Published on November 15, 2013 | by Riannon Westall Photography by Joanne Gonsalves9
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.
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.”
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.
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.”