My last post was on August 13, 2013. A lot has happened since then.

I got a full time job as a program manager at City Year Sacramento, making the most money I have ever made in my life. That’s huge because when you grow up poor, financial stability is the one thing you desire. However, what I’ve learned is that with #momoney you get #moproblems. Good problems and learning experiences. I wouldn’t trade any of this experience. It’s taught me how to be an adult which I’ve learned is code for responsible and professional.

Let's take a moment to reflect...

Let’s take a moment to reflect…

After I got the job, I started digging deep into Sacramento music and culture. What I found was Sol Collective. I started going to The Most Open Mic in the City on Monday nights and building a community of support and friendship with the artists there. The artists there were diverse and original and cared deeply about the quality of music that we were taking in and putting out. Andru Defeye had a unique stage presence as a host. He’s a local journalist and artist himself, who has both experience and knowledge about what was working in the music scene and how artists could rise to meet their idea of success. He would also introduce a list of rules and a HaterScreen for the open mic. AlienLogik was working the sound board and would really shape the experience with perfectly timed drops and transitional music.

Paul Willis performing at Sol Collective

Paul Willis performing at Sol Collective

I had performed a couple of times and was becoming a regular there before I connected with Natho of OGM and recorded my first couple of projects. We set up the mic stand in my sweltering hot, living room (because you can’t run the AC and record into a microphone in my apartment) and knocked out the recording for the entire first project, Marked at Birth (a Spoken Word tape), about 3 hours and 30 minutes. After about a month, we did the same thing again with the second project, As They Reminsce Over Hip Hop (a Tribute tape). These two projects were released to establish that I was taking music as seriously as my peers at The Most Open Mic in the City.

Paul Willis performing at Cesar Chavez plaza at The Most Open Mic in the City hosted by ZFGpromotions.

It worked. I connected with people by sharing my brand of East Coast hip hop and poetry, and that’s when I began collaborating with all kinds of artists. Luke Tailor, Themba and I formed a group called 3 Magpies and produced one song together. It took 4 months to get the song done, but we performed it multiple times and the reaction from audiences was visceral. It felt like we were a Sacramento Wu-Tang or ONYX. That’s when I became confident that I could really make some serious moves by working with other local artists. I remember the first time hearing Aerial and being blown away by someone who was so talented and had little stage experience. I was writing new material and looking for beats and my friend Guillermo had shared a picture of his friend’s music project called Providence. I took a listen and immediately fell in love with the work of Lewis M. Track after track after track I was entranced by the classic hip hop drums and sample work. It was jazzy, fresh, boom bap, dark at times and was the perfect fit for my style. Guillermo connected me with Lewis and we started talking about putting together the Coast2Coast project and originally it was just going to be us. We had a lot of similar connections and interests and at some point whether I had moved across the country or not, we would have connected. However, it was winter break of the 13-14 school year and I flying through material. Verses and full song ideas and concepts have never come so easy and quickly as they did then, but I kept hearing other people’s styles over the beats. I decided to open up the project to some of my peers at the open mic and Aerial was the first to say yes. We wrote and performed The Art of Rap and Coast2Coast has been amazing since. I was able to bring together poets, singers and emcees to create an amazing compilation album. The recording process took about 4 months for the entire project, but once it was done, it had a little local buzz. The project never received press, but when I announced in June that I only had 50 limited copies and they sold out within 8 hours, I knew there more I could be doing.

The ZFGpromtions logo

The ZFGpromtions logo

We started ZFG around the same time I started producing the Coast2Coast project. The idea originated with Andru but we all had the mindset that alone, we could only do so much, but together, we could accomplish all the things we wanted to accomplish. We needed the right team to push and make it real, so we assembled a small collective of artists, journalists and industry professionals who had one goal – raise the bar for quality music and quality music experiences. We’ve lost close friends and gained some closer ones. We challenged each other to create at a super high level, to never be satisfied and to support each other when it’s easy to do that and when it’s hard. Our list of accomplishments together is long – Guerilla Open Mics all over the city, National Poetry Month guerilla poetry series, Hip Hop Art Mixer at The Crocker, radio show appearances, multiple artists recognized in each of Sacramento’s major newspapers, booked for shows as far away as CSU Dominguez Hills, Guerilla Story Time, Chainlink Poetry, sponsoring The Mobbment, and on and on. We’re on a mission now to spread hip hop through positive means and shine light on Sacramento’s often overlooked talent.  We create spaces for artists to develop and we give them real time feedback that elevates their performances and work ethic. Combining this kind of push for others’ artistic hopes and dreams is something that is directed aligned and connected with my work at City Year.

ZFG crew kicking it at The Lair

ZFG crew kicking it at The Lair

By building relationships, networking, being critical, developing others, being open to feedback, writing grants, investing in myself, I have been able to translate my growth as an artist into my growth as a non-profit professional. The same professionalism that I show up to work with – meeting deadlines, creating goals action steps, looking the part – shows up in my musical development. I have experience with budgeting for studio time, production and expenses, organizing my own shows, setting deadlines for projects, fundraising and recruiting for other artists and members of my team. It’s been a symbiotic growth relationship between my job and my art. One that had another significant high point this past summer when three of my songs won placement on City Year’s music compilation, Idealism Rocks. At City Year’s Summer Academy, I got an opportunity to perform in front of over 1,300 of my colleagues from City Year sites across the country and the world.

The Idealism Rocks VI winners

The Idealism Rocks VI winners

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Time flies. I can’t believe that it has been 8 months since I’ve last blogged. A lot has happened and it’s tough to even know where to begin. However, like my last post, there is a common thread to the next few stories I will tell.

Dec 31st, 2012

30, 29, 28, 27… I’m in the hotel bar, essentially by myself because the friend I went with was busy following the sloppiest group of girls there. Obviously girls who can’t control themselves aren’t my type, so I’m in the middle of the dance floor waiting for the ball to drop. The DJ is behind me with two of his biggest fans and I’m alone in a room full of people. So I start thinking to myself, “Paul, it’s about to be 2013. You’ve made it this far and you’ve done quite well for yourself. But it’s time to do better.” 20, 19, 18, 17… I commit myself then and there to making 2013 better than 2012, which was a pretty good year. I joined Start-Up, got a job as a PM, moved to California officially, conference call with Obama, met KJ, began to manage my first City Year team, performed regularly at Open Mics at the Sol Collective and just generally enjoyed my life. 10, 9, 8, 7…. And now it was time to put it all together and get my license, buy a car, begin taking classes again, figure out how to be a better manager, better poet, better baller, healthier eater and overall a better person. Lofty goals, but they can be smart goals if managed well. In order to complete them, I would need to step up my personal growth and really focus on being more self-aware and being more comfortable being uncomfortable. Happy New Years! #DoBetter

January was a month of competing priorities. My brothers were f’ing up big time. My job was in a state of transition with new site leadership moving in and old site leadership moving out. I met this girl who was not serious about me at all. And finding time for me was nearly impossible. Then I remembered a piece of advice that multiple friends of mine gave to me, but I will give credit to my boy Alfred for keeping it in my ear and on my mind. It was: you can’t do for anyone unless you do for yourself first. It sounds selfish initially but in reality, what it means is you can’t provide the best of you for others if you’re not at your best self. With that in mind, I thought about my brothers and how in order for them to be at their best selves they have to discover what that means for them. In order for me to be the best me whether in my personal life or in my professional life, I needed to discover what that meant before I could help anyone else fully reach and understand that.

February 14th

At my core, I care so I wrote this piece. It helped me deal with the emotional mess that I was at the time.

“it must hurt to be beautiful, huh

you deserve everything that’s coming to you

because of how you appear to be

and how you appear to me

is insecure

you can have anyone you want

but you don’t know who to look for

so it hurts to be beautiful, huh

because everyone, and i mean EVERYONE

who just happens to lay their eyes

somewhere in between yours

wants to fall in your thighs

so it hurts to be beautiful, huh

you fall for the lies

because the attention you’re seeking

is an addiction

like your drinking and drugging

smoking and loving

makes it hurt to be beautiful, huh

who can you turn to and trust

when a simple smile inspires lust

and you refuse to see it

because you crave it, need it

it hurts to be beautiful, huh

i mean, shiiit, i wouldn’t know

all my life, Biggie’s lyrics made it seem

that being fat, black and ugly

to get the girl of your dreams

you gotta stay gucci down to the socks

and have your rings and watch filled with rocks

but i have not

and i’ve watched you be beautiful love

and by beautiful, i mean, be you til I’m full

of your spirit

my heart beats, i wish you’d hear it

but not because i want you like the others

i just wish you’d love yourself enough

before you love another

it must hurt to be beautiful, huh

i couldn’t imagine what it must be like

to be an object of desire and active imaginations

i mean, desirable is so subjective

but with some people it’s so hard to not

however, it’s not impossible, because i hate a lot of hot chicks

and in general, those who think they’re too good looking for me

like being with me would be the biggest blow to their self-esteem

and i know what it’s like to be me

but being you, it must hard, cause you’re beautiful

and when i tell you i’m truthful and true to you

you look at me with doubtful eyes

because of all the lies you’ve been told

all the games you’ve been sold

and all the people have gotten old,

but you think you’re the one aging

let me be your mirror and you’ll find out you’re amazing

and you deserve better

it must hurt to be beautiful

but it doesn’t have to anymore”

And that’s that. No explanation and no answer to the question: who is she?

March 23

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord” Colossians 3.23


March was a hard month, but this biblical quote helped me get through. I was being put through the grinder at work, in life. Typically April is the toughest month for me, but March seemed to punch me in the mouth over and over again. I could go into details, but there were soooo many things that built up over time. A lot of these details were small and petty. I just wasn’t in the right head space to put them all in perspective.


“Why do we fall Master Bruce… so that we learn to get back up.”


I needed think time. I needed me time. I needed to get away from Sacramento. So I went to visit my ex-girlfriend in Southern Cal at the end of the month. I know what some of you are thinking. And here’s the truth, that was exactly what I needed. She helped me put some things in perspective, but she didn’t know it. We went on a hike that straight up kicked my ass and the conversations we had helped me understand a few things about myself.


You know that feeling when someone holds a mirror to your face and you don’t want to look at it, because you want to hold it yourself and see yourself through your eyes.  Well, that’s what that trip was like for me, because I saw myself through her eyes and it was quite freeing. It kind of validated a lot of things that I think are true about myself and disproved some other things that I kept implanting in my head. It was sad to leave because Brandi is Brandi. And looking back, it jumpstarted the end of year progression for me at work.

 Ending it here for now.

April through the Summer will come soon.

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Catch and Release

Catch and Release… just a few thoughts and some pictures to illustrate the points. you kinda have to know some of the people in the pics to understand how they all fit in, so if you have questions, feel free to ask.

I haven’t blogged in a while. Sorry I’m not sorry. I’ve been busy. I could share my excuses, but basically it comes down to getting the job I’ve always wanted. Yes, I’m a program manager for City Year Sacramento. WOOOHOOO!!!! Salary!!! But you know what Biggie said… “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” Even for someone who works for a non-profit. Anyways, I’ll eventually write about what that was like for me, especially when I got the offer, but for now, I wanted to discuss this idea of “Catch and Release.” I don’t know if this has been a common theme in my life, but as I was listening to the song by the SIlversun Pickups, I started connecting some dots that I wanted to write about and share.

Silversun Pickups, Bassist Nikki Monninger

Dot 1: I have the worst timing when it comes to dating and relationships. A lot of my friends and co-workers make fun of me for this now, but it seems that when I’m interested in a girl, she already has a boyfriend or some type of significant other. What makes it worse is my friends think that the “Are you single?” question should be the first thing I ask. I disagree. I don’t discriminate when it comes to dating but I am really careful about who I open up to. Some people are attracted to certain physical features and while I am also as fallible, I disregard those surface level feelings if I can’t trust her once I know her a little better.  So asking the question is usually irrelevant since I’m taking the time to get to know her anyway and something like that usually comes up.

But what has ended up happening is my ex-girlfriends or girls who I used to talk to or were interested in talking to found long-term relationships immediately after me. Crazy, huh. I’m talking some girls ended up getting married. Others are still with the guy they started dating when I was interested. Not one of them is single. And all this leads me to believe that 1) I’m obviously picking girls who are keepers – they’re just not the ones I want to keep and 2) my interest only really goes as far as her interest in me. And when that stops, then there’s release. (We can talk some other time about whether or not it’s actually release if I still talk to my ex’s. However, I’m going to argue that I’m not a tool so I know how to have polite and decent conversations.)

My brothers, Kairon, 11, (left) and Patrick, 20, (right) back when I was graduating high school.

Dot 2: Both of my brothers have court cases right now and it simply is because of the choices they’ve made. I’m not going to imply or hint towards the guilt or innocence of either brother. However, I’m going to say that I’ve made choices that have kept me out of the justice system, when it would’ve been really easy to get in it. I think the ability to make good decisions is a skill that can be taught. It starts with teaching values and activating one’s moral compass. The other piece is recognizing your own self-worth and checking your own pride when you need help. When you don’t do those things, your perception is distorted and you begin to make false choices based on that distorted perception. Things which shouldn’t appear to be right are and things which should appear to be wrong don’t. This is the struggle that my brothers find themselves in. They might tell you differently, but they’re not writing this blog.

You might be thinking, Paul, these 2 dots have nothing to do with each other. Hold on, bear with me. I’m almost there.

PAS Class of 2005

Family Dinner

Dot 3: Life is catch and release. I realized that I put my energy and love into people but for a moment. Some people give that love back and life is beautiful in those moments. However, when you release, there are some people who don’t come back, because they don’t want to, don’t think that they can, don’t feel like you want them to or because they don’t know how. There are girls who I’m okay with never seeing again. There are some friends who might think that it has been too long to reconnect. There are people like my brothers who think that distance is ok and no news is good news. And there are people who are lost, who feel like no one will ever catch them.

I had this thought about what it was like to love and be loved back. I’ll specify quickly because of the three common types of love denoted in the Greek language as eros (physical), philos (friendship) and agape (unconditional). I’m in a line of work where agape is present all the time. Without it, I would be doing something else. The eros is a line that I will seldom cross in writing. I’m awkward and modest and that’s just something I’d rather not share in a blog. That leaves philos and according to wiki, philos “is a dispassionate virtuous love, which includes loyalty to friends, family, and community, and requires virtue, equality and familiarity. In ancient texts, philos denoted a general type of love, used for love between family, between friends, a desire or enjoyment of an activity, as well as between lovers.”

College Friends 2005

My City Year team during my corps year

Me and Anna

And well, back to this thought, it started with a question that I had which was when you love someone and they stopped loving you or they don’t love you back, then what’s the Greek word for that? Prodosía? Epiqumia? What happens to love when it is neglected or rejected. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore.” Langston Hughes might’ve had it right. And maybe there’s some overreaching here. But I’d like to think that the love doesn’t go anywhere. It was just released until you catch it again.

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The Raw, The Real

I haven’t blogged in a while, but here’s something raw that I wrote my senior year of high school. This was a draft but damn man, it brought me back real quick. How life has changed…

Paul Willis

English Editorial

Dr. Bonin

“You don’t deserve to go to that school.” These were the last words I heard from my mom before I began to really start living.

I said nothing after that. My clothes and all my possessions were already in front of the steps of the four-story, eight family apartment building. I was leaving for good and I knew I wasn’t ever going back.

“Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” Sounds good, right. It should; it’s one of the Ten Commandments. But it’s kind of hard to follow when for the past two and a half months, you have led your older brother and little sister into crack spots in order to retrieve your mother and put her under house arrest, supervised not by police but by your siblings in shifts so that everyone can make it to school or work on time. It’s hard when you have to be up all night, every night for two and a half months making sure no one leaves and more importantly no one comes in. It’s even harder when you know this problem has to be resolved before you leave in two weeks and attend school in another state. How are you supposed to respect your father if you’ve never known him? How are you to respect your mother if your grandmother raised you since you were three days old?

It’s questions like these that were left unanswered when I came back to school for my fifth form year. They were unanswered because underlying all my initial feelings of anger and despair, there was a sense of urgency instilled in me. I was riding in my sister’s car heading toward Boston, away from my mom and the problematic situation, I knew I had to help my mom. No one else could; it was my responsibility. But she didn’t want my help. She never wanted my help. I felt like she needed my help. I felt like I had to do something but I was leaving for good.

I kept telling myself she’ll snap out of it; she’ll realize what she’s doing to us one day and just kick the habit. It became habit over the last ten months and I had no clue what was going on. No one called and said there was a problem. I knew there was something wrong though when I picked up the dorm phone two days after the last day of school my fourth form year. A family friend named Shirt and my close friend, Travis, were on the other line giving me names, dates, and other details about my family situation. Talk about growing up fast, I was sixteen and I had to go home where my mother was on drugs and no one could do anything about it, save me.

I got home and as I was walking up the stairs to the big red door, my neighbor, Kerry, a middle-aged, single mother of two, came out and said, “Your mother’s not home. Unload your stuff. We need to talk.” I dropped all my possessions in the boys’ room. (It’s called the boys’ room because all the boys in the house lived in the same room. I’m not making excuses but it was a three-bedroom apartment and two of my three sisters live there with my mother.) My older brother was there and he told me to go and talk to Kerry. I went back downstairs and sat with Kerry on the steps. She basically told me this. I had to grow up within the next ten seconds. My mother isn’t doing what she’s supposed to. My older brother doesn’t have the same imposing male presence. My family needs me to be strong. They need me to make sure everything will work out. They need me to be the man of the house.  I had to do what I had to do to put everything in order, in its proper perspective. She told me that it wouldn’t be easy. The hardships could last the whole summer and it’ll seem like nothing is being accomplished sometimes; but as long the family was still together at the end of the summer, I would know that I did something positive. She also talked to me about not returning to Portsmouth Abbey for the fall and enrolling in the public high school where my older brother attended just so that I would bearound to keep the situation stable.  I considered everything and at one point in time, I really believed that staying home was the best option for me. As I got up to rejoin my brother upstairs, I told Kerry that God has a plan for everybody. His will shall be done; no matter what happens.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  Philippians 4:13.

Reflecting back on that summer, it was by the grace of God that I even survived. It was the summer I stood toe-to-toe with drug dealers. I was nearly arrested that summer for trying to stop my mom from leaving me in the middle of Central Square so that she could go and buy drugs. It was the summer I went to Ben D., a basketball camp in Virginia, for a week, and when I came home my three siblings had been living off of forty dollars for the past week. To make things worse my mom had been missing for three days and my older brother couldn’t call the police because he would risk being taken by D.S.S. along with my little sister and my little brother. It was the summer I saw a psychiatrist and told her absolutely nothing about what was going on. It was the summer I learned what it meant to love and to have it lost, to trust and to have that broken and never forgiven. “Forgive and forget.” That’s cute and it works for third graders but this was the summer I moved out, the summer my family broke up. I will never forget. Forgiveness is questionable.

“Children can withstand a lot of pressure from the outside if the home inside is held steady by parents whose character is steady.” – Stuart Briscoe, Quote from Christian Website.

I survived the summer. I was emotionally broken but I wasn’t dead or in jail so I figured as a sixteen-year old black male, I must be blessed. I came back to school a changed man. I say man because boys don’t go through that type of trauma and stay boys. I felt motivated in a really sick way.  I felt like I had to prove I do deserve the Abbey, all of it. I joined all the clubs. I focused on my academics. I made sure I gave extra effort in practice. Since my mom felt I didn’t deserve this opportunity, I was going to make the most of it. Also I felt that if I was good enough for these people, I’d be more than good enough for her.

The Abbey provided an outlet, not an outlet out of my urban environment but out of my home. I didn’t have to worry about surviving from day to day when I was here. I didn’t have to worry about drugs destroying my family’s way of life. I did worry about it, but being in another state makes the situation damn near impossible to manage. The Abbey’s faults and/or lack of anything have never bothered me as much as other students because I always think, “I could be home, struggling to survive.”

“One needs to know where they are from to know where they’re going.”

At the culmination of my Abbey experience I look back on my time spent and I’d say I was pretty successful. I have scholarships to Holy Cross and Bates and I’ve made plenty of contacts.  My athletic achievements are small in number but incalculable in value, winning Track Championships, Basketball Championship, Football Record of 6-1-1, JVA basketball losing only 3 out of 15 games by an average of 3 points a loss. This is all dandy but as I walk across the stage to receive my diploma, I’ll look out and see the faces of my older sister, Kai, her boyfriend, Federico, and my niece and nephew and wonder if my mother will ever be proud of what I have accomplished. I haven’t spoken to her in two years, not since being kicked out. I don’t know what she’s thinking; I don’t know if I even care to know. Spiritually, I feel I should forgive her and move on in my life, but everything happens for a reason. Every day I can feel God’s hands shaping me into what he wants me to be. I believe God put me through all of that as a test. I don’t know if I failed or passed. I don’t even know if what I’m doing now is right or wrong.

I don’t think I will ever reconcile with my mother. However I have to thank her for disregarding me because it gives me the strength and motivation to move on and to make a difference. At Nativity Prep we hang up the alumni class banners and on one of the banners it reads, “Men for Others.” I don’t want to end up like my mom; but I also don’t want to be an old man, bitter and unhappy. I believe that I can use that saying as a credo for my life. I won’t do things for myself anymore. I will try to make others happy and try to give them joy. I believe this is God’s plan for me. Weird? Getting kicked out, not talking to my mom, the emotions, the break up, the struggle all happened so that I could understand God’s plan for me. It all started with me being told I don’t deserve it. God gave me the road less traveled by. “And that has made all the difference.”

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The Vent

I commented to a friend earlier today that this week was one of the hardest weeks for me, so I wanted to take some time to reflect on why. I’m going to start at the beginning. Work for me has been picking up. I’ve taken on a couple of projects – like building the cyconnect site, inputting contacts into an online database, helping to plan a bullying assembly, etc. – that are taking up more and more of my time, but that’s not really an issue. I moved across the country for this. I expect the days to be long and to get even longer, and April will probably be the toughest month for my site. We have our recruitment deadline at the end of the month so for the past two-three weeks we’ve been going out to more and more recruitment and outreach events. In the next few weeks, the visits we’re hosting and opportunities for outreach will increase significantly.

Yet, that hasn’t bothered me as much as what has been going on in school and in particular in the classroom I’m serving. One of my 5th graders had a knife pulled on him by another student. It was an incident that happened off of school grounds, but when this student broke down and started crying in class first thing in the morning, I didn’t know what to do. Then later the same day, one of his friends comes to me and tells me he thinks that he might be next to get jumped. I immediately go to through the proper channels to make sure the adults who need to know are in the know. The administration handles the situation as needs to be handle and my student is reassured that their safety is the highest priority. Nothing comes of it, but that was just the beginning of a difficult week.

On a separate day, my team and I went to African American Student Leadership Conference hosted by the district where there were over 500 middle and high school students from all over Sacramento. On the way to the event, I tried to get advice on the situation about how to best connect with the students who threatened mine. I didn’t get much help with that. I’m still having a hard time figuring out why. I wasn’t looking for grand scale solutions or anything like that – just some inside information about the best way to approach these students. I didn’t receive that but I received an answer that sounded like “Good luck with that. They’re not going to give you much because they’re private individuals.” Ok, so maybe I shouldn’t have been as frustrated with that answer as I was, but I couldn’t sleep much the night before and I missed breakfast and lunch. I didn’t like that answer and just decided that I wouldn’t ask anymore, so I backed off. The conference was cool, but when we didn’t have a plan for getting home right away, I had to excuse myself from the group for a second. I went to the restroom and just had to take a few minutes to myself. When I came out, the group had figured out a carpool situation and was waiting on me so we all could leave. I was exhausted and had a rollercoaster of an afternoon in terms of my energy level. I passed out in the car on the way home.

I work through my weekends now especially when it rains because I can’t go out and play basketball in the rain. I used to do that in the sixth grade but I’m an adult now. Plus, I don’t really have any friends. The only people I know relatively well are the people on my team. I haven’t found my niche yet, probably not a good thing, but how many basketball playing-rapping-education/service-minded 25 year olds do you know in downtown/mid-town Sacramento? I’m the only one that I know of so far. By the way, I’m 25. My birthday happened. Moving on. Actually, one point before I really move on, I never thought that I’d be where I am today, having seen what I’ve seen and traveled the places I’ve been. My peers are in a completely different place than I am. A lot of my peers expected to finish college, get a great job, be married and start a family by this point in their lives. My circle from growing up at this point in time is either dead, in jail or in the streets. I was one of the lucky ones.

Anyways Tuesday rolls around, my eyes have been glued to my computer screen for at least four days and now I’m editing papers while my students are taking benchmark tests. One of the first papers I grade is a 15 paged story from one of my students. This particular student is one of my favorites. You’re not supposed to have favorites when you work in education, but I’m human. I love all my students – every single one of them. I wish them all the best and I want to help them achieve the successes that they deserve. However, there are a few that connect with me and we just have this unspoken understanding. It’s like they can as easily read what’s going on with me as I can with them. Anyways, this student wrote about a video game themed dream they had where their father was their protector and best friend. And as I read about the both of them fighting villains together, I was a little envious about how my student felt about their father because I never knew mine. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel bad for that sucker. He’s the one who’s missing out on one hell of a journey, but I do wonder what a relationship with a father would be like. I have plenty of friends with dads, but let’s keep it real. I barely had a relationship with my mom. I know what good parenting is through what my grandmother provided for me and by what my real parents didn’t do. I just thought it’s kind of funny how the written musings of a 10 year old brought up those buried feelings for me.

Wednesday was supposed to be a joyous day. My 5th graders had a huge night in front of them. They are participants in a 5 Star Restaurant program. My students have given up every other Saturday since the beginning of the school year to learn from a master chef how to cook and prepare healthy meals. They also work with other restaurant professionals to develop events to fundraise for field trips and other educational opportunities. The work is pretty serious. I’ve been to a couple of their Saturday events called Saturday Cafes and the marketing, design and sales teams put as much work outside of the kitchen as the chef team that operates in the kitchen. For the event on Wednesday, which was $60 a plate by the way, I was there with a couple of my teammates to assist the servers and bartenders. Don’t worry there was no real alcohol. The kids served Perrier, Pellegrino and Sparkling Apple Cider with class and pizazz. They rocked the whole evening and all the important guests (like City Council reps, the Superintendent and the faculty and staff of Oak Ridge) in the room were really impressed. I was really impressed and super proud of my kids, but I wasn’t with myself.

Earlier in the day, we had to accommodate the set-up of the event and move out of our regular meeting space. I suggested we wait and go to a classroom when classes were out. I even checked with my teacher to use her classroom as our meeting space and she was cool with it. My team insisted we meet outside and again, that was the last thing I wanted to do. It was hot. There would be kids screaming as they were leaving school. We’d have to sit on the ground outside – something I really don’t like doing for a number of reasons. I had a terrible attitude and it showed. I couldn’t hide my disdain. It was all over my face – which was exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t have my cap to protect my eyes from the sun. You could hear it in my tone and in my body language. The fact that a stray pitbull started to make its way onto school grounds didn’t help things after the fact either. I was so mad that my supervisor had to talk to me after. I tried to explain how I was feeling, but what that sounded like was “I don’t like anything we just did.” Ugh…

My supervisor understood that I was caught up in the moment and that there was a lot that wasn’t ideal about the situation, but he made sure I knew that my attitude needs to be better in those situations. He told me that I also needed to be ok in situations when the entire team makes a decision that they’re ok with and I’m not. And this is where I think I’m still stuck on this event. I was clearly being selfish in this situation. I get it. I totally took the wrong approach to giving any kind of constructive feedback. But it’s not like I can opt out of a team meeting for an hour. It’s not like I’m saying I’m better than anyone else or anything like that, but I genuinely believe that meeting inside a building in a room is the most productive place to hold a team meeting. I think my biggest problem that day was I felt like I was being ignored.

I didn’t know how to vocalize it that day, but now that I think about it, as a team we’re not very good at this whole feedback thing. Our first team feedback session is on Thursday of this upcoming week and I’m sensing a lot of nervous tension. I think as a group, we haven’t had many positive experiences with giving and receiving feedback, which I understand. During my corps year, my team feedback sessions were infamous – well, at least one in particular. But last year, I had a great, supportive, leadership team and we talked about feedback and what it should look like and sound like. We had a very deliberate and purposeful approach. We even had corps members lead our team through the preparation of feedback and we talked as an entire team about how people receive feedback. We took the time to learn a little more about people on the team before we gave them feedback. We’ve briefly touched upon it here on our team, but I think it’s because we take a lot of things for granted. We assume a lot about the character and ability of each other because we’re on a start-up team. I think we’re all fully capable of giving constructive feedback, but we’ve only known each other since December. I know sometimes it feels like dog years, but it’s not. Anyways, I know this is very tangential right now but this was the past 7-10 days for me. Everything was layered with meaning and triggers and I couldn’t process it all until now. So please bear with me.

Staying in order, the team meeting and then the 5 Star Restaurant event – which you can see here: – were on the same day. Also that day was the day my team had a meeting with Mayor Kevin Johnson. I couldn’t go to the meeting because I was at the 5 Star event. This is important because I bought his jersey on eBay and have been waiting for an opportunity to get it signed. I would’ve been happy if he signed it as the Mayor of Education, but I found out that Michelle Rhee, his wife, was there as well. Who would’ve thought lightning would strike twice? Anyways I had asked around that morning and no one seemed too interested in being the person to ask. Then after the disastrous, team meeting that afternoon, no one was going to bother. When I finally got home that night though at around 9:00, my roommates remembered that no one got the jersey signed. That awkward moment when everyone plays the blame game…. Yeah that happened. So I shut up, ate some Cocoa Pebbles, continued editing papers and went to bed.

The next day I handed the stories that I finished editing back to those students. I received new ones. We started with writing in the morning and this went on for at least an hour and a half. In that time, I met with a student who has had significant challenges in their life. This student’s particular history involves imprisoned or gang-related family and a parent who took their own life. Side note: another thing I’ve come to realize is that all young students write about their life even if the story is supposed to be fictional, but that’s not the point of this. I knew this student’s history from my teacher who shared this very early in my time at the school. This wasn’t new information. It’s not new amongst anyone at the school, mind you. So I’m reading this student’s story about what happened when this student received the news of the death of their parent, and basically, it goes like this. The student finds out and has to go to the funeral. The day of the funeral occurs, but the parent isn’t in the coffin. So the student has to look for the parent everywhere. The student finally finds the parent and asks “Why’d you leave?” The parent replies “I wasn’t happy here anymore.” The student answers “Well, you hurt me when you say that.” That’s how it ends and I SWEAR TO GOD I ALMOST START BAWLING RIGHT THEN AND THERE.

My eyes are tearing up the whole time and the student is sitting right there next to me at the back table of the classroom. I get real quiet and have to pretend to rub my eyes. I give my student back the story and say, “It’s a really good story. It’s going to make someone cry. You did a really good job making the reader feel how you felt.” My student replies “Are you okay Mr. Paul? Do you need a tissue?” “Nah, I’m good.” I pound my chest. “I’m tough.” My student smiles and goes back to their desk and tells their friend that I’m struggling in the back of the classroom. They both look over so I take a minute to excuse myself and get some fresh air. I know exactly what’s going on. I think it’s at that moment that I realize I was stressed out. But what else can I do? I’ve got to be strong for my students because they need me to be strong and consistent. I need to be able to tutor and mentor and coach them through stuff like this – but all I can think of is how I still have to deal with stuff like this myself. I’ve developed strategies to create separation and get past these issues, but I’ve never directly confronted some of this stuff. I’ve only experienced death a couple of times in my life, but suicide never. Parent issues, yea, been there, done that. Being poor. Dealing with gangs and peer pressure. Triple check. But I wasn’t 10 years old when I had to deal with all that. I was a little older but I didn’t really face much of this stuff until I was in high school. These kinds of conditions are the foundation for my students. I pull it together and decide to deal with it later.

I go back to class and a grab another essay and start correcting again. Some students get caught passing notes in class. One of those students is brand new. To be fair this student doesn’t know the class dynamic yet and if someone passed you a note on your first day, you’d probably respond too. For me, this wasn’t a big deal. Even when Ms. Buerger intercepted the note, I didn’t think it was a big deal until she refused to read it out loud. The note was basically about bloods and crips and whether or not the new student was in either gang. It’s no surprise that my students are talking about gangs at their age. I expected that coming into it. What I wasn’t expecting was the origin of the note. The student who wrote about their father in such a loving manner is the same person who asked the new student whether or not they were in a gang. I just sighed and told Ms. Buerger that I could talk this out with that student. So later in the day, I had a written conversation with that student. Here it is:

Me: Why did you write that note earlier?
Student: Because I wanted to know
M: Why did you want to know?
S: I don’t know
M: Gangs are a sensitive subject. Do you know what I mean?
S: No
M: You should be careful how you talk about that kind of stuff.
S: Oh, okay
M: Besides, how do you think the new student feels? It’s their first day.
S: I don’t know
M: That’s a pretty tough question to be asked on your first day.
S: Yeah
M: Especially because we don’t know anything about their experience with that kind of stuff.
S: Yeah
M: I don’t want you to feel bad, but I hope you understand.
S: Yeah
M: How can we fix this?
S: I don’t know
M: It’s ok to not know, but here’s what I want you to do. Think about what gangs mean to you. Then talk to me about what you came up with tomorrow.
S: I don’t want to do that
M: Ok… just know that my opinion of you won’t change. I’m still new to you all and I’m still learning about you. I am extremely proud of everything I’ve seen you accomplish in the past few months. I think you’ve got a lot of room to grow and figure things out on your own time. Which is cool because you’re a kid. I want the best for you. Let me know if you want to talk.
S: Okay.

Now I don’t know if my student fully understood or if they were just agreeing to stay out of trouble. But I’m going to give my student the benefit of the doubt. I believe that in that moment what I said was exactly what needed to be said and since then I haven’t had any issues with passing notes or gang talk with this particular student. The new student has been integrating and socializing just fine. The entire class likes to play basketball and dodge-ball with this student. I do expect more gang talk to come up though. Sacramento is predominantly a blood city, but there are tons of gangs that are divided by races, generations, blocks and sets. All of my students will have experiences with the streets and my hope is that their decisions, based on their experience with positive role models, will help them survive. There are no guarantees, but I’m hoping they discover their talents early enough to understand that they have options.

I wish I could say the week ended on that note, but it didn’t. In education and in service like City Year’s the work is never over. We won’t get to see the end result of the seeds we plant. I’m ok with that. However, there’s one last point that I want to talk about. It’s the fact that I offered to talk with my student and I left it open if they wanted to revisit this conversation at later date. I’ve gotten a lot of positive and encouraging responses from people, but I need to sit down and hash some of this out with people.

I love to write about this stuff, but it’s not resolved because it is written. I’m not paying for a therapist. That’s why I write. Writing helps but it’s not enough sometimes. We ended this week watching Freedom Writers and I sat there in a crowded room not able to take it anymore. The movie was hitting too close to home and with everything else I had been dealing with during the past week or so, my eyes got real watery. I had a hard time keeping it together for the second time in the same week. I walked out when there was an appropriate time in the movie and just waited for the discussion of the movie to begin. The month of April won’t be an easy one for me. I always seem to get sick and really depressed at the same time every year. I get sick because of my allergies. And once my allergies act up, my asthma kicks in. Bad combination. I get depressed because my grandmother was born on April 8th and died on April 30th. This is the first time I haven’t been home for any of this. My mom’s birthday is somewhere in between there so I become spiteful too. It’s strange because this is also the month of Easter, when Jesus dies for our sins and the resurrection occurs. I don’t know about dying – I don’t plan on doing that – but this resurrecting business sounds like a plan. I want to become a better person through my experiences and I hope that writing all this down will help me become a better person. I don’t have all the answers. I just know this. It’s 6:00am and I’ve been writing since 1:30am.

I’m going to stop and end on this note. I was watching Jeremy Lin highlights on youtube and I came across this Bible verse at the end of one of his videos. It reads:


It seems like an appropriate mantra for my life, especially at this point where I’m focused on achieving my goals. Think it’s a coincidence that’s my birthday?

Let’s talk about it amongst other things. Leave a comment or message me, whatever, whenever. Just say what’s on your mind. Ok.

Peace. Respect.

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Fitting In by Standing Out (something i wrote for the CY Sacramento blog)

During the team introduction at Oak Ridge Elementary, I meet with Ms. Buerger, and she tells me that her 5th grade class is full of personality. We share a knowing laugh and I know right then and there I would fit in just fine. See, I like to think of myself as a performer – someone who can shine the brightest on the biggest of stages. So when I walk into Room 32, confident in my City Year experience, my training and my teacher, I am totally caught off guard when the students have prepared letters for me, introducing themselves and asking to know more about me. In dramatic fashion I silently acknowledge Ms. Buerger with a head nod and sit down quietly in the back of the classroom to prepare a letter of my own.


Dear Students of Room 32,


            My name is Paul. You can call me Mr. Paul. My last name is Willis because I’m the illest. I am from Boston, MA and I am your City Year. This is my third year with City Year, but that’s not going to interest you too much so I’m going to share some facts about myself.

            I rap. I play basketball, football, wall ball – basically anything with a ball. I love Math but I especially love to write poetry and rhymes. I am a huge fan of anything positive and encouraging. Some of my friends think I’m weird because I love positive energy.  But it’s gotten me this far so… my friends need to catch up.

            I’ve traveled to many places such as New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Rhode Island, Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Miami, Maine and Florida. The coolest place I’ve ever been to was London and my favorite place right now is Sacramento.

            I have worked with students for years now so I may be new to you, but I’m “hip” to being in a classroom. I’m really excited about meeting you all and getting to know you better. Thank you for welcoming me into your classroom and your community.


                        Peace and love,


                                    Paul Willis


After I finish writing my letter, I wait for the class to finish their morning writing assignment. Ms. Buerger calls me to the front of the room and asks me to read what I wrote. When I finish reading, the first question in the Q&A session was, “Can you rap for us?”

I had them hooked and it has been “Showtime” ever since.


(I thought a photo of Magic Johnson would be appropriate for this post.)


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They say a picture is worth a thousand words… well here’s my version of Sacramento before Christmas


arriving at the hotel #MariottLife


First Day @ Work


Team Photo at NVIDIA service day in San Jose


1100 volunteers serving with City Year San Jose, plus us


Painting murals


Busting rocks


Building raised garden beds


and building community


yes, that’s Clint Eastwood in a meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown – who was mad that my Director interrupted


Team Photo with the Mayor minus one person


Pictures in the mayor’s office – KJ and Sinbad


KJ’s library


Cool art pieces



I’m sure there’s a story behind this… but inspirational nonetheless


Roots and Hip Hop – I was already a huge fan of KJ. Now…


We’ve read the same books.


That’s the location of the school we’re serving in.


Tour of the Capitol


One of the meeting rooms


Wait, is this the capitol or is it Hogwarts? I can’t tell from the angle.


Day after the Christmas tree lighting in front of the Capitol


My district ID – now I’m official


Postcards from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Sacramento Art Show – much respect to the kids there


Team Service with the Salvation Army


We had to put age appropriate toys in bags for pre-registered families for Christmas.


We put in work.


Great day. We connected with NCCC members and the Salvation Army.

What you didn’t see:

1) Everyday, we learned so much about each other and the city of Sacramento through team building activities and exploration.

2) Andrew Duffy joined our team. He’s from Southie and is a  City Year Boston and Care Force alum from ’06-’08. That’s my homie.

3) Anton Taylor, our recruitment director, didn’t join us full time until December, because he had to wrap things up at his site CYBR.

4) We joined Oak Ridge elementary for their Family Art Night in December, which brings me to my next point. The contents of this Web site do not reflect in any way the positions of City Year or AmeriCorps. For official City Year policy see

Also, I don’t know how I feel about posting pictures of my students online. I want to write about my students, so I will. But they will always be protected, so I will change names. If you’re an adult though, you won’t be afforded the same luxury.

Ok, I think that’s good for now. Expect another monster photo post that will catch you up to my current experiences here in Sacramento.

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Words with Friends pt 3

I told myself that I wasn’t going to start writing this late but I don’t know the meaning of a work-life balance so here goes. I’ve got some great stories to share with you, but they’ll have to wait for this weekend because I want to finish this final (eh, for now) Words with Friends piece.

Me reppin the Ravens basketball hoodie in the hood

Going to college was a huge deal for me. It’s funny because I have an older brother but I was the first male in my family to go to college. My older sisters both went to college and advanced themselves through the education they received.

rare photo of all my sisters and me

I knew it was possible, but when my older brother didn’t go to college right away, my mind was blown. I was mad at him for a while, I think. There’s a lot of pressure as being the oldest or the first to do something. As a young black man that pressure to be successful is intensified because the options if you fail are limited. Where I’m from there is no social network. You have your circle and anyone outside of that circle stays right where they are. If it wasn’t for the affluent high school I went to, I wouldn’t have the same ability to be as open-minded and opportunistic as I am today.

Cultural Awareness At Portsmouth with Mr. Pitts-Wiley's Mixed Magic Theatre for Black History Month

Towards the end of high school I became a social being. One of my teachers in high school, Brother Francis, once described me as a social butterfly. I didn’t have a clique. I didn’t belong to a group. I was cool with everyone and close to no one. I mentioned how that began to change in my last post, but it wasn’t until my junior year that I started to really think about my life and my career. I thought a lot about college and how that would affect the rest of my life. I began to doubt myself and criticize every little thing. It was a really depressing time, but it was my friends who got me through it. Every day I had multiple positive interactions with the majority, if not, all 330 students at my school and even when I had disagreements, we were able to work it out civilly. By the end of my junior year, I felt like a king. I had acted in the school plays and played varsity sports. My grades were pretty good and I was starting to join and/or lead in clubs on campus. By the time I was a senior, I had everything going for me (except my girlfriend had gone off to college and I did not know how to handle that. We argued loudly outside of St. Leo’s one night and I was being a little shit during the breakup. I couldn’t balance everything that was going on and deal with the fact that we were growing apart. )

My senior year solidified for me the types of bonds that I wanted to build with people. But I also solidified another really terrible idea: I wanted my friends and my family as far away from each other as possible. I had a good thing going – why ruin it by having my friends invest in me past a certain point? I guess you can call my behavior self-loathing or pitiful. I was getting ready to achieve a childhood dream by going to college and I didn’t want to celebrate or be celebrated. My family, by this point in time, was already broken. I selfishly wanted things to be perfect before I took the next step in my life. So if that meant cutting people off or not letting people in, then that’s what I did.

PAS 2005 Class Graduation Photo... smile!

At a time when my classmates wanted to be more connected than ever, I isolated myself more often and started to do some real soul searching. In fact, some of that soul searching ended up in my writing. My raps got deeper. I would read college application questions and write essays about my personal struggles and never submit them. My issues manifested themselves in my writing and I couldn’t stop writing about them.

reading a piece that i wrote

One of those issues is abandonment. I was abandoned, or at least that’s how I feel, as a kid, so I can’t stand when people ignore me or try to say goodbye. I think that’s why I had a hard time with the break up and why I didn’t date anyone else at school during my senior year. There were opportunities to be close to certain people, (I won’t name names because I don’t know how comfortable some of these girls are with me speaking about this) but I forced myself to reject anyone and everyone who wanted to see that side of me. Let me revise – any girl who wanted to see that side of me. The guys at the Abbey were like brothers to me. I could go to the upperclassmen like Jerome, J-Dubb, or Big Joe to listen and seek advice or I could politick during dinners with Andrew, Jamaal, Marc, or Sev. (This list of my brethren could go on and on so don’t feel bad if I didn’t mention you.) And yet, ask me how many of them I still talk with regularly and my answer will be one or two names, maybe.

AJ, J-Dubb, Miles, Me, my niece, and Jerome

However, my college experience was a little different. My freshmen year at Holy Cross began with me crushing on some Italian girl with these big, beautiful, green eyes. My dorm, Hanselman, was the freshmen dorm and the guys in my hall became some of my best friends. In fact, Inigo lived two doors down from me and really that’s how we started to build our friendship. I was more open with Inigo and people from Holy Cross because I felt like I was right where I belonged. I felt like I could trust these people because Fr. Campbell, Nativity Prep’s ED and my advisor, trusted them enough to be the chaplain there. I trusted the mission, the commitment to academics and service. I knew I could grow into the man I wanted to be. Yet still, I had so much more to learn and experience.

Graduation Day 2009... guess who wasn't suited up

Holy Cross isn’t the perfect school, but it was perfect for me at the time. It provided me the stability I needed to branch out and discover my capabilities and my limits. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I’ve seen what that’s done to my mother and I don’t want any part of that. But because I live that sober life, the Irish Catholic tradition of drowning in liquid Catholicism on a Saturday night wasn’t ever going to allow me to fit in completely. I opened myself up and trusted people at HC, but what I found was that no matter where you go or what you do, you’re always going to have those people who just don’t feel the same way.

Liz and me all grown up

Me performing in front of 850+ ppl at Summer Academy 2011

Which is cool with me because I found my niche. It took some time to figure out who was going to share that niche with me. Those people today are the same people I’ve asked to read this blog. People like Chelsea and Jenna who stalk me on my birthday. People like Taylor, Joan, Frank and their entire family who held me down in my time of need. People like Alfred, Gradey, Ricky, Bryan and Damien who I wish we were really related. I’ve transformed from wanting to separate my friends and family to having my friends become my family. It’s one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned in life. Home is always where the heart is. I appreciate and love all of my friends. You all mean the world to me. And for those who I haven’t spoken with in a while, I hope this blog inspires us to reconnect. Thank you to all of those who already did. I hope to talk to you all again soon. Til then, take care.

Peace, love and respect,


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