CHICAGO – This past summer, Devin Howard, a young man dressed in a sharp gray suit, attended the graduation ceremony for the first-ever women’s electrician class at the Project H.O.O.D. community center and stole the show with one line: “Poverty ran my family until it ran into me.” He had been invited to speak because of his success. Several years ago, Howard graduated from the Project H.O.O.D. construction class and landed a job as project manager at one of Chicago’s major construction companies, Reed Construction. His path, however, was not a straight one.
On the 52nd day of his 100-day rooftop vigil to raise funds to build the building for his transformative community center, Pastor Corey Brooks welcomed his star pupil for a fireside chat in the bitter cold. He said he tells everybody the example they should follow is Devin Howard.
Devin nodded his appreciation. He then began to tell his story. He graduated in 2017 from Urban Prep in Englewood where he played football and maintained a 3.8 GPA. He moved on to Eastern Illinois University where he joined the football team while majoring in nursing. But something wasn’t right.
“I came to a realization I didn’t like nursing,” Howard said. “And while I was there, I started realizing certain things that just wasn’t falling in line with myself.”
He soon came to the realization that school was not for him. What, then, was the right path?
He began reading books on financial literacy from “Rich Dad Poor Dad” to “7 Laws of Leadership.” At the same time, he was itching to do something and made the rash decision to join the Navy. He backed out on the day he was to ship out.
At this point, most people would have lost patience with Howard, but he kept searching for the right question to give him direction in life.
“I started picking up hands-on things such as real estate and carpentry and painting. I started falling in love with those things,” Howard said. “My mom been in real estate for a minute and I somewhat leaned on her and I watched her. And I would start thinking how can I provide generational wealth for my family and for myself?”
He went out and got his real estate license, but there was one problem: the market was cold.
“My mom called me, she tells me about the carpentry program [at Project H.O.O.D.],” said Howard. “I said, ‘I’m going to think about it.’ Next thing you know, she’s like, ‘You’re not doing anything right now. The real estate hasn’t really picked up yet. Let’s take it on.’ And she was right. Time is your biggest commodity.”
“You were the top student in our construction class,” the pastor said. “You did everything that we needed you to do. You went through all the trainings, got the certifications.”
Howard nodded, humbled by the praise.
“While I was in the program, I met a gentleman by the name of Bill, the CEO of Reed Construction,” Howard said. “He provided me with a business card that day.”
Then COVID-19 hit, halting Howard’s progress. As Chicago shut down completely, he even thought of quitting. A year later, he was in his room throwing out business cards when he came across Bill’s card.
“It was crazy because I had just been cleaning out my room, throwing away business cards. And he called me that same exact day,” Howard said. “He offered me a position with the company as a project engineer. So from that point on, it’s just been great. Great opportunities.”
Howard moved up to project manager and now oversees multiple projects across the city. The task is not easy for he must know all the responsibilities of the subcontractors so he can ensure they do their jobs efficiently and in a timely manner.
“How beneficial do you think it would be for a lot of the guys who are in gangs, who have lost their way – maybe some have come home from jail – how beneficial do you think it would be for them to be in a trades program like the one we offer at Project H.O.O.D.?” asked the pastor.
“It would be definitely beneficial,” Howard said. “I know for myself personal friends haven’t left at least four blocks going east, west, north and south. Some never seen downtown. And when I see some of their reactions, when I expose them to some of the things that I’ve done already – and it’s not like nothing major to me – but when I see their expression, it gives me a happy feeling inside.”
He smiled, continuing: “I wish I could do this for the next person over and over and over again. So I feel like with people that are in gangs, you should be able to give yourself a chance in life because life is short … I just don’t want to have no regrets knowing that I didn’t give myself a chance.”
At 22 years old, Devin Howard has only just begun his journey.
Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is “What Killed Michael Brown?” Twitter: @Hebro_Steele.
Camera by Terrell Allen.