Detroit 'Crack Baby' driven to overcome, succeed

UM graduate Shawn Blanchard chose a path of teaching and mentorship over life of drugs, despair. He details his journey in the new book “How ’Bout That For A ‘Crack Baby.”

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Shawn Blanchard swung through the Roasting Plant coffee shop doors off Campus Martius in downtown Detroit toting a black leather bag. He looked like he walked out of a fashion magazine in his purple-blue-checkered shirt, Army cargo shorts, blue suede shoes and straw fedora.

From his style and easy grin, you’d never guess this 33-year-old, who once received an invitation to be ABC’s “The Bachelor,” was born in Detroit with crack in his system.

Not to mention, his older brother Terry — allegedly one of the most notorious Detroit drug dealers — is serving life in prison. His younger brother Doug is locked up in prison 12-20 years for second-degree murder. Another brother Mike was gunned down in a drug transaction.

Blanchard’s mother was a longtime shoplifter and drug user. His father was seldom around — the first time he saw his parents in the same room was at his father’s funeral. Because his immediate family was in such turmoil, he was raised by his grandmother until age 12, when she died after suffering a heart attack.

He continued to live with his grandfather, but he basically raised himself.

Given Blanchard’s high school had a 40-percent graduation rate, it’s a bit of a miracle he graduated, let alone graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in mathematical economics. He then taught high school students in the Bronx, N.Y., for five years, served as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s Director of Youth Services — creating 5,600 jobs for youth downtown and launching an elementary school soccer league. Today, he’s a liaison to President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

“When we dwindle it down, the beginning and the present, they don’t really seem to pair,” says Blanchard, twirling a pen in his hands. “It doesn’t seem too likely that a kid from this background would go to the University of Michigan, but I always took education seriously.”

Yet Blanchard admits he was “no angel.” Even as a UM student, he’d earn money packaging marijuana off U-Haul trucks in Detroit and was arrested in an Ann Arbor jewelry store heist. He plead guity and entered a program for criminal offenders ages 17-23.

“I sold a little bit of all kinds of drugs, (had) all kinds of little scams, but I did what I had to do, that I felt I needed to do at the time, to make sure that I was good and my younger brother was good, too,” he says. “I thought that making money however you can — and also making sure you’re doing good in school — was the way to go.”

Blanchard goes into detail on the drugs, scams and criminal activities in the autobiography he self-published in May titled “How ’Bout That For A ‘Crack Baby.’ ” From his experience mentoring hundreds of young men in New York City and Detroit, the book — on sale through Amazon and at Blanchard’s Detroit book signing Thursday at Signature Grille — also provides tips for mentors.

“It gives mentors understanding of what’s going on in some of these young people’s lives and instructions on what to do,” he says.

The seed for a book was planted in 2011 when a publishing company saw Blanchard featured in several news reports about Bryan Dameron, the grandson of a UM professor, who Blanchard mentored in Ann Arbor. Dameron fell into drugs and struggled academically when Blanchard left for New York. Desperate, the professor called Blanchard, asking if he could take Dameron under his wings and raise him. Blanchard, then 27, agreed.

By the time Blanchard was finished, Dameron was the senior class president, earned a 3.8 grade-point average, and was offered a full ride to UM and Morehouse College. The publisher wanted Blanchard to write an autobiography, but he was about to attend Wayne State’s law school, and there’s little time to write a book.

So he tucked the idea away for several years and formed his own publishing company, Shawn Blanchard Productions, to produce the book and tell his story.

“There’s a lot of people who come from the same types of environments that I come from,” he says. “... I really wanted to get my story out there to make sure people know that I’m not the exception, I should be the rule.”

Stepping up, not giving up

Blanchard’s family didn’t care if he went to school.

“He was destined for success from the beginning because he came to school every day,” says Tonya Champion, Blanchard’s counselor from Mackenzie High School, now closed in Detroit.

The mentor Blanchard still calls “Ms. Champion,” attests he “wasn’t a bad kid.”

“He had the ability to be bad, as any child did,” she says during a telephone call from Atlanta, “but he followed directions, he listened, he was very respectful, he was always, ‘Yes ma’am.’ ‘What can I do to help?’ ”

If it wasn’t for her, Blanchard might not have attended UM — or college.

“I didn’t know people in college at all,” he says. “That wasn’t what happened to people where I came from.”

But Champion was a beautiful young Michigan grad, who Blanchard had a crush on, and she believed in him.

“She told me I was going to be her ‘Michigan Man.’ I was like, ‘whatever that means — cool!’ ” he says, laughing. “The only thing I knew about Michigan was Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, big shorts and basketball. I didn’t even know it was a prestigious school.”

When UM admissions counselors came to Mackenzie, Champion dragged Blanchard out of class. He had a 3.5 GPA and a measly 17 ACT score, but his story to the counselors, according to his book, outweighed that.

“I enjoy school and learning. It’s a place where I can come and feel completely safe … Until Ms. Champion and my girlfriend told me about college, I just wanted to sell dope and rap ...”I don’t really know what’s out there for me, but I know if I am presented with the right opportunity, I can do something good with my life ... And from what I’ve been told, the University of Michigan is the perfect place to help me do that.”

They admitted him on the spot.

The book, motivational speeches and awards (he recently received the President’s Volunteer Service Award) — “none of it comes as a surprise to me because I saw it in Shawn freshman year,” Champion says.

As for all the mentoring he does today, “that I owe to her,” Blanchard writes in the book.

“This story is not just about me, but how I’ve become Mr. Champion,” he says. “I’ve done the same thing with young people that Ms. Champion was able to do for me.”

What’s more, the mentoring tables have turned.

After being a high school counselor for 12 years, Champion moved to Atlanta, where she worked in admissions at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. In January, she was laid off. A mother of twin 6-year-old boys, she’s considering starting her own education-focused LLC.

“Shawn is now a mentor to me,” she says. “Just giving me those positive words I gave him — ‘you’ve got to keep reaching’ — it really makes me proud, because it means that they didn’t just fall on deaf ears. He really has taken the words and applied them. And he’s making me do that, too.”

Giving ‘a hand up’

How has Shawn impacted your life?

“Oh man, where do I start?”

That’s a typical response from Blanchard’s mentees, Roland Gainer included.

“When we met, I was in a very, very bad space,” says the UM junior. Gainer’s mom was suffering from cancer, and to put it politely, “I was doing things I wasn’t supposed to do,” he says. “Shawn changed my life completely.”

One of Blanchard’s students in New York, Gainer was picked for Men of Majesty — a mentorship program Blanchard and his fellow teachers created for their most troubled students.

“They gave me a new perspective on what’s possible in the world, versus doing scams or selling drugs,” Gainer says. “They showed me, and proved to me, that there’s another world out there.”

Gainer attended college in Rhode Island until Blanchard called him, suggesting he transfer to UM.

“That phone call had a huge impact on my life,” he says.

Now heading into his second semester on a full ride, Gainer, 23, started a content marketing business. He even raised over $100,000 for a man battling cancer last year.

“I just want to have a large, positive impact on the world,” he says.

His one message to Blanchard? “Thank you for just believing in me and really changing my life for the better.”

“Instead of giving them a hand out, he gives them a hand up,” says Gail Perry-Mason, referring to Blanchard’s mentees.

The founder of Money Matters for Youth, a financial literacy program for Detroit kids, Perry-Mason met Blanchard about five years ago at Run This Town, an exercise event on the RiverWalk he co-organized for professionals.

“I was one of the older people trying to lose weight, and he made me feel so comfortable and so awesome, like a son would,” says Perry-Mason, 53. “So I started calling him ‘son.’ ”

When Blanchard’s mom passed away, Perry-Mason attended the funeral.

“I promised God at that moment that I would never leave him. Ever since then, I’ve claimed him as one of my sons. He’s at my house every holiday, every Mother’s Day,” she says. “I don’t think you have to be related by blood. I think Shawn and I are basically related by love.”

For Sebastian Jackson, it was friendship at first sight. The two met while passing each other on Wayne State escalators.

“(It’s) kind of a metaphor for our relationship — always growing, always climbing,” says Jackson, 29.

The two organized “Power Brunches” to connect Detroiters they respected over brunch. The concept evolved into “Shop Talks,” where inspirational speakers get a haircut while talking to an audience at Jackson’s Detroit barbershop, The Social Club Grooming Co.

“What I admire about Shawn mostly is when he says he’s going to do something, he does it,” Jackson says. “Just having a friend that has that type of integrity is inspiring because it really pushes you to execute whatever you say you’re going to do.”

Making a Michigan impact

Enjoying the single life in New York City, Blanchard admits he didn’t want to leave. But in 2011, he felt a tug.

“I knew I was helping other people in another town that wasn’t mine. And I have like 50 nieces and nephews (in Detroit),” he says. “I’m just like, it’s time for me to go home, and if I can be in the paper about some things that are going on here and change people’s lives, let me go home and continue that.”

After attending Wayne State’s law school, Blanchard became the City of Detroit’s director of youth services. Alexis Wiley, Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff, recalls hopping on daily 7:30 a.m. conference calls with Blanchard. She says he’s a large reason nearly 8,000 Detroit youth are now employed.

“He is just an amazing person, and I have so much respect for him,” Wiley says. “... He understands what so many young people are dealing with out here. He brings that perspective to everything he does, so the mayor thought it was critical to have him in the administration.”

Now a co-owner of SnapSuits, a custom suit company, he’s stepped back from his city roles to focus on his national book tour that combines mentorship speeches. He’s also working with a Los Angeles writer to turn the book into a movie. One thing he won’t give up: teaching math classes at UM.

“I love it,” he says. “I can’t stay away from education.”

He recalls climbing into a broken Mackenzie High window when he returned to Michigan. Navigating through the rubble, he found the classroom where he fell in love with math.

He picked up a piece of chalk and wrote M-R-. B-L-A-N-C-H-A-R-D on the chalkboard.

“I always wanted to write my name on the board,” he says.

(313) 222-2156


Book signing

When: 6 -9 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Signature Grille

250 Riverfront Drive, Detroit