Another Friday, another awesome millennial to spotlight!
This week’s feature is a young man that truly epitomizes the term “making moves”. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him (thanks to one of my lovely mentors) for the last year in a half, and I must say that his ambition, drive and hustle inspire me beyond belief. But that hustle and strength hasn’t come without sacrifice. As you’ll see, he’s faced challenges, disappointment and even failure — but it was all meant to prepare him for greater things ahead. If you’re a young professional in The District, then you’ve probably seen him connecting with other millennials at networking events, speaking with important politicians on The Hill, or posing with Warren Buffet and his wallet.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Keith Benjamin.
A native of New Jersey, Keith attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and majored in Political Science Religion and Black Studies, which to him was one of the most transformative experiences mentally, spiritually and civically. He started interning on Capitol Hill in 2005, and officially moved to the city once he graduated in 2009. But long before making the official move to D.C., Keith had gained experience in community organizing in Philadelphia. Being a sophomore in college and having the chance to manage an entire redevelopment project for four main street corridors in the 4th District was a life altering experience. “I have to credit Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. in Philadelphia for igniting that fire,” Keith says. “He refused for me to come into his office without being challenged every single day.” From door to door outreach to locating grant funding to organizing neighborhood efforts to coordinating community coalitions, Keith saw what community development really looked like and was instantly hooked.
On why he has chosen his career path, and managing his personal brand:
I am passionate about communities of color becoming their active voice in the redefining and redeveloping of their own environments. I am tired of our communities getting the short end of the stick due to a lack of knowledge, support, or advocacy on our own behalf. In DC, with all of the development happening, only 14% of those construction women and men working on those projects are from DC. Close to half of those who take public transportation are at or below the poverty line and those at or below the poverty line spend 40% or more of their income on housing and transportation. Only around 22% of jobs that are low-income or middle-income in the top 100 metropolitan areas are accessible by transit. These numbers mean something and are critical to community building. Access and equity are major factors in how neighborhoods of color can be bolder advocates for themselves, not when the plans are done, but when they are conceptualized. We need a paradigm shift.
If there is one thing I have learned with branding it is that people watch everything you do. In fact, many of the people who are watching what you do or say will never pat you on the back or like your Facebook status. This means you cannot solely depend on another person’s approval as verification that you are acting out your purpose and displaying that through your branding. At the end of the day if you are not your own cheerleader don’t expect anyone else to be either. Your confidence in yourself will make you want to take care of yourself and bring individuals into your life that also care about you. How will individuals know to lend a hand if they don’t know you are reaching out? How will you be confident in your next step if you haven’t sat under words of wisdom from someone who has been there and done that? How will you know if you are on the right track despite the painful sacrifices you are making if you aren’t surrounded with other like-minded individuals who are trying to win too? A mentor once told me that when people say your name a set of skill sets should be attached. That can only happen if you constantly cultivate your product into a viable brand.
Since settling in The District, Keith has had a great deal of experience in both community development and urban planning. From being a leadership fellow in the Give1Project to hitting the 2012 campaign trail in order to get President Obama re-elected, he has made sure to capitalize on the connections he has made by taking the risk and having faith in himself.
On failure not being an option and becoming fearless:
On February 28, 2012 at around 4:32 pm, I along with my department co-workers were informed that our office due to financial reasons no longer existed. By 5:30 pm, I had to have my office cleared, computer cleaned, and would only have two-weeks severance. Immediately,unemployment wasn’t my challenge; trying to figure out how to eat and where to live was. When my papers were handed to me I walked to my office, closed my door and was pouring my eyes out believing I had failed. Then my phone rang. It was my younger brother Aaron praying and for whatever reason I snapped out of my funk and from that moment on I started running forward. I have served a member of Congress, been to France and Senegal, hosted radio and tv, been profiled in numerous print media, wrote a book, raised money and met Trayvon Martin’s family, spoke all over the country, served the first Black President in three capacities and worked with top NFL athletes. But none of those “awesome experiences” compares with the experience of failure. Because of what I perceived to be failure I was freed. I was forced to take the risk and put faith in my purpose. Now, I’m not afraid of tomorrow…I’m not afraid of anything. I am resting my process and have peace in the midst of uncertainty.
Recently, there has been much talk about the millennial generation: who we are, our work ethic and the way we choose to live our lives. “I believe it was the beginning of a recent Time Magazine article that said the stereotype of a Millennial is to be narcissistic, lazy, coddled, and delusional,” he says. “Thus, if ‘Millennial on a Mission’ was to be defined it would literally be an oxymoron.” But to combat that negative connotation, Keith thinks that a ‘Millennial on a Mission’ would be someone who is doing the unexpected–someone who is neither bound by social categories nor intimidated by any box labeling attempts. “I believe that our generation has the power to do whatever we put our minds to–the key is our mindset. The mind is the most powerful weapon we have in our arsenal. If our minds stay set on the possibility in what may seem impossible being unstoppable is an understatement.” He believes that when we settle, it is because we rationalized in our minds that the choice we made will suffice despite what we know we need. “There is too much that we need and the world needs for us to settle on sufficient. As my father would say, we have to reach higher.”