Lewis Spears Reflects on His Life and Work
Sometimes it pays to be bookish. Or so it would seem, given the experience of Lewis Spears, founder of Kismet of Kings, an organization dedicated to mentoring young men of color.
That he wasn’t a jock became painfully clear early in life. He remembers standing in the outfield during baseball practice at the Booker T. Houses where he grew up. As he humorously describes it, his friends were catching fly balls “with one hand, while spinning with their eyes closed.” But not Spears. “I would miss it every time. I sucked so bad at it.” At the Boys and Girls Club he learned that he “sucked” at basketball too.
But there was a place Spears shined: school. Spears was a born student. He could read a story and recite it back to someone word for word. He memorized poems and plays. He competed in spelling bees. “I was always the teacher’s pet,” he confessed. He would go on to get a bachelor’s degree in African American studies at Rutgers, a master’s degree in urban education from NJCU and a master’s of education concentrating in school leadership from Harvard.
Talking to Spears, it quickly becomes apparent that he still has the sharp mind that made him a favorite of teachers. He often gives the exact date for the major events in his life; in public appearance he recites long poems to highlight a point he is making. He is half performer, half motivational speaker.
Kismet of Kings was born out of tragedy. The year was 2009. Spears was studying at Rutgers; his beloved cousin, Jalil, would come to visit. In Jersey City, Jalil could come off as “street” but at Rutgers, he was a different person, Spears remembers.
“He was freer, he felt like he could be normal. But then when he went back home to Jersey City, you know, …” his voice trails off.
Spears is clearly protective of Jalil’s memory. “He got involved in activities I didn’t know about.”
On April 25 of that year Jalil was gunned down at the Booker T. houses where Spears had grown up. “Jalil wanted to be a lawyer. It was a dream denied.”
Of course, Spears was already acutely aware of the challenges faced by young men of color growing up in tough neighborhoods. “As you can imagine growing up in Jersey City in the projects, anything that you think of negatively, I probably experienced. People using drugs and all that good stuff, to abuse and neglect. I remember not having any lights when we move outside of the projects.”
When it rained, their Section 8 apartment on Bostwick Avenue would flood. But Spears had it better than others. “Some of our friends went without food. I don’t ever remember going without food.”
I ask Spears what he attributes his success to. “[T]o being surrounded by a bunch of women … my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mom, her two sisters … I had two female cousins … being informed and just being sensitive and understanding and learning about things that are important to them,” he responds.
Spears’ father lived across the street in the Lafayette projects with his girlfriend and her children. “We would see each other by chance,” Spears said. Spears occasionally ran into him at a small mini-mart between the Booker T. and Lafayette projects. His father might buy him a bag of potato chips. Then they would go their separate ways.
Spears’ experience wasn’t unique. “Most of the young men I knew, we grew up without dads in our houses.” But even in their absence, fathers played an outsize role in their imaginations.
“I do remember back in the day when someone would say, like, ‘My father, x, y, and z,’ whatever that was. I remember, like, like thinking about that, like, oh, wow, cool, your father. You know what I mean? Like, it’s almost like a shock, like, oh, wow, your father, cool. That’s pretty cool. Like you, you would almost … I don’t know how to describe it. Like you would almost set it apart as somebody who’s special because his dad did x, y, and z, you know what I mean? Most of us had our moms or our cousins or our grandparents, but like when your dad did something, you were very intentional about saying, oh, my dad did this.”
Spears becomes reflective.
“Growing up, [you] feel a certain longing or a certain sense of loss. Dad wasn’t that involved. I felt disposable, unloved and unwanted, like maybe I wasn’t good enough.”
At the age of 24, Spears summoned up the courage to confront his father. “I decided to go to therapy. I used my therapist like a coach in the boxing ring. I had enough guts to call my dad to try to force some kind of relationship. I said you weren’t really there for me. He said ‘I was there for you. I bought you Super Nintendo and I took you to get your license when you were 17.’ He focused on two things in my 17 years of living. I’m saying are you serious?”
Spears came to appreciate that his father had tried in his own way.
“Dad never had money. I would call him for the latest sneaker. Dad felt defeated.”
With the help of his therapist, Spears came to understand that his father had had his own “language of love,” which came down to “acts of kindness” like offering to wash Spears’ clothes or sharing recipes. When his father died, they were in a “good space.”
Spears found male guidance elsewhere. “One thing that made me aspire to do more was that I’ve always had mentors, mentors in the church, mentors in the school. They would always tell me, education is the way out.”
Spears’ cousin, Sean, ran a barbershop and supported Spears’ endeavors. One of Spears’ teachers, Don Howard, who later became the principal at Public School 12, would take him to car shows and to his house for dinner. Spears’ friend and mentor Alfonso Williams would “have the conversations. … He knew what we were dealing with, a Christian guy who understood the street.” Kabili Tayari of the NAACP took him on retreats and “exposed us to our greatness.” Spears joined the NAACP Youth Taskforce and attended a New Jersey Black Issues Convention.
After graduating, Spears went to work as a teacher in the Jersey City schools. “I made more than my mom and my dad combined as a teacher” Spears adds, seemingly amazed at his climb out of poverty. But Spears, even with his new relative affluence, was depressed. Ever since Jalil’s death, he’d wanted to do something for the struggling young men he’d grown up with.
At Christmas dinner in 2012, Spears’ friend, Sharmonique Henry (now a board member of Kismet of Kings), challenged him to start the organization dedicated to mentoring young men of color he’d been dreaming about. For several years,Spears had been running an after-school program for Jerry Walker, a local community organizer, with responsibility for 250 kids — and had formed a sub-group of young men. Spears would invite speakers to talk about fatherlessness. “We would talk about how you navigate the streets when the bully is on one corner and the drug dealer is on another.” They talked about peer pressure and academic excellence. The group at Team Walker became the seed of Kismet of Kings, which became a 501(c)(3) in 2016.
And what about the name? “Kismet is a word derives from Egypt, and it means like fate or destiny, fate or destiny Kings. I needed them to know that they could essentially be business owners, that they could be stockbrokers, they could own their own homes … that they are kings … in their space… and that day that they have to take control of their destiny and what they… know to be true for themselves,” he explains.
Spears, father of two young boys, just celebrated ten years of marriage to Dr. Myriam Spears. In January of this year he gave up his job teaching in order to devote himself full time to Kismet of Kings. The organization is supported by a combination of state and local grants and private donations. He works with around 25 young men, meeting them twice a week. The organization has connected with over 500 young men through an annual convention it holds. One of his mentees recently graduated from college and has returned to work with Spears. He hopes to hire more former mentees shortly.
The focus is character and leadership development. “If your dad isn’t involved, it makes it essential to your development. K of K is a brotherhood that pushes the idea of togetherness. It transcends age, sexual preference and intellect. If you are a man, this is what is expected of you.”
Spears describes his work with one young man who was failing trigonometry. “No one said anything, not his teachers or his parents or guidance counselor. I said, yo what’s up with that? I put a fire under his behind, and he got straight As. I held him accountable. I told him he had to sign up for tutoring. He had to show me receipts for tutoring. That he had to check in with me every week. I needed to talk to his teachers.”
The purpose of Kismet of Kings “is to serve as a life coach and mentor. I invest in young mens’ lives to change their trajectory and destiny. We as a society, sometimes we view black and brown young men as disposable, and because of that many of our young men feel invisible, that they aren’t being seen and that they aren’t heard. If we restore value back into them, if we let them know that they are loved, I think that a lot of the other issues around, violence and school dropouts will be alleviated.”