not just going out there, but engaging it. Take all the leadership that we’ve developed and teach them throughout the year, now they have to implement it at the conference, but at the same time implement it when we go take these trips. So, Ethiopia. Collective Hands is a trip where we’re taking kids from Athens, Georgia to Kutaber, Ethiopia. It will be a 20 day trip in the mountains, no electricity in some of those areas. I’m excited about that because not only is it going to help them to grow, it’s going to help me to grow as well. The opportunity… these are things I wanted to do as a child. These are things I wanted to do and it’s like, let me at least allow other children to get that experience. So, I’m excited about that, it’s going to be something that will enrich, empower these students especially when they come back to Athens with that experience, and allow them to now utilize that experience and inspire other kids. So, Collective Hands, the Ethiopia trip is something we’re truly excited about.
CH: Awesome. Any rising talents that are in your field that we should know about?
Life: Man, there are so many. I would like to… there’s a gentlemen in town named Shane… now, what’s Shane’s last name? Oh, I forget Shane’s last name... Shane Simmons! He actually just came home from doing 20 years in prison.
Life: Being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s home, and he’s a chaplain with the police department. So, when he came home, I engaged him with the police together, and they’ve been just inspired by his work. The boy is powerful. The boy is extremely powerful. He’s focused, he knows what he wants. He has a car business. He’s working. He has a family. He’s working with the police and usually it’s like come on man, you just came home from 20 years and there’s a culture like, “Oh, you’re a snitch. You’re working with the police” in the community. But there’s a great deal of respect for him because everyone knows where he’s come from and how he’s helping to really integrate the community with police. So, he’s definitely one of the rising talents in Athens that I feel can have a great impact in years to come. He’s a Muslim brother, so that’s what makes him more in the age of terrorism and he’s coming home from 20 years in prison. All the “negatives” that society has placed on him, yet he’s working with our local police force, and doing some great and positive things. So, he’s one. Of course, you’ve got Broderick Flanigan. He’s one who is doing some great things with his art, and how he’s using his art to inspire especially the kids in the community, the community that he grew up in. So, Broderick Flanigan. You’ve got Joseph Houston who is another young guy. He came home ten years in prison, but he’s a chef at the Five Bar, one of the top chefs. He’s a good spirit, he’s like “Man, I destroyed this community, and I want to give back.” He’s doing so much to give back to the community. So, there are so much of those type of talents who are kind of beneath the crack, but they’re here.
CH: Who would you recommend we interview out of that field?
Life: Oh man. Maybe all three!
CH: All worth a conversation?
Life: All three, because you will learn something different, and they all have their own unique style. Like sometimes somebody might not be well spoken, but you can feel there passion, see their experience. You can feel what they want to do and where they want to go.
CH: Fantastic. Who would you think of as far as interviewing in another field? So, makers, community service, government, non-profit, communication, another business person…
Life: There’s so much, it’s like where do we begin?
CH: That’s a good problem, you know, if we can be in a place where there are a lot of people worth talking to.
Life: Where do I start? Because I’m in a non-profit, there’s a sister named Latasha Sheets who runs Strong Beautiful Golly Girls. She’s a pillar in this community, and she’s been putting that work in for a long time. She would be good for an interview because I think she speaks from a passion. There’s a sister named Ovita Thornton who has been doing this kind of work for like 40 years in the Athens community. She’s a good person to interview. Moca and Noah Johnson, they’re really helping to really address a lot of the racial things but they’re bringing the community together in a different way, but in a very unique way. Noah and Moca Johnson, they’re the founders of, what is it… Anti-Discrimination Movement. They’re helping to pillar a lot of that, but it’s not just about race, it’s more about how do we work together to build this Athens community in a better way. I think those are lot of good names. I have tons more.
CH: Yeah, I get that sense, man, you got a beautiful passion about you man. Well, I appreciate your time, sir. It’s been a pleasure.
Life: Yeah, the pleasure is mine, man.