WE ARE A COLLECTIVE OF CREATORS WHO BELIEVE THAT IF WE WORK TOGETHER THAT OUR IDEAS, PROJECTS AND INNOVATIONS WILL BETTER OUR COMMUNITY. WE ARE UNAPOLOGETICALLY EXPERIMENTING. WE ARE A PLACE FOR THE PROCESS, THE MESS, THE IMPERFECTION. WE ARE A PLACE FOR THE UNKNOWN TO BECOME KNOWN.
WE ARE 1909.
Join us as we introduce you to the members of 1909.
We kick off our interview series with 1909 member Ricky Aiken, Founder of the nonprofit organization Inner City Innovators. The organization is made up of three employees who all work out of 1909 at our West Palm Beach location. Ricky is a West Palm Beach native, and he serves as a Housing Authority Commissioner over the same housing projects where he once grew up. Ricky has made it his life’s mission to be a Hope Dealer, and inspire and empower inner-city youth to embody the change so desperately needed in their communities.
Tell us about Inner City Innovators and your organization’s mission?
“Inner City Innovators is a youth delinquency and gun violence prevention organization with a mission to inspire and empower inner-city youth to embody the change they want to see in their communities. Too often, when people think about these communities, they believe that it’s going to take someone from the outside coming in to clean things up. I don’t believe that is the case.
I believe that no one has more incentive to change or transform these communities than the people who live there and are most affected by what is going on there. Our mission is to cast a vision that these young men have within themselves that is necessary to make this community a better place for their mothers, brothers, little sisters, and all family members.”
Would you say one of the main issues in your community is gun violence?
“I think gun violence is a symptom of a much bigger issue. Depending on who you talk to you, you will get different answers for what the leading cause is. Some say injustice; others will say poverty, I would say trauma. It all leads to a sense of hopelessness where gun violence has become a way to settle disputes.
When you look at why people have guns and why they feel they must use guns, it’s to solve their problems. It points to the breakdown in the society we live in. What these people are experiencing or going through makes them so desperate that they believe the only way to get out is to kill or be killed.
So I think gun violence and delinquency and most of the things we seek to address as an organization of a much bigger problem in our country. If you look around our country, there are communities just like ours — they are predominantly black communities of concentrated disadvantage.
I think it has a lot to do with our racial legacy and heritage in this country. As long as we continue to sweep it under the rug as if those traumas don’t live through the people, then we will continue to see what we see today in these communities.”
What is a Hope Dealer and where did the term come from?
“When I was growing up, the only image you had of something you aspired to be was a neighborhood dope dealer. You didn’t have lawyers, doctors, or businessmen leaving the house every day. On the walk to school, for me, it was my brother Yoshi, Baby Drew, and other male figures in my life. Based on what you saw every day, these are the guys you wanted to be like growing up.
You didn’t want to be a crack addict, an alcoholic, or a homeless person. You didn’t want to be the most desperate aspect of the community. Dope dealers were the only models you had. I realized if this was the image of success I had in my community, the same must be valid for the young people growing up in my town. I wanted to do everything I could to change that.
Norman, our Program Coordinator and I have about 30 young men in our program. 40% of them have been victimized by gun violence. Now all 40% of those kids are employed and they are back in school. These guys from our program continue to show up in our mentoring sessions.
We have parents running up to us, asking how they can get their kids involved with us. We are an image our community never had. Even when the drug dealers see us, they respect us.
When people look at our community, it is easy to think well okay the hope dealers are the good guys, and the drug dealers are the bad guys. That is not necessarily the case. The dope dealers are profound casualties of America’s war with drugs. You see the whole health approach on the opioid epidemic, the same was the truth in regards to crack. These are people that were on the user and the distribution side.
We can talk about how it came into the country and had African American communities under its microscope as far as the destruction that was laid. These were kids that had nothing else; they wanted to survive. This drug gave them a way to survive.
These were people who wanted to make way and provide for their families. They wanted to stop seeing their mothers’ struggles and get food in their mouths. Once they took that step, there was no coming back. There were no opportunities for people who went down that road.
Dope dealers became trapped in that life. They understand that, and I know that as well. They work with us to keep young men in our programs and keep an eye on them.
It became a personal ambition of mine that on every corner you see a dope dealer, on the other corner standing next to him, would be a hope dealer. I wanted the kids that were growing up to have options of who they wanted to be like. We’re developing a culture in our community that has never existed before. You usually get an outside agency coming in, but I grew up in this community, and I understand what it is like.”
Elaborate on how it makes a difference to be an inside force versus an outside force. What was your childhood like growing up in Dunbar Village?
“I was born and raised in the Dunbar Village housing projects. My grandmother raised me because my mother struggled with crack addiction. I was a crack baby.
My grandmother was an interesting person. It was like living with two people. I describe living with her like it was living with Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. When she was sober, she was sweet, loving, and super supportive. I had good memories. When she drank and would go into binges, she would be drunk for weeks at a time. In that environment, I endured a lot of emotional abuse. It was never physical. There was a lot of emotional trauma in my childhood. For most of my childhood I was delegated to my room. I couldn’t come out of my room unless I was going to school or playing outside.
When my grandmother would drink, she would stop taking care of things little by little. Whatever she cooked the last time she was sober, that is what I would have to continue to eat. So you have these stretches as a kid where you’re just trying to figure out how you’re going to survive until grandma sobers up again.
In the projects, it was like a jungle. It was survival of the fittest. Anything someone could pick on you for they would. When I was in second or third grade, and I was walking towards the school bus, I’d be getting picked on for the things my grandma did when she was drunk. She was a very embarrassing drunk person.
I was always getting picked on by my friends for things that were outside of my control. I remember early on, I felt very alone in the world. Because of the age differences between my older brothers and me, there was no connection for me to grasp. I would describe my childhood as very lonely and very emotionally traumatizing.
When you’re a kid, you begin to put things together. You wonder why someone else lives with his mom, and knows his dad. Why do I only get to see my mom on the weekends? Where is my dad? So it was a very trying time.
You grow up in this environment where you feel like you are nothing, and you have nothing. I remember third grade I was labeled by the school system as emotionally handicapped and learning disabled. I don’t know how I learned about that as a kid in school, but it conditioned the way I approached school going forward.
Fast forward to Middle School, and I’m meeting kids that are in my community. You start to associate, and that’s where your buddies evolve from a friendship into a clique you will commit crimes with and doing things you shouldn’t be doing.
You know that saying, ‘hurt people hurt people.’ Well, that was it. That could have been the mission statement of our group. They were all coming from very similar situations that I had come from. Now we’re together and we’re hurting.
Just imagine you grow up, and you come from this trauma, and then you don’t know how to process it. You are starting to find identity in people who come from similar backgrounds. If anyone understands what you’ve gone through, it’s your homeboys. That’s who you confide in, and they become closer to you. They are your family.
They became my family. I remember from 8th grade until 11th grade when I dropped out of school; the trouble escalated. We went from stealing in Middle School and getting into petty fights and jumping people, to getting shot at and shooting at people. I was seeing my friends kill people and my friends getting killed. It escalated quickly. We were only 16 years old. We were kids. Kids in these communities are forced to grow up fast, due to their conditions and their environments.”
How did you discover what your passion was?
“I remember exactly when it was; I was around 17 or 18. Someone gave me a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it had two main concepts. One was the whole concept of the difference between proactive and reactive people. Then, there was the concept of a personal mission statement. I believe so often people are just existing, day to day, working this job, just going through the movements.
After reading that book I was very intentional about creating a personal mission and living a life that aligned with the priorities I set. I look back over my life, and I’m surprised by how long I was on this journey before Inner City Innovators came to life.
At 23, I was advocating at school board meetings. I realized in life, if you don’t have a mission for yourself, someone else will enlist you in their mission. I wanted to live my life on my terms. I dedicated myself to my mission, and everything else fell into place.”
What made you decide to start your own nonprofit?
For me, I have always been a rebel. I have always been my own person. Even when my friends were out causing trouble, I would separate myself from them. I was still my individual person and wanted to do things my way. It got me into a lot of trouble growing up. But it also contributed to who I am today.
Going through what I went through, think about it. If you could sell drugs, get into fights, and get shot at, you have to have something wrong with you to engage in that kind of stuff. I always thought something was missing.
One of the most important things that led to my shift was the mentors I had growing up from Urban Youth Impact. It wasn’t so much about the programs; it was about the people. It was them believing in me and encouraging me in a way that I had never had. The shift occurred when I started to believe in what they were saying about me.
At first, I didn’t want to start a nonprofit. I wanted to do something about the violence in my community. I was thinking about what I could do. I was seeing people I know getting killed every day. I felt like that had always been the case, and no one was doing anything about it.
There was a book I read called The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. It changed my life. You are raised to believe that the world is a system. You need specific skills to get somewhere. Seth flipped it and said it’s about the connection. It is about telling an authentic story that resonates. I had never heard someone speak like that before or see things from that point of view.
After that, my paradigm was shifted. I started this movement, and I started organizing my friends. I never felt like I needed to have the answers or that I needed anything to button everything up, so I didn’t try to button things up. I just went with my heart. I think that book is what gave me the courage to do that.
I started attending city commission meetings, community forums, sharing my perspective, and as things went on, different opportunities came up. I attacked any opportunity that arose. I think that played a large part in how we became a nonprofit organization.
What is the process the kids in your program go through?
“There are two things we focus on when a kid joins our Hope Dealer Mentoring Program:
The first is to show up. Spend as much time as you can with them, and individual time at first is critical. They have never seen the kind of faithfulness and consistency that we give them at this point in their lives.
The second is to meet their needs. They don’t have people they can go to when they need someone to call. Sometimes no one has paid the light bill at their house, so we pay it, so the lights don’t go off at their home. We just show consistency, faithfulness, and love.
Then when we ask them for something, we have built the track record to ask for it. All we ask is for them to improve their own lives for themselves. That’s the secret sauce. When you come into this group, you’re coming into a family.
Do you have a success story from the program you can share?
“I have quite a few. It’s connected to the statistics I shared earlier. 40% of our program participants have been involved with gun violence. I will tell you one example that stands out to me at this moment.
There was a group of young men that were involved with a clique or gang; however, you want to define it. For months we were always dealing with gun violence within the group and another one of them getting shot. It felt like there were shootings at their houses every week. These men were part of our mentoring group. That is who we target, young men who are likely to perpetuate or be victimized by gun violence.
It seemed discouraging at the time to have to visit the hospital and talk to their parents, have stress debriefings, and we also relocated their families until things cooled down. We even took them on retreats after shootings to get them out of the community. We wanted them to focus on things outside the program. Those things, along with our mentoring program, made it so one day, they finally got it.
They are now all working full-time jobs. They’re no longer hanging out or involved in the drug trade and causing a ruckus. If you call one of these guys right now, they are on the clock at work. Now they are hard to find since they are always working and enjoying life. These were kids who once felt that violence was all they had. Now they are all success stories for the younger men in our programs. That, to me, is a greater form of success than a kid finishing school. This was an entire group of kids who could have still been adding to the cycle of violence that we know.
When we look at the homicide statistics in the last 12 months from the beginning of 2019 to now, homicide rates are down 30%, and violent crimes are down 18%. I believe that it has a large part to do with the demographic we work with. These guys who were contributing to the stats have experienced positive outcomes, and now our city is better overall. Those young men are the success stories I hold on tight to. As we expand, that’s what I want to produce.”
What has been your hardest challenge to overcome to create this organization or get to where you are today?
“The hardest challenge I faced was not knowing a lot of things. The learning curve was huge. I went from being a lone ranger and doing everything myself, to being a boss and having two employees under me. I have had to learn how to be an effective boss, which was difficult.
Everything I do is completely new to me, I have to learn everything. The one piece of advice a couple of years ago was to staff my weaknesses. I have always sought people who are good at the things I am bad at.”
What is one thing you wish people knew about the work you do and your mission?
“The violence we are seeking to eradicate isn’t just a ‘my community’ thing, or inner-city thing. It affects people at all levels. When it comes to violence, if it affects any of us, it affects all of us. We need to come together to find ways to address these problems.”
What is the vision of Inner City Innovators? Where do you see the organization in the future?
“In the future, I will plant a Hope Dealer clique in every major community of concentrated disadvantage in America. The mission will be to combat gun violence and youth delinquency. We are creating a model that will allow for easy replication. The model isn’t me going into these communities and telling people how to turn things around. It’s me going in and identifying myself in these communities and me going in to empower them to create solutions. Every community is different, so are the dynamics.
No one has the power to change these things like the people who live with the consequences of it. We plan to expand the Hope Dealer Mentorship Program into Riviera, then Belle Glade, and make our presence known in South Florida.
I want to travel the country and raise awareness and funds to empower young men, who were just like me and struggling with their identity. I want to empower them and show them they can be the change they need to see in the community. Real change happens when those who need it lead it.”
It’s Black History Month, how does that impact you?
“It inspires me because I look at black history every day. It is a large part of me and who I am and my belief in my abilities. It’s a great reminder that I come from one of the most resilient groups on the entire planet. You look at everything African Americans have been through, from slavery to mass incarceration, being judged and looked down upon.
The fact you have individuals like Fredrick Douglas, who was able to shine bright like he did in such a dark time, inspires me. He married a white woman during the time of slavery. You fast forward down the line to all these courageous leaders and people; despite all the opposition against them, they stand tall. That’s my heritage. I believe that what I go through and the circumstances I inherit, with the example of my ancestors, actually make me stronger. I shine brightest in situations that require my resilience.”
How can people get involved and help you with your mission?
“Our goal in the future is to be funded by fundraising. We want to have people sign up to become monthly subscribers to donate any amount of their choosing. Let’s say you live in Wellington or City Place, but you are concerned about violent crime, you see the news and see things happening.
Donating to our cause gives you the power to eradicate that. You can’t come into our communities and do what we can do on the ground, but you can support the work and say you are part of it. Our goal is not to be reliant on grants but to have the subscribed donations from people who live in the city.”
What inspires you to get out of bed every day?
“Life. Just being alive, knowing one day I will be dead. I can be a wild man. I’m glad to be alive and have this experience called ‘life.’ When you think about where I came from, I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be where I am. My brother went down a dark road, my friends have been killed, and everyone around me has had a hopeless dread in their lives. I shouldn’t be here, but I’m here. Every day I wake up on this side of the equation I am grateful for. I am happy to use a painful experience and turn it into something that will bless children in the community, even after I’m gone. Until I die, what is there not to wake up for?”