"I’m in a position right now to set myself up to be the guy who can help"

Meet the man, the myth, the legend: Fred

Tell us a little bit about your background.

 When I started my educational journey, neither of my parents had more than a high school diploma. They stressed education almost to the point of being annoying. My parents split up and then my dad actually went back to college two years before I graduated high school, something which I recently found out. Although my parents talked about the importance of college, it didn’t really register with me; I always thought I was going to be an athlete. I kind of resented the emphasis on education, to be honest.  

I played football in high school which ended up being highly influential in my decision to attend college. I took the SATs my senior year without having even taken the PSAT. My coaches and counselors helped me take the steps I needed to take to make the college journey a reality for me. I ended up going to the University of West Georgia for undergrad. For a long time I was set on Howard University in Washington, D.C. because I wanted to get out of Georgia, but I chose West Georgia solely based on financial aid; I didn’t want to take out thousands of dollars in loans. 

What was your college experience like?

 I wasn’t exactly thrilled about going to West Georgia. I settled in eventually, but it was hard. I was actually planning to stay there for only a year or two, getting good grades, and then transferring. But after two semesters, I started getting involved in student government, the African Student Association, and I was making friends. Primarily, I was doing all this because I wanted to pad my resume so I could transfer, but it was funny that what was initially a means to an end, became what kept me at West Georgia for all four years.

You mentioned earlier that you had always planned on being an athlete. What was the academic transition from high school to college like? 

I can illustrate the nature of that transition in one story: in high school, if I had a test Friday at 10 am, I’d wake up at 7:30 am and start studying an hour before school and it worked out. I tried that same approach my first semester of college with an Algebra course; I got a 27 (out of 100) on my first exam. It was a whole new way of doing things. I had to learn what actual studying looked like.

It’s hard to make that transition. In high school, some students manage to do well without paying much attention to study habits. How would you encourage students to think about their work at the college level?

I would encourage students to take a more wholistic approach and understand what their strengths and their weaknesses are. Now, maybe that starts at the primary level and with the way we’re preparing our young adults to go to college—as much as I wish we could change the system overnight, you can’t. I think it helps to have clear goals going into it. In high school you have a lot of free time, in college you have a lot of perceived free time.

Being able to motivate yourself to put in the hours at the library or to take advantage of that 4 hour break between classes is important. There are going to be times when you lose motivation, but if you know what you’re aiming for, it becomes a little be easier to hold yourself accountable. For me it was getting good grades, for others it might be something more intangible like being able to care for one’s parents.

Fred received his J.D. from the   University of Maryland   at College Park.

Fred received his J.D. from the University of Maryland at College Park.

Why law school?

I had a wonderful U.S. Government teacher. One day I was trying to figure out what to do with my life and found out she had majored in political science so I thought, I’ll do that and then I’ll take it one step further and go to law school. It was simplistic like that. My plan was solidified about a year or two into college. I was up one night looking at statewide elected officials who identified as Black and Latinx and almost 90 percent of them had law degrees.

I wish I could say it stemmed from more than a desire to be elected to statewide office one day and seeing a law degree as a prerequisite to that. Whether or not that’s the case is debatable. I like to think that even if it isn’t the case for me, there’s a generation of folks that can maybe break out of the  mold of a law degree being a segue into a political career. I’d like to see more theater majors or science majors running for office and being involved. 

You’ve written a book, what led you to take on that endeavor?

I wrote the book while in law school at the University of Maryland (!!) primarily as a means of therapy and of self-healing and self-care. Rarely do I share this, but I think, unfortunately, graduate school is unbelievably difficult for Black and Latinx people. Now, I’m not saying it’s easy for other people, just that there are unique challenges facing these communities. I unapologetically believe that the experience both academically and socially is more difficult, not because we’re not as academically or intellectually capable, but because disproportionately, when we’re in grad school or med school or whatever, we don’t only have to focus on the academics, but there’s often other home life, financial, or familial burdens that we have to take care of. 

For example, I had a lot going on with my brother, who is autistic, and was going through a really tough time. I was supporting my mother and it took a toll on me. My book is primarily about those experiences, not only in law school, but as a child and through my educational journey. I wanted to graduate so that I could take care of the people I wanted to take care of.

Now, I’ve heard a lot of snide remarks about twenty-five-year-old’s who have the hubris to write memoirs, but those remarks are why I wrote the book when I wrote it. I’m not naïve to think that I couldn’t have written this fifteen or twenty-five years later and made a lot more money out of it, but for me it was important for that to be written and published so that I could say, I did it, I wrote it, and this is how I felt at 23. My focus was to be able to give that book to young adults who might be battling depression and anxiety or any other thing that I dealt with.

What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

In law school, it was the idea that people of color primarily make good public service attorneys. I found that my peers were being steered towards “big law” and other branches of law that make more money. I’ll be fair and say that some of that is personally driven, but I would also counter that by saying that that’s more of a societal issue presenting itself in our academic world.

I think that a lot of Black and Latinx people go to law school with the desire to go into public service law because somewhere along the way they’ve been told they should do that. Nothing against public service law, but as you can tell from my rant, I’m passionate about this issue because I think it encourages Black and Latinx students to take the $20,000 check and guilt trips the ones who do want to go in and make money.

How did you deal with this challenge?

First semester of law school, I had Sherrilyn Ifill as my civil procedure professor, she’s currently president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. After I took her final,  I sent her an email saying thank you for all your encouragement and for teaching a great class, and told her I was ready to quit.  I drove back to Georgia after my first semester. I then got an email from her telling me I couldn’t quit. It was very calming and compassionate, but also very stern in a way that I feel only she could’ve said it.  

Additionally, I realized that if my professors or peers are going to have opinions of me based on my identity, they’re going to have those opinions regardless and it’s not my responsibility to try and change them. So I decided to focus on respect and love and appreciating those who showed that to me. For me it was a disconnection from things that were no longer serving and latching on to the things that were. I don’t know if that’s a solution for everyone, but it worked for me. I had so many other things going on—my book, my business—that ultimately doing well in law school for me meant something other than grades.

What advice would you give to students facing unexpected challenges? What do you do when something goes horribly wrong?

It’s difficult to say this, but know yourself, be more aware of both what makes you happy and your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I know that I enjoy nature, running, and leisure reading. Self-care is a term that is often thrown around, but I think it’s so important. I think it’s hard to know how to take care of ourselves without doing an evaluation of sorts and doing that requires a you to acknowledge how your own emotional trauma or weaknesses are affecting the relationships you have with those around you.

I’m a big fan of the “gap year” because I think it’s so important to take time and really learn about yourself and about your shortcomings outside of an academic setting. If you can afford it, take the opportunity to spend some time grappling with yourself.   

Fred with then-candidate Jon Ossoff who ran for congress in Georgia’s sixth district.

Fred with then-candidate Jon Ossoff who ran for congress in Georgia’s sixth district.

What does perseverance mean to you?

Perseverance is falling down seven times and standing up eight. Every day brings a new challenge and being able to a) recognize that and b) apply the same work ethic to dealing with those challenges every day is true perseverance. Even when situations seem insurmountable, finding a way to get the job done, that’s the culmination of perseverance. For folks who are in new environments, whether that be college or encountering new professional opportunities, another way to interpret perseverance is to remain humble and staying connected to your friends, family, and people who have always supported you, while you’re being exposed to new places, people, and different ways of doing things.

What’s your job like now and what would you like to be doing in the future? 

I have a business, CTK Solutions where we work with non-profits, churches, and political candidates on long-term strategic planning for campaign management. With regards to the future, to be honest, I don’t know. I love entrepreneurship and business—I get a real sense of joy in being able to empower people and I’m finding that the best way to do that is through monetary power and acquisition.

It’s the most significant way I’d like to give back—especially in today’s economy with the erosion of unions and workplace protections. I’m always thinking about how I want to treat my employees and the benefits I want to make sure they have—health care, paternity leave, 401Ks. If I had to answer that question in a small soundbite, I just want to keep pursuing my passions—reading and writing. I’m currently writing two books and trying to serve others through my church and non-profits.

Going into business and putting down capital can be terrifying when you have finite funds. How did you make the leap into business—did you grapple with similar doubts?

Initially, I could see the doubt on people’s faces when I told them I was starting my own business. But I got past that. I quickly found out that starting a business is immensely expensive, even with low overhead. There were definitely days I thought, this isn’t going to work. But my desire to succeed was greater. In the future I want to be able to turn around and give back and help people get jobs so they can support their families.

One of my heroes is Nick Saban, head football coach at Alabama. I heard a story about him giving one of his players, Muhsin Muhammad, who got arrested, a second chance. Saban refused to kick Muhammad off the team and Muhammad went on to a long illustrious career in the NFL, now has a number of kids, and one of his daughters is going to Princeton. I want to be in a position to be able to give people that kind of chance—that drives me.  I knew that at 23, 24, 25 years-old life might be tough, but that at 35, 45 I know I want to be able to give—I don’t want to be the guy when people ask me for things to say “I wish I could give, but I can’t” because I’m in a position right now to set myself up to be the guy who can help.

I have to say though, one of the things I despise is giving “do what you love advice” to people whose circumstances I’m unfamiliar with. I was lucky enough to continue to take losses with the idea that a win was coming. I don’t discount that, by any means.

 

Rapid Fire Round: 

 1.    Something or someone you can’t stop talking about: Zora Neale Hurston 

2.    Favorite book: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

3.    Person who inspires you: My little brother, Alex. He’s the strongest person I know.

4.    Most rewarding thing you’ve done: The Tarzan swing in Costa Rica. When I jumped off that ledge, every fear I ever had disappeared. 

Thanks for sharing, Fred, we can’t wait to see what you do next!