When community activist Andrew Collins found himself facing prison time, the first question that went through his mind was, “How did I get here?” He leaves the moment that got him to his temporary fate as “making a bad decision by being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong crowd.” That decision landed him a sentence of 35 years for second-degree murder, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary. He served 13 years, five months and two weeks.
He was given a second chance. During his time in a West Tennessee prison, he launched Stain Your Brain (SYB), a nonprofit organization designed to meet youths where they are in an attempt to stop them from going down a similar path.
“When I went before the parole board, I had a plan,” Collins said. “I was told I was the first guy out of thousands of cases that came with a plan and stuck to it. As a matter of fact, I have been out for 12 years now, and to this day members of the parole board still check in on me and send people my way and give referrals and everything.”
Collins was riding in a car with a friend. The friend made a stop, went to a home and a man was killed. Collins faced charges because he was in the car.
“It was my first time being caught up, but I still had to pay the price,” Collins said. “Being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong crowd can cost you your life; even though I wasn’t the triggerman, I was there. Our youth need to know that it will happen to them if they go down the wrong path. I am trying to save lives.”
Collins was 25 years old. According to its website, “SYB is designed to attack the growing epidemic of juvenile delinquency, at-risk youth and potential offenders through the lives of previously incarcerated inmates.”
Youths participating in the program gain encouragement through “real-life testimonies from real life situations that led to real life consequences.” Their main focus “is to present a message of hope. No matter what temptations they are faced with, we want to encourage, motivate, and help them stay focused.”
SYB is not only beneficial to at-risk youth, but it also gives former inmates the avenue to give back to their community by allowing them a platform to share their stories and placing them in a position to mentor.
The programs are presented in “raw and uncut” language that youths understand. SYB states that its vision is “Using realistic situations to relay the harsh realities of prison life, we believe, can deter juveniles from becoming delinquents and giving over to a life of crime. Stain Your Brain was designed to be confrontational (stain) as well as educational (brain).”
Collins believes that youths are more likely to listen and respond to individuals who have “lived the life” rather than traditional authority figures.
Bridgette Bowman, an attorney who works for the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court in Memphis, Tennessee, where the organization is housed, believes programs like SYB are needed for the community.
“I think Stain Your Brain is a great program, but it wouldn’t be great if it wasn’t for people like Andrew,” Bowman said. “Stain Your Brain is great because you have an African-American male who lived the life in the system. It’s not a person who has gone to school and got a degree and has book knowledge. Andrew is one those people who is a good guy, got caught up and had to pay the consequences.”
Bowman believes the youths need real-life figures, not just storybook fake figures who might not know what they’re going through.
“Andrew had a great opportunity, he made bad choices and he had to go to jail for them. That’s a lot of the things the kids in this city are facing,” Bowman added. “Andrew went to jail as an accessory to the fact. The other part of the lesson is that whole adage we teach our kids, ‘snitches get stitches.’ Through Stain Your Brain, Andrew has the opportunity to undo some of the negative messages we’ve put in our kids’ head. Messages like ‘snitches get stitches’ have caused our communities to go to hell because people don’t want to open their mouths and talk. They have allegiances to criminals instead of their own standard of living, and we have to change that.”
Collins recently spoke to The Undefeated about his mission to steer at-risk youth in the right direction and his desire to give them hope.
Why are second chances so important to you?
I received a second chance. … I was blessed with a job as a data installer. The company saw what I was doing with the kids in the community and offered me a job. That’s why everyone who is associated with Stain Your Brain is so resilient. Everybody that speaks with me, they have been through something. I’m talking about ex-gang members and ex-gang leaders. Now they are grown men who received second chances at life. Now they’re married, they’re pastoring and giving back to the community.
We don’t look like what we’ve been through, and we don’t look like where we come from. We can sit amongst a crowd; they don’t know who we are until we open our mouths to give our testimony.
Why was it important to start a program like Stain Your Brain?
Well, I had just returned from a church service, and I was looking at the television and I kept seeing what was going on in Memphis. I knew I was going home one day, I just didn’t know when. When I was sitting on my bunk looking at that television, I said, ‘Lord, I need you to tell me, why am I here?’ I had a talk with God, and he revealed to me that I needed to keep as many kids as I can from making unwise decisions as I did. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to use my testimony to educate the youth about perils of criminal life and let them know it is real.
I called my best friend, who is a graphic designer, and relayed to him the things I needed. After talking to my friend, I had everything I needed to start my own nonprofit organization. I had my own letterhead and business cards. It was important that I started Stain Your Brain while I was in prison. I didn’t want to go before the parole board without a plan. I had six different churches who wrote to the parole board on my behalf because they needed me to speak to the kids.
One of my main statements is ‘If we change the inner man, then the outer man is going to change.’ We teach kids to be independent thinkers, to be leaders and not followers. We teach them to think before they act.
How are parents involved in the program?
I meet with them on every third Saturday. It’s mandatory that the parents come in, meet us and talk to us. We tell parents that we really can’t help their children, we really can’t do this without you. We say, ‘If you want us to help you, you’ve got to help us so we can do this thing together.’ It takes a village to build a neighborhood.
We have to let parents and guardians know that we are not part-time fathers, we’re not part-time dads. We do what we do because it’s in our heart and it’s in our passion, and because of what God allowed us to go to and through.
Basically, the parents’ involvement is critical. We just don’t get involved and don’t deal with the kids if the parents do not get involved. And one of the main things is that a lot of the kids are being raised by their grandmother, their aunts, their sisters.
Do you think it may be certain generational issues are contributing factors to juvenile delinquency?
It’s a generational thing. We have several of the kids be like, ‘Hey, I’m not scared to go to jail. My uncle’s been in jail,’ or ‘My daddy been in jail.’ … If they’ve been exposed to it, then nine times out of 10 they’re going to tap into it in some type of way.
All that has a lot to do with the actions that they take, and it’s not going to change until everybody comes together. I tell it everywhere we go. It’s kind of like, poverty has a lot to do with it, but a lot of these kids have emotional problems they are coping with as well. They’re at home, they’re at school. All of that has a lot to do with their actions and their behavior. Of course, they can’t help what school they go to.