It was hard to find a dry eye in the house — and feet that weren’t ready to dance! — by the end of Andre Norman’s Sunday keynote address at SITE Global Conference.
Andre brought passion and energy to the #SITEGC stage, walking a rapt audience through racist bullying he faced growing up in Boston and challenges he struggled with at school that ultimately led to a federal prison sentence.
While serving time in a maximum security facility, Andre eventually came to realize that he had become the “king of nowhere.” He decided to reverse course, determining that a life behind bars as “the best gang member he could be” was not the direction he wanted to be going. Andre instead focused on a new dream, feeling for the first time that he wanted to be free.
Andre thought back to a college campus about 20 minutes from his house, where he used to ride his skateboard, as he examined where he might turn instead — knowing that he wanted to go wherever people who want to be successful learn, grow, and develop.
That university in Andre’s mind just happened to be Harvard, and he firmly fixed his sights on attending the Ivy League school. He was able to reverse his case on appeal, left prison, and found a mentor who Andre credits with teaching him “how to be human, how to care for others, how to be considerate…how to be a person.”
Redefining his “edge”
While Andre’s epic success story was inspirational all on its own, his remarks connected to legacy and the impact he’s since helped create for kids, teens, and adults facing similar problems were even more touching to those in the audience.
Andre shared how he decided, once free, to return to juvenile detention centers and other mass incarceration facilities as someone who could relate to what people there were experiencing, and as an individual who also now knows there’s a better way to handle fears and face emotional deficits.
This is something Andre commits to doing wherever his speaking journey takes him. He shared with the SITE Global Conference audience that he’d spent the night before his keynote speaking with 15 men in Harlem he described as “guys trying to find their way.” Later in the week, Andre had plans to make a similar visit and do outreach work at Green Haven Correctional Facility, also in New York.
Andre enjoys talking to people in these settings and encourage them to find their own paths home. He also noted “SITE brought me to New York, SITE made it available for me to mentor people last night, and talk to others in the New York State prison system who are the most needy. This conference for me is really about changing lives.”
Andre cited plenty of other cities and destinations too where he’s been proud to meet with those who need his message most, noting that he’s often asked to speak to groups who don’t get counseling or insight from others, such as young women in juvenile detention facilities. He’s spoken in the UK, Netherlands, Bahamas, Sweden, and 20 other countries.
“If you don’t want to create impact in your city or town, I’m not your guy!” he joked toward the end of his address. “Transactions took me to prison, but it’s relationships that got me out and elevated my life. I’m always asking: how do I help you be better?”
Finding your own guides
Andre left the 2023 SITE Global Conference audience with a few final words of advice, challenging them to identify three words each audience member could use to guide their own lives.
This thought exercise is based on what you want put on your tombstone, Andre explained, describing how you often see people’s names, dates of birth and death, and three descriptors of what they achieved, accomplished, or represented in their lifetime.
Andre shared that his three words will be Harvard fellow — “because I did that,” he laughed; Honorable son, based on the work he’s done in cities around the world, including some incredibly personal, touching outreach in his dad’s Virginia hometown; and Freed people — from prison, addiction, in whatever place or space he can, Andre concluded.
He left the audience with a final question for consideration, too. That’s what’s going on in my life, said Andre. The question now, is what’s going on in yours?