Keith Figgs, pictured with his three children at his recent graduation. He hopes to use his life story of overcoming the streets to help guide other youth in his Sandtown community. (Courtesy Photo)
The allure of the streets was strong for the teenaged Keith Figgs, who was buffeted by anger over the lack of parental involvement in his life and the example of older relatives who sold drugs.
Now 31, Figgs has managed to chart a path out of the street life he entered around age 15, and wants to set a different example for the youth of Sandtown than the one he had growing up, when the only people he could look up to were neighborhood drug dealers.
Figgs was raised in Sandtown-Winchester by his grandmother and aunt, two strong women he credits with doing an exceptional job, but whose efforts could not overcome the consequences of not having his mother and father directly involved in his upbringing.
“I was built with a lot of anger because…I didn’t have the support of my mother, I didn’t have the support of my father,” said Figgs. “My grandmother did an excellent job but she could only do but so much. So I grew up with anger, no guidance, and my family everything was selling drugs, so I followed that path. when I got older, I wanted to be different.”
Today, Figgs is a certified nursing assistant who last month graduated from a four-year apprenticeship program to become a journeyman electrician. He plans to return to his studies in order to become a registered nurse, but he has a greater mission he also feels he must attend to.
“I want to be an activist because of the way my community is in an uproar, the murder rate is sky-high, and I’ve got to give these young kids something positive to look up to,” said Figgs.
The challenges a community like Sandtown faces, according to Figgs, are a laundry list of issues that plague much of Baltimore: lack of education, few job opportunities, neighborhoods riddled with vacant homes, and the proliferation of drugs and gangs.
Investment in Sandtown could reduce many of these problems, says Figgs, but in the meantime, he hopes to influence young people with his story of leaving the street life behind, a path made possible first by the seed planted in him by his grandmother and aunt, and then by the influence of his first daughter and brother.
“I had a daughter when I was 20 and she made me value life. At one point in time I didn’t value my own life. I made decisions, I tried to kill myself, and when I looked at her she made me value my own life and I knew I wanted more,” said Figgs.
His older brother by nine years, who once had influenced Figgs to enter the street life, served to help pull him out of it as well.
“He lived that life, and he was like, ‘I want better for you as a human being, and I don’t want to lose you to these streets.’ I always hung around people who were older than me, and I always listened,” he said. “So eventually if they’re getting tired of it, eventually I’m going to get tired of it, and I just want to give my community a positive person to look up to because we never had that. All we had in my community were drug dealers, big drug dealers, that’s all we had to look up to.”
Figgs says he wants to develop a program through his church, the Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant’s Empowerment Temple, to start down the path of youth advocacy, understanding that those who have lived the street life are the ones best positioned to help young people leave it behind. And while he would like to be able to move from Sandtown one day, Figgs says he feels now is not the time.
“I feel I have work do to. There’s a problem , and I’m the type of person who is going to find a solution to the problem, I don’t run away from the problem,” said Figgs.