For Lemuel "Life" LaRoche, there's only one path. We can rebuild ourselves and our communities, he believes. The strength to do so, LaRoche says, is already inside us.
Empowerment from within is the core principle of LaRoche's community work and therapy. In 20 years of professional experience as a community organizer, educator, public speaker, and adolescent counsellor, LaRoche challenges the people he works with to discover that they already possess the tools required to improve themselves and their neighborhoods.
LaRoche helps youth learn positive behaviors by playing chess. He teaches teens and young adults to work through the problems they will face in life with reason instead of reaction. A chess player must plan and envision possible outcomes. Move quickly without thinking, and losing is inevitable. Using chess as an empowerment tool began when LaRoche counseled youth cycling through the juvenile correction system. Think before you move! Learn a way of thinking that creates progress, not retreat, and not surrender.
Seeing the potential chess unlocked in youth, he decided to bring the strategic game's lessons to a broader audience. He founded the Chess and Community, a nonprofit that brought together young people to compete and learn leadership skills. The conference's goals, though, reach farther than a game board. By empowering the next generation, LaRoche says, the community can begin to address social and economic problems. The conference works as a table at which disparate parties can gather and plan change, to build partnerships rather than furthering divides.
A native of New York, LaRoche found entrenched poverty and inequality when he began making connections in his adopted home of Athens, Ga. He read about the millions of dollars earmarked to build a bigger jail and he saw mass incarceration wrecking families. He felt the tension between the city's economic engine (the University of Georgia) and the local community, sensed how prosperity never trickled down.
LaRoche chose to become an agent of healing in this environment. Inspired by lessons from his childhood — to be a force for good, to improve instead of destroy — he goes into communities to help foster reconstruction and rejuvenation. To this end, he assisted in developing a series of dialogues called "Intergenerational Healing Circle," during which African American males discuss the pressures they face and how, together, they, too, can be agents for good in their community.
The Athens-Clarke County government selected LaRoche to co-facilitate a Youth Task Force that aims to address deficiencies in outcomes for young people growing up in Athens.
LaRoche has also returned to the University of Georgia, where he earned a Master's in Social Work, to teach a graduate-level course, Cultural Diversity, that prepares future social workers to recognize bias and succeed across differences with open hearts and minds.
In response to his many forward-thinking efforts in the Athens community, LaRoche received the Fulfilling the Dream Award, given by UGA President Jere Morehead to deserving Athens residents who live out the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King.
LaRoche, also known as Life the Griot, is an accomplished poet. He is the author of two books: "Hidden Ripples: Life's Unspoken Language" and "Tree of Life: The Human Ascension." He continues to write and perform regularly.
All the work LaRoche accomplishes today is the product of a lifetime of inspiration and an education that placed equal emphasis on good words and good works.
A love of poetry emerged during his youth in Brooklyn, NY. A poet father — a real altruist, LaRoche recalls — raised him in a community that followed the lesson, "It takes a village to raise a child," like a heartbeat. LaRoche flipped through Kahlil Gibran books in his home, found Nikki Giovanni poems held aloft by the subway rush, and felt slammed by powerful lines delivered by Saul Williams.
The path LaRoche chose in life is not an easy one, but he asks only that he not walk it alone. Together, with friendship and kindness and honesty, we can empower each other to build the communities of our dreams.