Jonathon Romain’s speech at ART INC Inaugural Fund Raiser last month
I started going to jail before I was 10 years old. I remember vividly the first time I was handcuffed and tossed into a squad car. I wasn’t even 13. I often wonder if I had the opportunity like the one I want to present to the young people of Peoria, would my life be different? When I am speaking to young people I often pose a question to them.
I ask them, “if you walk outside and somebody spits in your face. What are you gonna do?” The response is the same, every single time: I’m gonna knock him out. I say, let’s play it all through. Let’s say, they spit in your face, you hit them, they fall, hit their head on the curb and die. Then you find yourself in a courtroom facing, I don’t know how much time in prison. Because you didn’t think. Then you find out, while you’re in court, that the person you hit and killed had mental issues. Somebody you should have been helping, instead you were hurting.
I go through a full program with them. Then I double back at the end. And I ask them: imagine there is a pink elephant outside. Someone says they’ll give you $10 million to get that elephant from here to New York. What are you gonna do? All of them, overwhelmingly, “I’m gonna get that elephant to New York.”
I say, okay. Let’s say you get that elephant halfway, you’re in Ohio. You can smell that $10 million. And somebody runs up to you and spits in your face; what are you going to do? Like magic, they get it. They tell me; I’ll worry about that later.
I ask them, what do you think my pink elephant was? They say art. We have to give these young people a pink elephant; we have to give them something to strive towards and for. We have to paint a picture so that they can see that no matter where they start is not important. What matters is where you finish.
Let me tell you the craziest thing that just recently happened to me. And a lot of crazy things happen to me. We won the neighborhood assist grant from State Farm. I can’t tell you how big that is. Over 2,000 applications are submitted. State Farm choses the top 200. We were a part of that selection. Those 200 have to go out into the community and get as many folks as they can get. This year there were over 4.5 million votes cast, and we were one of the winners. That is huge.
So my wife was at a women’s leadership conference earlier this year, not long after we won the State Farm Assist Grant. One of the questions that was posed to the panelist was: if you could do something different in the past year of your profession, what would you do to make yourself a better leader. One of the panelist was an executive at State Farm and she sent a memo to her team to vote for this couple in Peoria who was running for the grant. One of her team members responded that she didn’t think she’d be interested in something like that.
She didn’t know that my wife was in the audience. Afterwards, when it was over, my wife went up to her to thank her for her support. The lady said, “Oh my God, you won’t believe this. I was on the jury that convicted your husband and sent him to prison.”
She’s here tonight.
A few weeks after that, we get a telephone call from a gentleman who said he wanted to donate books to the center. Turns out he was the judge who convicted me.
He’s here tonight.
If those things are not indications of where we’re going and what we’re doing, I don’t know what is. If that’s not a testament to what we’re trying to do, I don’t know what else could be.
We want to give these children an opportunity to circumvent that part of this story. We want to give them an opportunity to come and be a part of something creative, fun, exciting. Things to do in some of the worst and most critical hours of the day. Right after they get out of school and on the weekend. That’s when kids get into the most trouble. Let me tell you first hand, I know. They are not monsters. These kids are not monsters. And how can I prove to you that they’re not monsters? Look at me. I am those kids.
I just read on Facebook that if Malcolm X had died in his 20s, he would have died as a pimp and a hustler. If Maya Angelou had died her 20s, she would have died a prostitute. That’s not what defines us. If I had died in my 20s, I would have died a drug dealer.
We need your help. This is an incredible undertaking. Nikki and I are ecstatic about making it happen. But there is no doubt in our minds, that no matter how hard we work to make this come true, it cannot happen without you. It can’t happen.
Now, we are willing to be the elbows and the knees of this. But we need your support. And over the past 20 years, I’ve done hundreds of art shows raising money for other organizations. Now we are raising money for ours. We need you as much as we need anything else. Because if I could do it all by myself, I would. I can’t. So we need you to dig into your pocketbooks and purses to support this effort. Many of you here have been to the school. It’s not a fantasy or a dream anymore. It’s real. Many of you came into the building when we first bought it, when you see the remarkable progress that we have made just by ourselves — scratch that — nothing we have done has been just by ourselves. We’ve got a team of people who volunteer everyday to help us. So just what we and our team have done thus far, we have come a long way. But we’ve still got a long way to go.
I welcome any of you who are interested in coming down to take a tour of our facilities. We’re down there generally every day. So you can see what we’re doing and want to do.
Editor’s Note: Donations to this project can be sent to ART INC., Jonathon and Nikki Romain, 1919 N. Sheridan Rd., Peoria, IL 61604