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Jonathan Conyers to Speak on Building a 'Village'

Oct 22, 2023 10:03PM ● By Jeanne Fratello
A coalition of Manhattan Beach and South Bay-based organizations are collectively hosting Jonathan Conyers, the inspirational Humans of New York and Instagram-famous community leader, to talk about overcoming challenges and gaining support from a "village."

The Conyers talk, to be held at 6:30 p.m. on October 25 at Redondo Union High School, is co-sponsored by the the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, Trinity Lutheran Church, American Martyrs Church, Congregation Tikvat Jacob, and MB United; along with the South Bay Community Coalition Against Hate, L.A. County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell’s 2nd  District Racial Justice Learning Exchange, Beach Cities Health District, the Redondo Beach Unified School District, the El Segundo Unified School District, South Bay Families Connected, SEA Change, the South Coast Interfaith Council, and the Baha’is.

Conyers will be joined by Alison Diaz, founder and director of the Environmental Charter School, who will moderate the talk. (Register for this free event here.) Books will also be available for purchase at the event and Conyers will be signing his book at the end of the talk. (Purchase a book in advance here.)

Conyers is the cofounder of the Brooklyn Debate League, a nonprofit whose mission is to bring
speech and debate to at-risk communities. He rose to fame after a viral Humans of New York post that raised $1.2 million dollars to support his former high school debate team program. His story was picked up in publications like the Washington Post, NBC News and the Kelly Clarkson Show. He is the author of the memoir I Wasn’t Supposed to Be Here, which he will discuss at his appearance.

In I wasn’t Supposed To Be Here, Conyers shares the full story of his journey, being raised by addicted parents, living in and out of homelessness and the many challenging circumstances he overcame. Conyers credits a “village” of teachers, mentors, family, community and even strangers who helped him along the way.

“What I grew up believing was a hard life with two drug-addicted parents, being homeless and living in poverty... I had my own challenges and obstacles to conquer, but I also had a strong village supporting me. It was simply up to me to decide which one of these things to focus on, the opportunities or the obstacles," wrote Conyers.

"It is quite a privilege to have Jonathan Conyers share his inspiring story with our community," said Hildy Stern, former Manhattan Beach mayor and an organizer of the South Bay Community Coalition Against Hate. "Students, teachers and families alike can all learn from his messages about resilience and determination, self motivation and finding your voice, acceptance and kindness, overcoming obstacles and how to gracefully rely on a 'village' of mentors and guides. We have so many organizations sponsoring this talk because they are eager to have their community members hear Jonathan's story. Everyone will walk away from this evening's talk with their own kernel of inspiration."

Building a Village

In his early years, Conyers had been bounced around between Virginia and New York, at times living in shelters or cramped quarters with relatives, with the constant threat of becoming homeless again. His parents, though loving, struggled with drug addiction and as the youngest in the family, his siblings moved on with their lives leaving him to figure out a lot on his own. 

Conyers began to build his own village, which included a counselor at MS219 who became the father figure Conyers needed in middle school; a street-wise friend who had his own set of challenging circumstances but always looked out for Jonathan; the principal at Frederick Douglass High School who helped to instill a sense of discipline and ambition; the transgender high school debate coach who gave Jonathan the vision and support to imagine a bigger life for himself; and even his parents, who regardless of their own troubles, always made education a priority for their children so they might live a better life than they did.

Another inspiration came in the form of a homeless man who approached a young Conyers as he was attempting to tie a necktie. The man patiently showed Conyers how to tie it, then removed it and made Conyers do it himself so he could be sure that he learned how to do it.

“Only later would I be able to look back at that moment and be thankful for that old man’s presence in my life for those few minutes,” Conyers reflected in his book. “I consider him a temporary visitor in my village. His motive was pure and clean—simply to help a kid in need. The thing is, we’re taught to move through the world with boundaries up and to be afraid of each other, especially when a person doesn’t look like our expectation of a blessing. So, I could have missed out on receiving his gifts. I could have pushed him away. Instead, I thank whatever it was in me that day that allowed me to accept help from a stranger, rather than letting my pride or my ego shun his goodwill because of the way he looked, or smelled, for that matter. It was a valuable lesson I had to be taught a few more times before it stuck, but it is a habit I have learned to cultivate: to stay open and accept help from the most unexpected people and places.” 

Of Conyers' book, Brandon Stanton, author of Humans of New York, wrote, “Jonathan Conyers is an inspiration. There are very few people as committed or determined to giving back to their community, and his energy and dedication to his village are admirable. I Wasn’t Supposed to be Here is a brave, honest, and powerful telling of his story. It’s a roadmap for overcoming adversity and giving back.”

Book Donation Program

At the talk, there will be an opportunity to participate in a book donation program. Books will be
donated to schools in neighborhoods where their students would benefit from
learning about Conyers' story. In addition, there will also be a drawing at the event for a student to win a book for themselves and for their school library. To donate to the book give-away program, follow this link.

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