We tend to celebrate the spectacular, but lives turn on a word here or a nudge there. That was apparent in a conversation I had with Mike Davis about his life and work.
Davis is a 29-year-old husband and father who lives in Renton and works to inspire students in middle and high school to be their best, using the arts to deliver his message. Davis has long dreadlocks, lots of tattoos and a big smile, and he brings to his work experience alternating between different paths.
I heard about Davis from LeRoy McCullough, a King County Superior Court judge who has an interest in nurturing young people. He has been impressed with Davis, who has brought his program to McCullough’s church, First AME in Seattle’s Central Area.
“When we want someone to relate to kids,” McCullough said, “we immediately think of Mike, and he’s been really great.”
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Davis told me that when he was growing up in Kansas City, Mo., his stepfather beat his mother and beat him. Davis was the eldest of six siblings and the only one not fathered by the man, which might explain why he caught so much hell from him.
“I had a lot of anger,” he said. And it was worst in his middle-school years, when children are typically having growing pains. “The only reason I went to school was to escape being at home,” Davis said. The way he carried himself said, “Don’t say anything to me,” he said. “I was mean.”
Davis said he was losing friends to drugs and violence even at that age, including one who was dealing drugs and ended up being shot by police.
He didn’t go down that path, partly because of his mother’s influence, but also because of several chance encounters with other adults intent on helping young people.
A neighborhood man, who was a janitor and a pastor, would pick up kids in his van and take them to church on Sundays. The main reason kids went was that the church fed them breakfast. Davis and one of his brothers went one Sunday, but the message that came after breakfast was too boring for him.
But sometime later his brother, who kept going, told him the church was holding a youth conference and letting youth groups perform, and Davis loves performing (as Mike D or Mike Day). He was sitting around with his cousins who were smoking weed, and they all switched gears and started cleaning up the rap lyrics they’d written, taking out the curse words and making the messages more appropriate for the setting.
Playing before a large audience energized him, and afterward, he and his brother stayed and listened to the youth minister. There was a line of young people on stage, Davis said, each holding a brick. The minister walked down the line with a backpack and each person he passed put a brick into the pack. At the end of the line, the overburdened minister said to the audience, “A lot of you are carrying weight like this.” The message resonated with Davis.
That happened the freshman year of high school, and by coincidence an English teacher from his middle school was a member of the church. She told him she remembered him and that she used to cross to the other side of the hallway whenever she saw him ahead. But she also said she saw real talent and potential in him. She invited him and his brother to be part of a project in which students performed uplifting programs in local schools, programs with anti-drug, sexual abstinence, anti-violence themes.
He accepted and enjoyed doing that work, and faith became central in his life. His mother had divorced her abusive husband, so life was better at home, too. Davis applied for and got into a magnet high school, the Paseo Academy of the Performing Arts. “I had amazing teachers at the performing-arts school who really got on me,” he said. “I got a little better at wanting to be a good student, though I didn’t feel like I was college material.”
By then he was traveling around the country dancing, rapping, staging short plays and speaking, and he opted to continue on that path after he graduated from high school. He attended a religious school, Master’s Commission, and made putting on programs his work. “I’m not selling dope,” he said, “I’m selling hope.”
The main message in all of his programs is that there are things that can kill your dreams, and there are ways to fight against those hazards.
At a Master’s Commission conference, he met a young woman from Seattle and was immediately taken with her. They worked together for a time in Oklahoma doing outreach work, got married and moved here to be near her family in 2009 just before their son was born.
He found a job with Urban Impact, a Rainier Valley-based Christian organization that runs several programs for children and adults. He started by overseeing tutors at Rainier Beach High School briefly before becoming middle-school program director in early 2010. “Your gifts will make room for you,” he said.
And he continues to urge kids to make good decisions that will protect their dreams from dream killers.
His own dream is to offer more structured help to children and families by opening a community center that offers a range of services and has the arts at its core. To make that work, he wants to go to college and study psychology and social work, because he thinks he might be college material after all.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org