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Published on November 15, 2013 | by Riannon Westall     Photography by Joanne Gonsalves

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Segun Akinsanya: incarceration to inspiration

Your past, no matter how extreme, does not define your future. This is just one of the few lessons you can learn from Segun Akinsanya.

“I can’t go into the past and change it,” Akinsanya, 25, says. “I think it was destiny that I ended up in this position.”

His positions – founder of a non-profit organization and youth justice worker of another – are not ones expected of a man who plead guilty to manslaughter six years ago.

In 2008, Akinsanya got into an argument with a small-scale marijuana supplier in the washroom of a North York Coffee Time. The argument turned violent when the 17-year-old dealer pulled out a knife and slashed Akinsanya. Akinsanya, then 18, disarmed the dealer and stabbed him with his own knife. The dealer did not survive.

“I didn’t make the first move. I was stabbed and I reacted. And I accepted responsibility for my reaction.”

Akinsanya declines to comment on the “nitty gritty details”. “They’re almost for show. They’re not needed,” he says.

He turned himself in four days after the incident and later spent three years in jail and one year on parole.

GROWING UP

Despite his troubled past, Akinsanya holds no resentment towards his upbringing, describing it as “good”. When he was three years old his family moved from Nigeria to a small town outside of Quebec. Shortly after, his mother died in a car accident. His father was left to raise three girls and a son who was “falling into the stereotype…the black man stereotype.”

After Akinsanya’s family moved to Toronto, he had his first encounter with the law due to a robbery incident. He was around 12 years old and recalls “rocking” his bandana and following someone who considered himself a Crip member. The Crips, a gang that originated in Los Angeles, are often regarded as one of the most dangerous organized groups in America.

In reflection; however, Akinsanya says, “It wasn’t a gang…I found brothers that became my family.”

He defines a gang as a group that inhibits economic power, works in a cohesive manner and towards a specified goal.

“When that’s not happening in communities, it’s not a gang. It’s a group of people trying to survive,” he explained. “(I was) just trying to get an extra five or ten dollars.”

At age 16, Akinsanya was charged with failure to comply and spent several months in a juvenile detention centre. Two years later, he went back to jail for a more serious crime: manslaughter.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he can’t fully remember the situation and says it can play out several different ways in his mind.

“Trauma is sad and it hurts,” Akinsanya says, looking over his deck in Scarborough. “It’s something I fight every day, it’s something that can’t be cured.”

GIVING BACK

Akinsanya says that systematic barriers deter people from “believing they’re beautiful” and realizing “everything they have to offer.” He hopes to prevent the next generation from following the same road; a road, he says, that’s triggered by poverty and lack of opportunities and education.

Based on a 60-page manual he wrote in jail, Akinsanya now runs a non-profit organization called Bright Future Alliance (BFA). The organization aims to create valuable opportunities for young people. In the past, BFA facilitated school workshops and programs teaching skills such as cooking and leadership. Its current initiative, The Bartley Project, will connect young people to potential business with the end goal of creating a sustainable life

Akinsanya further guides young people as a youth justice worker at the African Canadian Legal Clinic, an organization that addresses anti-black racism and represents African Canadians.

He is also a student at the University of Toronto and a board executive for the Youth Anti-Violence (YAV) Task Force, which increases awareness about youth violence and calls for action to address the complex issue. 

FACING JUDGEMENT

Akinsanya has a friendly smile, and he’s the type of person that would walk a visitor to their car. Despite his personality shift over the past six years, he still faces judgment.

He describes a job interview where the man interviewing him said on the spot, “you have the job!” After Akinsanya admitted his past, the man changed his reaction and never called back.

“I understand their judgment. Everyday someone’s going to judge me,” Akinsanya shrugs it off.

Detective Stacy Gallant, who arrested Akinsanya in 2006 says, “That is great that he is trying to turn his life around,” but mentioned he has a “hard time sympathizing.”

“The turning around of their lives should have occurred before he [sic] decided to take a life.”

“That comment is an ignorant comment,” Akinsanya says. “People don’t start at the same starting point.”

He explained that minority groups must overcome barriers, such as social isolation, and that the challenge often leads them to commit crimes. A report released on Nov. 4 by the YAV Task Force highlighted that of the 48 victims of homicides last year, most were under the age of 30, and large numbers were members of a racial minority group.

Realities like this are what drive Akinsanya to stay committed to his work. He estimates that to date he has helped 200 young people, and that’s just the beginning.

“In five years I’m going to travel… and take the work we do in Toronto today around the world and make it a better place.”

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About the Author

is a third-year media student at the University of Guelph-Humber. With curiosity and the drive to learn about human nature, she strives to make the work she does meaningful. Riannon’s career goal is to use the power of media to educate and make a difference. Follow her on Twitter @Riannon_Westall.



9 Responses to Segun Akinsanya: incarceration to inspiration

  1. Sue Slean says:

    It’s unfortunate that this young man’s life started out the way it did, but he has obviously made the most of a bad situation. It would have been very easy for him to be angry at the world for the hand he was dealt. The work he is doing now, even if he only saves one persons life, is making a difference in the world. To often we throw lives away, I am glad he has found his way and is making a difference in others lives!

  2. Brenda Clubine says:

    What an inspiring story of youth betterment by an inspiring young man! I can only hope that articles like this go viral and influence other troubled youth in making the decision to become all that they can be! We all need more organizations like this! Well done all!

  3. Miley says:

    Great interview and write up about turning your life around

  4. jay:) says:

    Riannon you have done an amazing job in writinng this amazing article and I’m sure this willl inspire many people who are missguided by others and by their wrong choices.. keep it up ..

  5. Brandon Dube says:

    This was written and put together really well from beginning till end, I was never lost or found myself reading back due to confusion. Great job!

  6. Riannon Westall says:

    Thanks so much for your comments! I’m glad others find Segun’s story inspirational. He’s a very smart guy, and his smile and laugh made him easy to talk to. He mentioned in the interview that if there were one thing someone could take away from his story, it would be the ability to not care about failure and to always continue moving forward with enthusiasm and happiness.

  7. Scott says:

    I applaud Riannon for her good work in bringing Akinsana’s story to this forum! In being a really young man when this took place (or a child really) he certainly has made the right choices on his rehab! His abilities seems to be endless, and his vision for 5 years is wonderful! Such a great story and hopefully inspires other’s toavoid situations like his, and hopefully become leaders such as he has become! Riannon great work and good for you to help people less fortunate than most!!

  8. Ryan says:

    Really well written article. Keep up the good work.

  9. Vincent says:

    Wow, incredible how he is trying to turn what happened around to help others. Wish I read about this a long time ago! Great article

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  • 3 ways to help

    MENTOR:

    There’s nothing more valuable than donating your time. Mentoring as a part of The Bartley Project, you will assist youth to complete projects in the field your post-secondary program. For more details, email segun@brightfuturealliance.com

    DONATE:

    Supporting BFA’s initiatives is made extremely easy by clicking the ‘Donate’ tab on their Facebook page facebook.com/AllianceBFA

    JOIN THE MOVEMENT:

    Sign your name to empower Toronto’s youth! Our City Our Safety is a campaign designed by YAV Task Force to gain public support in an effort to change the lives of young people.