Born among a bed of gang activity in a housing project in Watts, Los Angeles, 19-year-old Armstrong State University student and anti-violence activist Semaj Clark once considered himself one of southern California’s most dangerous teens.
A high school dropout who rotated through foster care, Clark had a long rap sheet by age 15, when he was shot multiple times. Barely dodging a bullet to the head, Clark reevaluated his life and with the help of counselors and mentors, fought to get himself on track. He eventually enrolled -- and excelled -- in college and began to effectively mentor kids with similar backgrounds. His exemplary work was featured in the Los Angeles Times and led to an invitation to meet President Obama in August of 2014. With the shake of the leader’s hand, Clark knew there was no turning back to the life he once led.
“I felt a rush of energy that went through my whole body when I shook his hand,” says Clark. “That was the day I picked a side. I was only going to do good.”
A little over a year later, Clark flew to Savannah to participate in a safety forum for at-risk youth. During that trip, he was shot by one of the teens he was trying to help. A bullet hit Clark’s vertebrae, just behind his heart, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
After months at a rehab center in Atlanta, Clark, who is wheelchair-bound, returned to Savannah to work with the kids he believes need him most.
“I speak at elementary, middle and high schools and churches,” he says. “I talk to them about my experience and the importance of education so that they don’t have to do what I did. They get to hear something authentic that they can relate to.”
Refocused on his studies, Clark began at Armstrong in the fall of 2016 as a double major, studying Law and Society and English with a track in Professional Communications. A resident on campus, he notes that the decision to choose Armstrong was an easy one.
“It’s a beautiful campus,” he shares. “People were so nice and helpful in the enrollment process. It feels safe. It feels like a home already.”
Clark continues hands-on youth outreach under the auspices of his nonprofit organization, FIRE, which encourages Forgiveness, Introspection, Respect and Education, and will soon join forces with the City of Savannah’s gun violence reduction initiative, End Gun Violence: Step Forward.
He still speaks to audiences across the country, participating in events like Savannah’s TEDx conference this past April, but Clark revels in one-on-one time with kids, like the dozen or so he tutors every day after school in Savannah’s downtown Tatumville neighborhood.
Admittedly, it isn’t always easy for Clark to be a role model, but he finds that the rewards far outweigh the pressure. He receives texts and calls at all hours of the day and night from troubled teens he’s met in L.A., New York and across Georgia, asking for advice. Recently, a young man who was on the verge of suicide, but reconsidered after reading Clark’s story online, reached out to him via Facebook to say thank you.
“It’s a lot of weight on my shoulders,” Clark notes. “There are 50 kids in school because I’m in school. I have to live how I want other people to live. But I love the feeling that I’m able to help someone.”