Last summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival  I had the opportunity to hear Wes Moore speak. Moore is an investment banker, a former Rhodes Scholar, and a former aide to Condoleezza Rice. He is a young black man from Baltimore who rose above the drugs, crime, and poverty that so often lead others in his demographic down another path.
In the same year that Moore was named a Rhodes Scholar, he saw an article in the Baltimore Sun about a man who was convicted of armed robbery and murder of an off duty police officer and sentenced to life in prison without parole. This man not only had the same name, Wes Moore, but was also about the same age and grew up in the same area of Baltimore in a single-parent household.
Wes reached out to this other young man in prison and eventually they came to know one another. Moore wrote a book, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, about their stories.
I read the book shortly after hearing Wes speak. What makes it remarkable is the parallel examination of both of their narratives, giving the reader an opportunity to identify the points when their lives begin to diverge.
The biggest difference I saw in their lives was not their individual choices, but the differences in their parents, families and those around them. Yes, they both grew up in single-parent homes, but the Wes Moore I heard speak in Aspen was born into a two-parent household and both parents were college-educated. Wes’s dad had a rare health condition and died when Wes was only three years old. Moore’s mother did everything she could to keep him out of trouble, including moving the family back in with her parents and working multiple jobs to send him to private school, and then ultimately to military school when nothing else seemed to work. Moore tried running away from military school 5 times, before he applied himself and found a mentor that helped to set him on the road to where he is today.
The Wes Moore in prison was born to a single mother who attended community college. She was unable to finish when she lost her Pell grant due to budget cuts, barring her from better job opportunities that a college education would have made possible. She worked hard to provide for her family but wasn’t able to keep Wes’s older brother out of the drug trade; eventually Wes, too succumbed to this lifestyle.
Both in his book and when I heard him speak, Moore is adamant that he is not making excuses for the other man’s crimes. He said that he’s “not telling people what to think, he’s just asking people to think.” He goes on to say that “the chilling truth is that his story could have been mine, and the tragedy is that my story could have been his.”
Their stories are so compelling to me, clearly outlining that while making good choices as an individual is important, other factors, such as government cuts to programs like Pell grants and having supportive families and mentors can mean the difference in an individual’s success or failure. We all need someone to believe in us--to strengthen our ability to believe in ourselves and expand what we think is possible in our lives. Personal choice is only one factor of many that affect the trajectory of an individual’s life. The Other Wes Moore is an excellent read and I highly recommend it. Be forewarned, however, that at the end, you will feel compelled to ask yourself, “What am I doing to make a positive impact on the young people in my community?”
Make no mistake, the challenges faced by both Wes Moores were multifaceted, but there is something we can ALL do to make a difference.