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Judge Greg Mathis
When defendants came before former Detroit District Court Judge Greg Mathis with variations on a theme of feeling they had nothing to lose by giving in to the temptations of crime, he could relate. That was once the way Mathis viewed life.
“I dropped out of high school in the second semester of the tenth grade,” said Mathis in an interview for the nationally broadcast KET series, Dropping Back In. “As a young man growing up in the housing projects, full of poverty, hopelessness and despair, what I saw primarily were ‘street guys’ who were isolated from mainstream society.” People naturally try to fit into the culture they live in, he explained.
At the time, Mathis felt no ambition to become a doctor, lawyer or professional of any sort. Nothing in his environment provided encouragement, not to mention inspiration. Due to some run-ins with the law, including jail time, his application to join the U.S. Army was denied because he had a record. The future seemed grim.
“Poverty is misunderstood on many levels of society,” he said. “Most folks in the middle and upper class of society don’t understand the hopelessness and despair that it creates. And that’s why they don’t understand why people don’t take advantage of the various programs that are made available to them.”
Today, the former jurist hosts his own television program. The journey from his version of despair and hopelessness to success began when he earned a GED® diploma and with the help of a college-educated cousin, enrolled in classes at Eastern Michigan University.
“Once he got me in, I then looked to him for some insight on how to get through college. So he was my mentor. No one can just do it on their own without any direction or insight. So mentorship was very important.”
College didn't go well until Mathis realized he wasn't good at math and science but had a gift for liberal arts. He changed his focus to law, found his courses were a better fit for his talents, worked hard, got into law school, and launched a successful career.
But it wasn’t easy - especially when after his first year in college he returned home to the project and his old friends. “I was singing the praises and trying to recruit some of the guys I used to run with to ‘get your GED and go to college man; you can get financial aid just like my cousin did for me.’ The result of that conversation was a pistol whipping and robbing of everything I had on, including my shoes.”
Mathis had run into a familiar mentality: “You’re either one of us, or you’re one of them”
Today, Mathis tells GED students he visits in prison to first identify their talent. “Once you find what you’re good at, develop that skill.” That first step, he advises, gives you the confidence to take the next step,”and every step thereafter, you feel a sense of achievement.”