Courage to Make a Difference
By Brad McEwen
As I’ve said on numerous occasions, there are few things that excite me as much as meeting a young person who is not only aware of his surroundings but also the key issues impacting his community and country.
It’s even more impressive, though, when that young person has committed himself to addressing those issues and is dedicated to making a positive impact on others.
So naturally, I was pumped to recently cross paths with 20 year-old Albany native Trey Young, whose selection by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation has to led to his currently serving as an intern for Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson (D-4th District) in Washington, D.C.
From the moment I reached out to the 2016 Deerfield-Windsor graduate and current communications major at the University of North Georgia, I understood why so many people had suggested I speak with him. Not only was he polite and professional, Trey was eager to speak with me and more than willing to discuss his affection for his hometown and his desire to one day return to the area and be a positive force for growth and change.
Although he still has roughly a month left with his internship and isn’t slated to graduate school until 2020, Trey was firm in discussing his future options that a return to the Albany area was definitely in the cards, now that he has gained some perspective and learned more about the community.
“I think I started to do a little research on Albany and I read a couple of articles that said Albany is actually one of the poorest cities in the nation,” Trey explained when I asked him about his desire to return home. “And, recently, I read that Albany was the 13th most dangerous city in the nation. And those are some serious red flags.
“I mean when you read those kinds of headlines and news articles, how can you not want to do something?
“I feel like me being here in Washington D.C., talking to members of Congress, experienced personnel, lawmakers, and so many other people that have expertise in policymaking, I feel like I can learn from them and bring that knowledge back to Albany.
“Also, if you kind of just look around you can clearly see that something needs to be done, and something needs to change, because Albany has potential. I think every place does, but it’s just getting it started and having that person that’s passionate about bettering other people’s lives. I think I could be that person.”
That Trey has a desire to work for change in Albany and potentially be a leader in this community doesn’t seem that far-fetched based on the discussion we had, but the willingness to do that is definitely not something Trey was thinking about during his time growing up here.
In fact, he was very matter-of-fact when telling me about the mindset change he experienced after going into the greater world.
“My goal was to find the first pass out of Albany, to be honest,” Trey said of his thinking through most of high school. “Growing up I always had thought maybe there’s nothing here for me; I can’t really progress here and things like that.
“And then you think, ’Well maybe that’s a problem. Why shouldn’t Albany be somewhere you can better yourself?’ I mean if you just run away from a problem and never address it, it’s not making anything any better. And someone has to take that role. So I feel like I can be that person.
“I didn’t have that mindset until recently. As I’ve gotten older and matured a little bit, I’ve realized that leaving and not coming back might not be the best answer. This is my community. This is my hometown. Why would I want to abandon it?
“At the end of the day, it’s home.”
Certainly Trey’s intellect and the experiences he’s had in Washington have helped fuel his feeling that he can be a difference-maker, but that belief is also strengthened by the growing popularity of a blog he started roughly a year ago.
That blog—which was borne out of his private journal writings and is accessible at www.treysjournal.com—was grown in popularity and is now read by over 1,200 readers across the globe, including places like the United Kingdom, Japan, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, just to name a few.
And while he had no clue his blog would touch so many people in so many different places, Trey said he thinks the key to its success is the fact that since the beginning he has tried to address what he sees as one of the most important issues facing not only this country, but his home community.
“I secretly kept a journal for years,” Trey explained. “I think it’s a great way to express your personal feelings and thoughts. However, I wanted to share my experiences. I want to give people a different perspective about my experience as I talk about uncomfortable topics like race and politics. So I created ‘Trey’s Journal.’”
Trey said all of the blog posts are taken directly from his journal and are not presented in a “polished academic” way, but rather in plain speak, straight from the heart. That style, Trey said, has been there from the beginning, as has his commitment to sharing his thoughts on race—a commitment borne out of a difficult high school experience.
“I remember writing my first blog about my experience with racism,” Trey shared. “I never asked a girl to homecoming or prom, so during my senior year, I wanted to have that experience before I graduated. I asked a girl that I knew since the 5th grade—a good friend of mine.
“And I remember her telling me that she did not want to be seen going to prom with a black guy. She feared what her sorority sisters would think of her if they saw her and a black guy like me going to prom together.
“It was unbelievable. Here is a friend that I’ve known for years telling me that she would be ashamed to be seen with me,” Trey continued. “Although she rejected me, I still wanted to go prom and I did. And honestly I didn’t feel the pain until I got there.
“I remember standing in the corner and seeing her with her new date, a white guy, and it reminded me why I was standing there all alone—because of who I was. I’d never forget that feeling of shame, hurt and embarrassment. As I wrote the blog, I remember my heart was racing as I recalled this incident. And to be honest, I was hesitant to share my story with others.
“But at the end of the day, I decided that this was an important story to share. Racism still exists in our society. It taught me a valuable lesson. Someone can smile to your face, laugh with you, hug you and still be discriminatory.”
Although he has since moved on from that episode and said there is no “hostility” between him and that girl, Trey said that when the incident occurred it was particularly shocking given the other experiences he had during his time at Deerfield-Windsor, where he excelled as an athlete—starring in track and basketball—and was an exceptional student, who felt his teachers always had his best interest at heart.
“One thing about Deerfield is that I really felt like the teachers there really, really cared about me,” Trey said. “That’s the one thing I always loved about Deerfield. I feel like the teachers by and large really do care about the students and really do want the students to succeed.”
Trey also said that during his time at Deerfield-Windsor he forged some great friendships that endure to this day and that he views his experiences there as being vital to his having a better understanding of race relations and racism.
“Before I came to Deerfield I actually went to Magnolia Elementary School and it was overwhelmingly a black elementary school,” Trey said. “So when I came to Deerfield it was a huge transition. I was going from being in the majority to the minority.
“When I was younger, of course, outside of Deerfield, my parents educated me about race and race relations. And they kind of warned me about some things I may be exposed to as far as racism. But they had that conversation with me when I was in the 5th grade. In 5th grade, I’m maybe 11 years-old, 12 years-old maybe.
“I wasn’t really listening or paying a whole lot of attention to what they were saying about race relations. At first I thought they were overreacting in many ways. And so I just kind of went on.
“What I did start to notice the older I got, is how racism has a different face in modern day than what it did back in 1920. In 1920 you could be overtly and blatantly racist and that’s just how life was. But in 2018 it’s not as overt and it has a different form and it has a different face and it has a different shape to it.”
Trey added that having to deal with racism head on at an early age, initially impacted how he viewed all people. But ultimately he said he hasn’t allowed those experiences to make him jaded. Rather he sees value in what he experienced—value that can only be realized if he has the courage to face the issue of racism by talking about it and getting it out in the open where it can be dealt with.
“When she started to kind of go off that she didn’t want to be seen with me, or that she would be ashamed—which kind of made it worse for her to be ashamed—it made me stop and pause and think, ‘Well, if she thinks this about me, what about that other girl or the other guy? What do they think about me?’
“It was kind of conflicting. But what made it great, when I started posting my blog, I got a lot of support from the friends I’ve always talked to. They said, ‘I would never be ashamed to be seen with you,’ and ‘I’m always here for you,’ things like that.
“So it did cause a lot of reflection, but it also resulted in a lot of confirmation as well.”
In fact, it was that reaction that ultimately emboldened Trey to continue tackling the issue through his blog in hopes that it would serve to educate people about some different perspectives of the issue.
“Part of the reason why I started this blog is because I knew that most of my readers were going to be different people, white people, who obviously have a different perspective and overall different world views than I do,” he said. “I was aware that most of my readers were probably going to be someone that did not look like me, that did not think like me, and overall had a completely different reality than me.
“I did see the opportunity to kind of build bridges that kind of fill in the gaps, and just have a conversation about uncomfortable topics. We’re so afraid to address the elephant in the room that it comes to the point where we’ll never fix the problem or even want to talk about the problem.”
While an important focus of the blog is sharing his perspective with members of other races, Trey sees the whole picture and understands that the conversation also has to be directed at members of his own race, who he feels need a better understanding of race relations.
“One thing about Albany that people may not realize is it’s pretty segregated,” he explained. “When we have that kind of landscape and that divide, that means one side has a certain perspective about the other side and it may be completely wrong or off-base, out of touch, or completely not consistent with reality. So for me, going to a predominantly white school, I feel like I can also provide some insight to the black community as well.
“I feel like I can also provide some insight on going to a predominantly white school. Do they have their faults? I mean, of course, like every other school or every other place.
“You don’t realize it when you’re attending high school, but when you go off to college and you see the workload and learn how to balance your school and social life, you really come to grips and understand how valuable going to Deerfield was.”
An important part of that value, Trey said, also came from the fact that it was at the school where he learned more about his responsibility to others.
As a standout athlete—who competed in track for five years, played one year of football and was part of a state championship basketball team—at a relatively small school, Trey said he understood early on that how he conducted himself meant a lot to the other students, especially those younger than him.
“Attending Deerfield provided me with a different type of responsibility that I didn’t anticipate—being a role model,” he explained. “The kids at Deerfield, particularly the boys, always adored and admired the athletes. They made it clear that they looked up to us as if we were ‘superheroes’ or something.
“Every time I would walk down the hall and see some middle school kids, they would always run up to me and give me high fives and say things like, ‘Trey, you’re so awesome!’ Some of them even challenged me to play a game of one-on-one with them. Even today, when I go back and visit Deerfield, that still happens.
“I quickly realized my responsibility went beyond balancing and managing sports and schoolwork. Being aware and cognizant of that really made me a better person. They say children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate.
“The fact that I knew they were looking up to me, I wanted to provide a good example. I really used it as an opportunity to be a leader. I was leaving a good platform for younger kids that were coming behind me and also have a better path for myself.”
Of course it’s no wonder Trey took to being a role model and understood the value of setting a good example, as he said his life has been full of people who have been mentors and role models to him.
Many of those role models, Trey said, are part of his family, which he described as tight-knit.
He said his father, Colie Young, a retired Marine who works in communications at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, was certainly an important influence—serving as Trey’s basketball coach for most of his life, only taking a back seat to DWS coaching legend Gordy Gruhl, during Trey’s time on the DWS squad.
But even then, Trey said, his dad was always there to assist and offer guidance.
“Even if he wasn’t the head coach, I still feel like he was awesome coaching me as well,” Trey said. “He’s been my coach ever since I’ve been playing basketball, which started at about 6 years-old.”
Off the court, Trey said his father was also a positive influence instilling discipline and a strong work ethic among Trey and his siblings.
“Growing up I was rather hard-headed and my dad had to constantly keep me in check,” Trey shared. “My weekends growing up weren’t like those of your typical teenager. Ever since I can remember my dad would bust into my room on Saturday morning around 8 am, telling me to get up because the family was going to the yard.
“It literally happened every weekend. I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in. Of course I wasn’t happy and I would try to do it as fast as I could so I could go back to sleep.
“But my dad wasn’t having it. He would make me complete my yard work duties the right way, no matter how long it took. He taught me the importance of work ethic and effort. And those are qualities I will always hold dear.”
Trey said he also cherishes the lessons learned from his mother, who taught her children to treat people the right way.
“My mom always taught me the importance of being a kind person,” he said. “When she dropped us off at school the last thing she would tell me and my sister was, “Remember, say something nice to someone today.’
“She told all of us that you never know what someone is going through and a few kind words can literally make their day. My mom also helped me find my relationship with God. She always asked, ‘did you pray today?’ She made sure that I thanked God for all the blessings He has provided for me.”
Older sister Amber and twin sister Tarah were also positive influences whose “perfectionist” ways taught Trey to be “conscientious and thorough” in whatever he did.
Trey said he also admired and spent a lot of time with his older brother Andre, who Trey looked up to much the same way the underclassmen looked up to him.
“My brother Andre served as a role model for all of us,” Trey told me. “We did so much together. One of my favorite things we did together was throw the football outside for hours. He would tell me to ‘Go long’ and sling the football as far as he could as I tried to run and catch it. We had so much fun.
“He also made me a better basketball player. We played one-on-one dozens of times and he would absolutely destroy me. I barely stood a chance playing against him, but he made me better. And I eventually managed to beat him once. He pushed me to unlock my potential when it came to sports.
“My family is amazing.”
Outside of the home, Trey credits his older brother’s best friend, Sean Jones, as a role model—one who still contacts Trey on a regular basis to check on him. And of course, Trey shared that Coach Gruhl fit that bill as well—challenging him and the rest of the basketball team to make sacrifices for each other.
“Gordy Gruhl pushed me to become the leader of the team,” Trey said. “There was a certain standard that all of us had to meet in order to play for him. He pushed me to practice hard because the way you practice is the way you’re going to play in the game. And that idea stuck with me even off the court. It taught me to always better myself so that I’ll be ready for the next challenge or opportunity.”
Given his interest in politics and his desire to one day get involved in policymaking, it made sense that Trey also cited former President Barack Obama as a major influence as well.
“My appreciation of him has absolutely nothing to do with his party affiliation or his political policies,” Trey shared. “He was the ultimate role model for young black males like myself.
“Former President Obama demonstrated that success can be achieved through hard work, perseverance, and education. Even with my skin color, I can be anything as long as I put my mind to it. No matter who you are, we all have the power to do great things as long as we’re willing to work hard.”
It was clear throughout my conversation with him that all of the many people who helped shaped the man Trey has become truly have done a fantastic job and he is indeed prepared for any challenges that lay ahead.
That he would include among those challenges returning to Albany for the betterment of others, is testament to that guidance and the lessons he’s learned during his time in college and in Washington.
One of those lessons, which has helped fuel Trey’s desire to parlay his communications studies into being involved in policymaking, is coming to the understanding that issues he wants to address—and is already addressing in his blog—are issues affecting everyone, regardless of race, gender, nationality or creed.
“Going and spreading my wings you quickly realize that the problems that you had in your own backyard, exist in other’s backyards,” he said. “Then it stops becoming a local issue and becomes a national issue. That’s a whole other ballgame. That’s just a different kind of issue you have to attack. And you have to attack it in different ways because not all places are the same.
“Like just by clear observation, the South and the North are two completely different places. If you don’t know Albany, Georgia you wouldn’t even think it’s in the same country because it’s just that different. But if you dig into the issues that plague all communities, you realize they are more similar than different.
“As far as the issue of race goes, people have this idea that it’s only a southern thing. People have this idea that racism only exists, and will ever only exist, in the South and that’s not true. You go up North, to the northern cities, and the western United States, the same problems exist.
“You have poverty that’s an issue. You have things like education. Racism is just another one of those issues that not only has to be addressed, but also fully recognized that it’s an issue. It seems like people don’t want to see that race is still an issue. People have this idea that we live in a post-racial society and that can’t be farther from the truth. So you have to start first by accepting that it is a problem and acknowledging that it still does exist.”
Once it’s acknowledged, Trey said, you can begin to deal with that problem. And so far, Trey said he’s been encouraged that the blog has started that conversation.
“I would think of myself as hopeful,” he said. “I mean, sure, things have changed for the better. As far as it moving forward, I’m hopeful in that. Again we just have to break through this wall of being able to speak about it. That’s the first step.
“Once we’re okay taking off the gloves and just kind of letting it all out, that’s when you’ll see things really move forward. Talking about race, it’s so uncomfortable for people and I understand that. But if you’re too uncomfortable to talk about it, then it’s never going to get better.
“So I do remain hopeful that it will get better.”
After spending some time talking to Trey and listening to his eloquent discourse on what is indeed a colossal issue affecting all communities in this country, and hearing the passion in his commitment to be a positive force in this world, I’d have to say that I’m hopeful too.
I’m hopeful that the world my children and grandchildren will one day inherit is a better one, where we all see each other as one people, whose similarities far outweigh our differences.
I firmly believe that with someone like Trey Young—whose courage is inspiring—committing himself to helping others, that the dream will be realized.
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