Difference Maker

Born and raised in one of the toughest areas of South Detroit, Dante Jackson managed to not only graduate from high school but he made it to the ripe old age of nineteen with no criminal record. In an area where the dropout rate was once 75% and the likelihood of going to prison or college is almost equal, these were remarkable feats.

Dante credits his early success to his grandmother who raised him. She often told him—and anyone else who would listen—that he “was a good boy, a real good boy.” He tried hard to never let her down. She was the only family he’d ever known. His mother died of a drug overdose before he could walk and like many children born into extreme poverty, he never knew his father.

Dante’s life went awry in a series of heinous crimes that began with the rape of his girlfriend by her mother’s live-in boyfriend. Her mother refused to believe her and when the police didn’t either, Dante took matters into his own hands. He pounded on the door of her house. He could see the boyfriend passed out on the couch, a burned-down cigarette hanging from his limp fingers but despite Dante’s best efforts, he could not wake the man. So he left, determined to return another time to set things straight.

Later that night, police showed up at his grandmother’s apartment and arrested Dante for arson. His girlfriend’s house had burned to the ground, killing the boyfriend. More than one neighbor had seen Dante at the home earlier. Motive, means, wrong place, wrong time. Dante was convicted and sentenced to ten to twenty years in Michigan's Jackson Penitentiary.

His girlfriend visited him once in prison but the shame in her eyes was too much to bear and Dante sent her away. She deserved a better life. Unlike him, she had a future and it didn’t include waiting on a man behind bars.

Prison was a merciless place. No one cared that he was innocent. But the one invaluable gift that prison granted him was time. For Dante, it was a period of divine preparation. While incarcerated, he looked beyond his own predicament and earned two college degrees—the highest a master’s in divinity—and helped other men in prison who sought personal transformation. Paroled after eight years, he went on to get a special dispensation from the State of Michigan to teach in the Detroit Public Schools.

Today, he’s a fifth-grade teacher at Harrison Howe Elementary School, located in one of the toughest districts in the state, on Detroit’s south side. He plays basketball at the local Boys and Girls Club and on Sunday nights he leads a growing youth ministry at New Heights Baptist Church. As a teacher, youth leader and mentor, he shows young people that a better life—a Christ-centered life—is within their reach and instructs them on how to make it happen.

From the frontlines, where violence, sex, and drugs are a part of life, Dante Jackson takes an active stance against the depredations of poverty. Determined to be a difference maker, he’s devoted his life to breaking the poverty-to-prison pipeline.

Have you touched anyone lately?

The Jonathan Effect

As I researched for my newest novel, looking for inspiration for my male lead, an inner-city man with a heart for kids, I came across Detroit native, Mike Tenbusch. I knew I’d found what I was looking for when I saw the man’s Twitter profile, "Helping young people win their battle over poverty through relationships for the greater glory of God."

With a degree from the University of Michigan Law School, Tenbusch could have chosen a more lucrative career path but with a faith-driven need to serve, he’s given his life to improving opportunities for underprivileged urban youth. He says he became a teacher because he wanted to make a difference, and he certainly has.

In a poverty-stricken world where a child’s zip code defines his destiny, where seventy percent of children grow up in a fatherless home, Tenbusch recognized a dire need for community involvement. He’s led the way and his solutions have produced real results. 

As Vice President of United Way, Tenbusch was instrumental in building a partnership between teachers, administrators, and students to restructure Detroit’s education system. Cody was once a failing school. Under Tenbusch’s leadership, the United Way raised money to pay for a restructuring program that divided the school into three focused academies. The goal was to create smaller, more intimate environments, more conducive to creating relationships between teachers, students, and the community. The result was an incredible increase in attendance and graduation rates.

Student Donniqua Alexander summed it up perfectly, “Every student has somebody who cares about them inside of Cody. Period. I don’t care what school you’re in, everybody has that teacher you can go call on or they can always lean on.” 

Working with General Motors’ executives, Tenbusch also showed how businesses could partner with schools, forming personal connections with students. How the caring capital of a community could provide rewards beyond measure.

 While serving on the Detroit Public School Board, Tenbusch helped a charter school district graduate more than ninety percent of its first high school class and led the effort to turnaround the city's most challenged high schools.

Tenbusch’s plans include a simple formula for churches working with schools to provide mentors and role models, mobilizing Christians to love and serve children. He believes the church is the best source to provide the city’s struggling youth with the relational connections that can help them overcome their circumstances.

While Tenbusch’s life work has touched thousands of Detroit youth, it’s a plan that could prove universal. He has a book coming out in November, The Jonathan Effect, that could take his ideas nationwide, global even. I can't wait to read the stories of the lives he's impacted.

Have you touched anyone lately?