When Markese Bryant was growing up in Oakland, Calif., his schoolyard was next to a freeway. He shot hoops at a makeshift court where tattered nets hung from power line poles. His mother died when he was 5. His father was in prison. He was raised by his strictly religious grandmother.
Then in 2005, at age 20, Bryant was arrested for selling crack cocaine. And that, he says, saved his life.
“The truth is, I had too much time on my hands and there were pressures,” he says. “I was coming of age where everyone around me expected me to take care of myself. If someone had come to me with a job or vocational school training, I would have done that. But at the time, none of those options came to me. At that time the option was to sell drugs.”
Jail made his choices clear: Become another black, male, drug-dealing statistic, or follow the rules, stay clean, stop dealing, and go back to school. After two years of passing drug tests and a year at junior college, Bryant was accepted to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, alma mater of Martin Luther King. And then his options multiplied.
He majored in African American studies, picked up Van Jones’s best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy, and had an epiphany: If the environmental movement is an extension of the civil rights movement, as Jones argues, why wasn’t environmentalism penetrating the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)?