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Life the Griot
Founder, Chess & Community Conference Inc.
Lemuel LaRoche is known in the Athens, Georgia, community as Life the Griot. A Griot – rooted in West African tradition – is a master of word and music. Griots are storytellers, healers of their communities.
Life was born in 1976 Brooklyn, relocating as a teenager to Atlanta and later Macon, where he finished high school. He received his master’s degree in social work from the University of Georgia in 2003.
During his time at UGA, he forged friendships with individuals from all walks of life. The separation between the college campus bubble, however, and the community at large, was very noticeable. As a student, he worked to improve the racial divide.
“It’s a predominately white institution,” Life reflects, “I could tell some of those kids wanted to talk, but they just didn’t know how. They’ve been programmed to see me through the lens of rap, through the lens of athlete, through the lens of thug culture, or whatever.”
It was in part this experience that has led Life to begin creating space for Black youth to thrive and not feel typecast by the preconceived notions of white society.
“Race is a construct, even the way we see gender, all of these are constructs that we have to fit within values that people have created before us.”
Early in his career, Life embarked on an internship at the Jackson County Prison. There he engaged with men enduring what he calls “football numbers,” the 15 to 30-year sentences.
“My work was always to help them recognize, even though they were doing that time, they still had a place in society.”
He then moved to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
“I decided to take a step back and start focusing on youth, to stop them before they got into that situation.”
His approach to working with young people, perhaps unconventional, centers around a classic game that dates back to the 6th century: Chess.
As a young boy, Life was taught how to play chess by elders in his New York neighborhood. But the utility of the game wasn’t always apparent.
“For me, it was just a game. If I am completely honest, I would just get with some of my boys, we would smoke a little tree and play chess. It was like, ‘yo, let’s just kill time.’”
But during his travels, to places like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Israel, he saw how the game could bring people together.
“I would always carry my chess board. I remember just sitting down, playing with an Israeli soldier who had a big ole gun on his back. Even though we didn’t speak the language, it was a tool that transcended language.”
Life began integrating chess with conventional therapeutic methods while at the Department of Juvenile Justice.
“I didn’t see the real impact until I started meeting some of those young kids who were like a mirror of me - what I was going through at 15.”
The crux of the chess model as a form of therapy is developing the ability to think critically through every decision made on and off the chess board.
“Every kid, I would always teach them how to play chess - put them in positions where they had to start thinking five, six, ten moves ahead, rather than just reacting to what they were going through.”
In a country in which Black people are routinely targeted by police, improvidence is a luxury not afforded to all.
Life began meeting once per month with Athens kids for games of chess. This turned into weekly games, and eventually, birthed an organization.
“Before I knew it, I looked up and I had, like, 40 to 50 kids, so we turned it into a non-profit and called it Chess and Community.”
The organisation regularly combines chess with special themes and events - pizza, ice cream, kayaking, climbing, book clubs, debates, and even visits to the local nursing home. All kids, regardless of background, are invited to take part.
“All of the kids engage together, and they learn because everybody brings different perspectives to the table.”
This unique approach to social work and youth development has been going strong for over seven years.
“It’s about getting us out of the mindset of just being firemen, where we’re just there to address problems and take out fires. But to start planting seeds, to start putting youth in positions where they can start thinking ahead.”
An issue of high concern for Life is the expansion of the prison industrial complex: corporations running prisons with the goal of turning a profit.
A $77-million-dollar prison was recently constructed fifteen minutes outside of Athens.
As of 2013, according to the Georgia Center for Opportunity, Black Americans represented 31.4 per cent of Georgia’s population, yet they account for 61.6 per cent of the prison population.
“You’re dealing with generational trauma that still hasn’t been addressed. When we have a grandfather, father, and son in the same prison, we have a fucking problem.”
Throughout 2017-2018, private prison companies shelled out $174k to Georgia politicians in lobbying efforts that crossed party lines. In fact, the state faces a penalty if it does not meet occupancy requirements outlined by decades-old contracts. (Szilagyi, 2019)
“There’s a programming in place that has to keep pushing this button to keep us agitated, to keep us fighting each other, to keep us at war with each other. That’s a program somebody is benefiting from.”
The $77-million-dollar prison gave Life an idea. A question was posed to youth in the community: how would they use $77-million-dollars to bring about change in their community? And with that, the inaugural Chess and Community Conference was set in motion. The best ideas were presented in front of a large audience, including the mayor and commissioner.
“Kids were coming up with some really innovative ideas. The future is bright! It was about showing current community and government leaders that we need to be including our youth into these dialogues. Since then, every year, we’ve been addressing a different issue that the community struggles with.”
The organization has awarded $26,000 in scholarships since the first conference. It is held once each year and draws anywhere from 500 to 700 people.
“To take kids from these positions and now see them flourishing, that’s been the most rewarding thing about it.”
In the end, all it took was a chess board, an open mind and heart, and Life was able to bring about a sea-change. Today, he shares that duty with a handful of dedicated organizers. You can read more about their work here.
Life is also a poet, and he has authored two books – Tree of Life: The Human Ascension and Hidden Ripples: Life's Unspoken Language. His art is informed by the brilliant minds of Saul Williams, Nikki Giovanni, and Langston Hughes, and many others.
Interview Recorded: 2018 | Updated: 2022
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