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I'm Not Broken

A Conversation with Jesse Leon

Jesse Leon’s recent memoir, “I’m Not Broken,” shares his story of resilience. Jesse survived devastating childhood abuse and years of addiction to become the leader he is today. His experiences have informed his perspective on philanthropy, affordable housing, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and more. In this heartfelt conversation, Chanda and Jesse discuss the importance of sharing his story and investing in mental health.

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Chanda Smith Baker 

Hello, Community. This is Chanda Smith Baker. In this episode, I have a conversation with Jesse Leone, who recently wrote a memoir called “I’m Not Broken.” In his memoir, Jesse shares his survival story. His story includes sex abuse as a child, sex trafficking, sex work, and addiction. It is a challenging life that he has led and that he is sharing with us, and some of the content is difficult. And so, we want to encourage you to take care of your well-being and your safety as you listen while we touch on it. I have to say it is a story that was so inspiring to me, and I hope you find inspiration and hope and what Jesse is offering through telling us his story and his journey, as a leader, as a person, and as a leader in the philanthropic space. Thank you so much for listening. So, here’s the conversation with Jesse Leone.

Souphak Kienitz  00:01

You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda, a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest, most vexing problems, hosted by Chanda Smith Baker.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:13

Jesse, welcome to the podcast Conversations with Chanda. So glad to have you.

Jesse Leon  00:19

Thank you, Chanda. It’s a pleasure to be here with you. And thank you for having me on your podcast today.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:25

Yeah, I’ve known you for all of five minutes. I can tell we are gonna have a good discussion this morning. Because you got a lot going on that I think that our listeners will be really interested in hearing right as we were getting to know each other in the very few minutes and since you logged on. We were talking a bit about how you might know the Minneapolis Foundation. So, Jo-Anne stately is the one that really introduced me to you tell me your about your relationship to Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Foundation.

Jesse Leon  00:55

So and yes, shout out to Jo-Anne Stately, definitely one of my mentors, Sister, Auntie in philanthropy, who have a lot of respect and love for Jo-Anne took me under her wing. So I was the third hire, and First Person of Color hired at the Funders Network for Smart growth and Livable Communities. My job was to bridge the movement between white environmentalists, funders, and people of color social justice funders to build a movement called regional equity, or equitable development funders network got a grant from Karl Anthony, who was at the Ford Foundation at the time for about 250,000 and Angela Blackwell, at Policy Link got a grant. My job at the funders network was to build the movement with foundations. Angela Blackwell’s grant was to help build the movement around regional equity equitable development with nonprofits. John Powell, Manuel Pastore and I think Myron Orefield got funds to build a movement around academics. It was a multi-prong approach around urban redevelopment, to stop working in silos. How do we connect housing to transportation to environmental issues, education strategies, etc, which eventually led to a number of President Obama’s initiatives, Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods, burn grants, etc. Really trying to get foundations to think around cross silo strategies. So as part of our work, we identified around 20 demonstration projects across the country where local funders would want to engage with national funders on an equitable development strategy. Each city was different. In Detroit, it was around the waterfront in downtown Detroit along the river, in Baltimore, it was East Baltimore around John Hopkins in LA it was around the Staples Center in Oakland, it was around Fruitvale Transit Village and in Minneapolis after being invited by the Minneapolis Foundation, McKnight Foundation. At the time, St. Paul Foundation, Bush, Otto Bremmer, and the list goes on and on. We convened I think over 300 people over a week around issues of regional equity and equitable development. In these convenings, what came up was and it was cross sector, allies and leaders from all different sectors, banking, community, residents, philanthropy, nonprofits, what came up was that the Metropolitan Planning Council, I believe is still the name, was creating a light rail system connecting the airport to downtown Minneapolis. The concerns were that it was not going to connect the communities of color that need access to transportation to get to and from work or connect from one place to the other. So, we started convening folks at the table around and we got some local nonprofits, Maura Brown at the Alliance for Metropolitan stability. Yeah, Metropolitan stability and a few other organizations to help continue creating an equitable development strategy around smart growth, which led to the creation of a number of transit-oriented developments along the light rail system connecting the airport to downtown Minneapolis, as well as nonprofits, small business developments, small business incubators, and the biggest success which I attribute to Jo-Anne Staley, Jo-Anne Staley made the connections that we needed to engage the Native American community around Franklin Avenue, especially the American Indian Center, and we would hold meetings and the Native community in Minneapolis was very adamant that we Have our process, we’re not just going to come in and play with you on these policy implications, we need time to really process how we’re going to be key players in this initiative. And when they came to the table, it was this is what we want. And that was the predecessor to a lot of the arts district and business district around Franklin Avenue. With individuals like Tony Looking Elk, and Justin Huenemann. They were all at the table. And so that’s how I go back to Minneapolis. I know it was a long winded answer. But I have a lot of love for the Twin Cities in particular, given the work that we do, the community really rallied around affordable housing, transportation, environmental issues, and small business development for people of color.

Chanda Smith Baker  05:50

That’s fantastic. It’s really interesting. And I appreciate actually the detail in the answer, because we often forget sort of how things evolved, right? The documentation and the storytelling of who was at the table and how things evolved. And community is incredibly important. You know, you have spent some time in philanthropy and adjacent to philanthropy. Can you share a little bit about what those how that experience has been? I was particularly struck, when you said you were the first person of color, because we still have a number of people that are the first in roles, there’s nothing like being the first in a role, it is very hard to explain what you encounter.

Jesse Leon  06:31

So yes, in great question, let me first go back before I answer that question, let me go back to the previous piece about understanding how programs come to be and part of the storytelling. What often happens in philanthropy is short term memory, and the lack of long term strategies. Policy changes take time, community work, and creating new strategies takes time. Often. When I was working with Angela Davis, in 1997, there were about 14 or 15 of us that put together a conference called critical resistance. It was where she coined the term prison industrial complex at that conference, it took 20 years for that to make it to a presidential debate. It took 20 years for the state of California, and other states and institutions to divest from private prison industry. So, for me, when I think about policy, it’s patient capital is often needed. And foundations and investors are oftentimes unwilling to provide that long term patient capital, because it takes time to see those returns. I’m coming at this from a social impact investment, background in terms of returns, and etc. and relationship building takes time, a lot of healing is often required. So being a first, in a lot of situations, has been very difficult. As a gay man of color, I have to make a decision how of how authentic I can be, and constantly having to code switch within the executive boardroom. And when you’re working with organizations…oftentimes, I was the youngest, and the only person of color in a room at various foundations at various leadership organizations and various positions that I’ve held. What I’ve had to learn is how to be effective, depending on who the audience is, and who I am working with and constantly have to code switch, which is very draining, and exhausting because we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, we talk about authenticity but as a person of color, we don’t have the luxury of being our authentic selves all the time. And one thing I talked about in my book, I’m not broken that I learned in particular at the Kennedy School was that I got killed off, assassinated in leadership terms, because I recognize that what I represent as a man of color, who fights for racial equity and social justice, I like to play that inside outside game to be at the table to get to the resources to where they need to go, comes at a price sometimes, and I made the decision to be at the table and write it out to make sure that the resources get to where they need to go, but oftentimes, it’s the color of my skin, it’s how I speak it. Sometimes I’m passionate, I move around a lot. So, it takes effort to keep my hands in front of me, bring my voice down, try to articulate myself a little bit better, so that I’m not threatening. Because when I start to speak like this, and I’m very passionate people assume that I’m angry man of color, why can a white man be assertive, and a person of color is aggressive. And so it’s very, it’s really hard. But leaders like Darren Walker, Angela Blackwell, John Powell, Jo-Anne Stately, individuals that have been in these spaces that have paved the way for those of us that have come after them, and mentored us to say, this is how you can be effective Jesse, you need to tone it down a little bit. I need you to do this instead of this. And second, I need you to not take it personal. Your intentions are spot on. But I need you to work on delivery. So, intention and impact. People talk about that they often miss the delivery piece. So, I need to focus on what my intent is, how I’m going to deliver, and what’s the impact I want to have. And that delivery piece is something I’ve had to work on over the years. Wow, that was a lot.

Chanda Smith Baker  11:23

There was so much in there, I think I want to start with in terms of like code-switching, there might be people that will hear that term. And there’s gonna be people that understand exactly what you just said, right? Like, I’m snapping my fingers, I’m nodding my head, you don’t even have you could have said less. And I would have understood all of what you were just trying to communicate. There are other people that might hear cold twitching and say, look, I need to show up as my authentic self. And I feel like I am selling out when I come in. And I have to reduce myself. Or I feel like I can not show up as my whole self, right, as another way of saying that. There are other people like I don’t even understand what that means. Like you need to show up and you need to be professional. And there’s only one code here. And that’s professionalism.

Jesse Leon  12:14

I’ve had people tell me that they don’t believe in authenticity in the workplace. I’ve had people say that, I don’t believe in authenticity, you come in, you do your job, we expect a certain level of professionalism. And if you don’t fit within this box of the individual that we’re looking for, you’re out. And I’ve been on the you’re out piece, and it hurts. Because what people don’t understand that I talked a lot about in my memoir “I’m Not Broken”, is I’m a survivor of sex trafficking. For three years, I was sexually abused and sex trafficked, I lived on the streets, I was a drug addict. I got into recovery at 18. And that started my journey to community college, UC Berkeley and Harvard, which allowed me to do all the great things that I am doing now, and social impact investing in philanthropy. However, 99% of my perpetrators were white men, and white men in suits. So, when I’m walking into a boardroom, when I’m walking into a meeting, especially in finance, we have very few people of color. And when I’m oftentimes the only one people don’t see quote, unquote, a gay Latino male, they see a cisgender, heterosexual, Latino professional man. That’s normally what I get. And when I say I’m a gay Latino, you know, oh, they say oh you’re gay? What they don’t understand is what they represent to me sometimes when I’m walking into a room, and I have to take a few milliseconds to pull it together to say, okay, Jesse, walk through this fear, you can either forget everything and run, you can face everything and recover and walk into this boardroom and be as effective as you can. But I need you to understand that this fear F-E-A-R, is a false events appearing real, and you’re not reliving your trauma again. And so, I’ve had to do a lot of work on self. So, when I’m talking about code switching, or figuring out how to be effective, there’s so much more to unpack that we as people of color, have to go through, to heal within ourselves and community to oftentimes be effective to implement change, move multimillion, often billion dollar resources. And we make the decision, you and I, to be in those roles and learn how to play that inside outside game as best we can. But it is exhausting. And it takes effort.

Chanda Smith Baker  14:54

Jesse, from your experience, how have you managed the exhaustion I have the the code switching?

Jesse Leon  15:04

I’ve had to learn how to not take it personal, which is really hard for me. When I first read The Four Agreements, I didn’t like it. I’m an Aztec dancer, I do native ceremony. I thought, Who is this guy? Who is this guy writing this book. He’s taking traditions that have been handed down to me and my family for generations. I wasn’t ready. When I read the alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, the first time I got halfway through, but when I finally read it all the way through about a month or two later, when I was having a difficult time in my life, I read it as exactly the right time when I needed to. And I’ve had to learn how to not take things personally. However, what has helped me over the years, people that have worked with me, have come back and apologized for how they treated me in the workplace because they didn’t understand what I was going through. And oftentimes, it’s taken over 10 years for that to happen. I remember one time I gave a team, a gift of “White Privilege.’ For over the holidays, there’s a book to read. And all hell broke loose. All hell broke loose. Why are you giving me this book on white privilege? What are you trying to tell me bla bla bla bla, and I got reprimanded for it. And I was just trying to get the conversation going. And two of those folks don’t speak to me to this day. The rest have come back, because they’ve had experiences that has led them to rethink how they’ve been treated differently. And have come back and said, I now understand what you were talking about and I’m sorry. However, I’ve also had to work on self and I wrote this down because too often I think it impacts a lot of our young people of color, in particular, our young men of color, I oftentimes, because of my trauma, when I am triggered in the most inopportune time, my emotions will take over and I tend to lose reason when I am triggered, and I get an overwhelmingly incomprehensible reaction to situations. And I know you know what I mean. And it’s hard to sometimes, I need to breathe, this is my team, what is coming out of people’s mouths is so just, it’s triggering it. It’s, it’s instigating, and you’re in a role of leadership. So, you’re constantly having to figure out how to calm yourself down, how to breathe. Breathing is huge. For me, it’s, it’s the most valuable asset we have and it’s free oxygen, so being able to breathe. But I’ve learned those skills over the years, especially in therapy, not just in recovery, narcotics anonymous, 12 Step programs sponsorship, having mentors like Angela Blackwell, like Jo-Anne stately, etc. People like you coming into my life, I see that I have an outline now that I can turn to say, I’m having a hard time with this, what do you think I should do? But therapy has helped. I do EMDR. I do brain spotting. There’s a new one called ART, which is like EMDR on steroids, to try to work through trauma in a trauma informed care modality that allows me to talk about what I’ve been through, recognize it, desensitize it to try to be effective in my daily life without having to have those overwhelmingly incomprehensible reactions to situations. But it takes a lot of work. And I think too often our young men of color, or young people of color. People say how you describe something is how you feel about it. What if I don’t know how to describe it? What if I don’t have the words to describe it? And so when you get overwhelmed, and you see young people of color getting incarcerated. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I wrote my book. And there’s a situation in my book, where I almost got incarcerated because one of my own violent outbursts, which is when everything transformed in my life, not for the better. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. But no one taught me as a young man of color, how to work with my emotions and my reactions and my reasoning. And we don’t teach young people of color, how to do that amongst each other. And that it’s okay to try to mentor each other so that we don’t get locked up. We can put our ego aside So that’s how I’ve been able to work through a lot of my trauma and showing up when it is super exhausting.

Chanda Smith Baker  20:10

We’re gonna talk more about the book, and I love how you’re threading it in this conversation. And I have, I’m gonna follow up on what you just said in a moment. But the other thing you touched on when you were talking about philanthropy is patience capital. And I’ve I’ve never really heard it that way. And philanthropy has a way of wanting things to happen sooner than later. For those of us working in philanthropy, and particularly in places like Minneapolis, where we have gone through a lot in a short amount of time. And the pain of what we’ve gone through has moved people to want to see results very, very quickly. I don’t know if we often recognize the degree we should the amount of mistrust, I think we do at a surface level. But the amount of trust building that must happen in order for us to really begin to move. Or at least that’s what I believe, right that in order for us to move, so what is patience, capital? And how would you describe it to someone that’s working in philanthropy or on a board or impatient for results?

Jesse Leon  21:27

The light rail system in the Minneapolis St. Paul area took, I remember, when I got invited for the groundbreaking of the final stop in downtown Minneapolis, I got invited to go out there want to say, forgot who it was may have been Sarah Hernandez from the McKnight Foundation. Shout out to Sarah, mi hermana in philanthropy. And that took, like 10, 12, 15 years to build out in its entirety. So, when a foundation is investing, you have grants, you have PRIs, you have impact investments. When we as funders expect to have metrics and outcomes within 12 months, our quarterly reports or bi-annual reports, our annual report, and we’re placing these expectations on our grantees to constantly report back on what the outcomes and their goals and outcomes and how are you measuring them and how are you achieving them. Oftentimes, I’ve had to work with my grantees on how to translate what they do into philanthropic speak, which oftentimes, we want change. We want it now. Oh, my God, this has happened and helped me identify the nonprofit on the ground that’s working with the Latino community on immigration and education opportunities, or ensuring that immigrants are not, you know, being sex trafficked, I’m just thinking creatively, right? Or I need to figure out who the nonprofit is working with inner city, African American youth around gun violence. And it’s sometimes a very grassroot on the ground, nonprofit with very limited staff doing as much as they can to serve our community. Yet, we want within 12 months, 18 months, 24 months, we want immediate outcomes. And we want all the work to be translated into our pretty philanthropic box, and then every Foundation has their own pretty little philanthropic box of how they want it communicated. So we don’t invest in technical assistance, capacity building, unrestricted funding, so that the groups can be effective to learn also how to work within this philanthropic space. So, I believe that that’s where the patient capital on the grant making side can really be effective. I’ve had to tell people, Jesse, I’m having a hard time knowing the end goal. How are you? How do you want me to report a community meeting into numbers? Okay. You have 100 people attended the meeting. You did a survey before the meeting. 100% said they didn’t understand anything about affordable housing finance, just hypothetically, you did a survey after the meeting of those 100, 90 said they have a clearer understanding of what that means. So that’s 90 people. That’s 90% of the individuals who attended that event have a greater understanding of affordable housing of those 90, 50 agreed to be a part of a working group. So, 50 of the percentage, of what that 50 is at a 90 Is this percentage agreed to be a part of a working group to implement solutions of that 50 individuals, 40 stayed throughout the 12 months and were able to implement these policies. So now I’m helping my grantees translate what they do into numbers into foundation speak. Sadly, our program officers today, our senior program officers who are so overwhelmed and overworked, that they have so many grantees that it takes so much handholding to be able to do that. But it’s very important for philanthropy to understand the need for having patient capital. I believe that a PRI or an impact investment can work simultaneously with grants so that the PRI or the impact investing can deploy capital more rapidly and allow the grants to have a longer term. But that’s just me.

Chanda Smith Baker  25:49

Why would they be more effective?

Jesse Leon  25:53

With affordable housing, what I’m seeing and I can speak to the affordable housing piece right now. We, I’ve been working with getting foundations to create social impact funds for non low income housing tax credit, non public subsidized affordable housing. And we’re piloting a program with one of my clients. And we brought in actually, Warren Hanson from Greater Minnesota Housing Fund to partner with me and Tina Castro, from Avivar Capital, I created this team for my client, on how to roll out this impact investment fund for housing. Because too often the Low Income Housing Tax Credit strategy, and finding the nonprofit partner in the on the ground in in a geographic area where there may not be one, let alone with the capacity to deliver. We feel that if we bypass the light tech process and the state and federal funding, we are able to roll out impact investment for pre-development, acquisition, pre-development, capacity building technical assistance, and actual construction of housing, quicker than what it would take to get a grantee to apply for a tax credit round, which is super expensive, you have to wait for the entire scoring process. By this time, you’re 18 to 24 months out. So it within that window, you’re losing opportunity, because real estate prices are going up and you’re being priced out of the market construction costs are going up. So trying to figure out how to deploy capital in a faster way, with less restrictions to also bring in people of color developers to the table to say, wow Chanda, you have a duplex. So you understand the rental market a little bit. Have you ever thought about having a fourplex, maybe three or four, fourplexes in a community? Who in the community understands real estate or would like to, and if we pulled our resources together to get folks of color, to acquire land, patient capital to hold it for pre-development to rezone to maybe build 15 units of affordable housing. The public programs that exist don’t allow for that space. So, when we’re looking at social impact investing, it allows for us to be creative on how we’re going to roll out those funds. And under what terms and what strategies to open the door for others to have opportunity.

Chanda Smith Baker  28:29

Yeah, I love it. I love it and making sure that the strategies don’t become distant from the community. Right, the development of the strategy stay proximate to community while you also I get it, I get it, I like it. So, you’ve been talking about this book. So, I’m gonna go back to the last conversation. And I’m trying to I know a little bit because I’ve read most of the book, I’m gonna finish the book. But and I encourage everyone to read it, you to Chicano, gay, male, sexually abused trafficked, an addict, you got all these things that you can be triggered by, you end up at Harvard. Like that’s a story within the story. Your book goes through three generations of your family, which I was fascinated by, because I’m fifth generation here. And there’s something about the legacy of family that routes you to a place that is so important to who I am here in my own leadership. There’s a lot of stories of women and those men in our lives and how they show up in community that has been so informative for me, and I could see it and your story. We have a lot of kids out here that are in deep, deep pain. And adults that are in deep, deep pain that are showing up all over the place, if we never know what someone’s walking into the room with or classroom with that sits behind, like just behind the face behind the anger behind the jokes behind the behavior. And we are trying to program people in this linear way that removes the layers that exist underneath. And so, what in the world would make you share all of what you went through publicly, because part of why I haven’t finished it is because I just simply started too late. And I’ve been very busy. The other piece is, is that I had to sort of take it in doses and I had to I was challenged. Because it’s, it’s hard to read, but it was much harder to, for you to be in the experience. And ignoring the stories that exist, that actual people are having to live through, is actually not a strategy. Right? Like we actually need to understand what are happening to our people in this country. And I really want to say thank you for the gift of sharing what was an incredibly hard life that you have lived. What, Why Why in the world, would you share this with us?

Jesse Leon  31:21

You just hit it on the nose, you literally just hit it dead smack, nail on the head. Too often, we don’t take the time, especially with our young adults, or youth, even our adults in the workplace, who’s in our life, we don’t take the time to look behind the face. I wanted to give voice to others that are experiencing the same kind of pain currently to understand, and hopefully they get a copy someone hands them a copy and says you’re not the only one. Look, someone went through it. And he describes it in detail what he went through, and he got out. And not only did he get out, he went from trying to survive to thrive. He went from living in hardcore trauma to being triumphant. And you can too. People say, Oh, Jesse, your book was so hard to read. And you’re the first person that has said because in my mind, I want to say, wow, it was hard to read but you work in the mental health space. It was hard to read, but you’re a teacher. It’s hard to read but you’re in philanthropy. Try living it. Try going through being sex trafficked for multiple years without your family knowing and being threatened that your family is going to be killed and your perpetrator shows up at your house to let you know, he knows where you live. So, I needed to be as vulnerable and transparent as possible on multiple fronts. Because I wanted to get the message out to people in the mental health field, how important their work is, and how they can also negatively impact a child’s life. Because in my story, no 14-year-old kid shouldn’t have to maneuver the mental health system by themselves. With no accountability, and no oversight on the mental health provider. I should not have spiraled down deeper into substance abuse, sex work, which really I was a sexually exploited child by adults, even though I thought I was fulfilling the entrepreneurial niche with my body and was independent. No, I wasn’t I was a sexually exploited child. And so the reason I wrote the book, as much as I did was also to give voice to those of us survivors that are no longer with us, but to also tell the story of resilience, of three generations of women. So that my nephews, my nieces, their kids understand that they have something they can turn to that documents the blood that flows through their vein, so that when they’re having a hard day, and they come home, they’re like, I can’t do this anymore. I’m done. I can’t get through school. I just don’t want to graduate. I don’t think I’m gonna go get my masters now. Nah nah nah nah, you can do it. And I believe in you, and you matter. And I needed to say to others that so hope I came across a story of inspiration and hope that takes the reader from the beginning of Harvard graduation, how I got there, which was not easy, it wasn’t linear. And in the end, show the reader that it was possible. Change is possible. And so, I appreciate how you frame the question, because you hit the nail on the head. And that is exactly why I wrote it, which was your preface to the question is to inspire others that are living through it, but also the professionals that work in this space. Too often in philanthropy, we have people that work in positions of philanthropy, but don’t have the lived experiences on the ground. They don’t look like people in community, they oftentimes don’t know how to shoot up and show up, they don’t do their research on the different cultural nuances within the communities in which we’re trying to serve. How I speak in Mexico with my family is very different than how I speak with the white family in Minnesota, you know, or how I show up in native communities, how I show up in the Hmong community, I gotta be cognizant of how I’m showing up. And oftentimes, the traumas and the histories that people experience. So I would say to the folks that tell me, not you, because you hit it on the head, it was just a difficult read, we’ll try living through it. And put yourself in the shoes of those of us that you don’t take the time to look beyond the face. Because every one of us has a story. Every one of us has had experiences. And sometimes we’re not able to talk about it. Some of us haven’t had the experience, opportunities to heal, to find the right type of support system. And some of us are going through situations that it would help to somebody even asked, Can I talk to you for a minute? What’s happening, or what happened to you, I’m noticing a little reaction to something and I don’t want to assume anything. So we’d love to just invite you to coffee and get to know you a little better. We don’t do that with each other. And so I don’t want people to give up or kill themselves. Like I often tried to. Because people believed in me. And so, Jo-Anne, stately, believed in me when I wanted to quit working in philanthropy. Because it was so hard. That’s why I think I do what I do as much as I do and why I wrote the book the way I did. So, thank you for that question.

Chanda Smith Baker  37:50

I swear you don’t make me cry. We also don’t talk about men in sexual abuse. We don’t talk about that, you may be the third person that I have met that has said it out loud. You are not the third man that I have met that has been sexually abused. I know that for a fact. Do you think that will be ever normalized to talk about that? Because that level of trauma and pain can only metastasize into behavior, behaviors actions, self-destructive, self-destruction? And if we put men in a position where they can’t be vulnerable, or they’re seen as less than or they’re labeled, or they’re not safe enough to talk about those pains. Well, who are we?

Jesse Leon  39:05

Right? I just went to my first, I’ve been in recovery. 29 years, I have spoken at conventions in recovery in front of 5000 plus people as the main motivational speaker. Lately, I’ve been speaking with law firms that have hired me as a speaker to all their attorneys. And with the question of what can we do as law firms to work with community on what would you say so that no others experience what you did? I just spoke at USC with Dr. Bedell Nogueira at the dean of the Rossier School of Education with professors around and the marriage and family therapy cohort, Masters cohort and professors around my story, to educate, and also inspire that they have roles to play when shaping people’s lives, especially as a young man of color, not having that space to be able to express what I was feeling in a safe space. In my book, there’s a chapter with a guy named Z, Z was one of the first men that I felt, saw me, he apologized, for snapping at me. And the fact that he apologized, made me feel human. And then he said, something, I said, damn I must be F’d up. He’d like, now you’re not, you’re just a young man of color trying to survive. And he put his hand on my daughter, and I didn’t move to hit him. I didn’t bounce back, I let him keep his hand on my shoulder and I cried. And that was in 11th grade, the first time since the sex abuse from 11. To 16, to be able to express any kind of emotion or being seen. And so I just went to my first healing retreat. There’s an organization called Men healing. It’s only for men. It’s not for perpetrators, it’s for only survivors, they go through an in depth background screening of every attendee. And it was my first time being with a group of men in the mountains, over three days, talking and working through our sexual traumas, and healing, really not even about that, on our journey to healing. And everyone was at a different phase. Three of us out of we’ll say 15 weren’t members of the LGBT community. 12 were heterosexual. A few men of color thrown in. I’m working on figuring out a way to create partnerships with other organizations like the brave movement, the brave movement is working with the G7 to commit to end childhood sexual violence. They’ve received a $10 million dollar grant from the Oak Foundation, and to work on these issues. And then strategically trying to figure out, how can we create these spaces, especially for men of color, a safe space without judgment, without fear of reprise, or being ostracized? Because it’s needed. The only way I’ve been able to be successful in my career and in my life, is because I’ve had, in particular, other men of color that have wrapped their arms around me, and let me know they love me unconditionally and support me through my journey and my process, especially in recovery. Not everyone has had that. But I do believe when people say, Well, you wrote your book, but you’re just an outlier. Not everyone can go to Harvard. I disagree.

Chanda Smith Baker  43:17

Well say why? Why do you disagree? Tell me why

Jesse Leon  43:23

I didn’t think I could have gone to Harvard. I started in community college, my high school GPA was like a 1.2. It took me four years to get my associates. I did beauty school for one year, and worked at a hair salon at UC Berkeley. I mean, I was fierce with TCB hair products and African American hair, I used to get my hot stove, my hot my hot comb, my flat iron, stick it in the stove, and used to do finger waves and up dues and pineapple waves and scrunch curls, or waves, you know, and I never thought about going to Harvard.

Chanda Smith Baker  44:02

So, let me pause right there. So I’m not even gonna say more. I’m not gonna say, we don’t have to do we’ll talk about that later. But this 1.2 GPA, which, you know, like, I felt like my GPA was not high in high school, it was, it could have been a lot better. And I used to say I was I was a smart kid that was in the school that just like, I mean, I sometimes would skip class and go to the library. Like, I was also the nerd that picked and choose, it chose, the classes that I sort of wanted to excel with, right? Like I was sort of I was a rebel all the time in my ways, right? Like, like this teacher is not fair. I’m not participating in this construct, right? Like I always had like a position. But I say that because I think that we sometimes will equate one’s future by their GPA in the work that we are in. So that’s one thing of, what was your discovery of understanding that you were more than that GPA, was it the people that wrapped around you? Right? Because there’s narratives, right? That we’re not smart enough, we’re not worthy enough, we’re not respected enough. We’re not pretty enough like there’s these filters. But usually smart enough is one of them. So I imagine that you just read a lot, study a lot, you end up at Harvard, because you were somewhat motivated by that. But that’s an assumption.

Jesse Leon  45:28

People are gonna hate what I’m going to say. But I learned everything I needed to learn to be successful at UC Berkeley and Harvard in community college.

Chanda Smith Baker  45:35

No, I love that. You just said that. So can you say more about that I love it.

Jesse Leon  45:39

So, my GPA went, and literally, I showed my transcript to a good friend of mine two days ago, we were walking by the park where I used to turn tricks because I walked there. It’s kind of this empowering feeling. I walked there in the evenings or I walked the beach to do my evening walk, I got to lose weight, get my steps in, but also a part of my meditation. And we went through my transcript. And he was like, wow, how were you passed from grade to grade? F, D, D, D, F, no grade, no grade. Truancy and attendance or impacting grade.

Chanda Smith Baker  46:18

Okay, I wasn’t that bad. I wouldn’t have it.

Jesse Leon  46:20

Oh, I was bad. My first semester, at City College. My GPA went to a 3.9. I was engaged. I took psychology 101. I talk about it in my book, how psychology 101 to me was just so fascinating. Psychology of genders and gender roles in society safe spaces, created creative writing, the Chicano Studies, ethnic studies, African American studies, I saw eyes on the prize for the first time in community college. How are you not going to show kids eyes on the prize in junior high or high school? Really?

Chanda Smith Baker  47:06

I feel that like my nephew, my, my nephew was killing his college courses when he was in high school. And I’m like, he explained to me how come your college courses have all A’s and your high school courses do not. And he said, I feel more engaged.

Jesse Leon  47:24

Yeah, I feel more engaged. I feel so much so that I am the kind of person that even still to this day, depending on how safe I feel, will sit with my back to a wall. In a meeting, in a convention, I’ll be in the last row, or I’ll be on the side as long as I have something to my back. And when I’m safe. And when I feel engaged. I will sit in the front row. And I am tuned in, Ron Takaki professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, Pedro Nogueira, now the dean of the of at USC School Rossier School of Education. He was my professor at UC Berkeley, hands down, but my community college professors, and being in class because I worked in the daytime at the hair salon, you know, making everyone look flawless. I started going to school in the evenings, full Course load, 13 credits in the evening, walk working full time. And you’re in classes with single mothers, single fathers, people that are of all ages, some are just out of high school, some want to get back to school and they’re 40-50 years old. Everyone has a story. You build these relationships with people in community college, that I don’t think happen anywhere in the world. My dream is to go speak at community colleges, to faculty to students to instill this message that the whole world can open up to you simply by walking into the door of a community college. It’s literally everything I needed to learn, my statistics course in, I mean, I got an A in stats, how do you go to have an A and stats when I’ve had D’s and F’s all my life? And I was angry and I was raging. But my professors just really knew how to get me to get me engaged. I think your nephew said your nephew hit it right on the head. I was engaged. I was engaged. And that’s why I’m a huge advocate for community college and it is one of my dreams, to go speak to different community colleges and share the message of hope that because I do believe that when people tell me, well, not everyone can get into Harvard. Okay, well, maybe not everyone can but you know what I do? And I believe you can too. And we all have a story to tell.

Chanda Smith Baker  50:00

Share the story of your mother, when you told her you got into Harvard, because I think this is a classic story of all brown and black neighborhoods across America, in some way, shape or form.

Jesse Leon  50:17

It’s the one part of the book that I probably get asked to read the most because it I think, touch I think, personally that it touches across race, ethnicity, class lines, that so many people have gone through that same struggle, I have had one of the most beautiful DMs, direct message, right and on Instagram, somebody sent me a message and she said, I’m from Guadalajara. I’m a DACA student. And I’ve had similar experiences. And I’m in college. And a lot of times I want to quit, because I feel I can’t just I can’t show up, I feel broken a lot of the time. And your book helped me believe that it helped me believe in myself that I’m not broken. And that I can suit up and show up. So, thank you, I started crying like a baby. Because it lets me know that my intention, my intention, is real. And that it’s creating an impact. And that I did as best as I can to work on the delivery of it to be as vulnerable and as real as possible. But that chapter of my mind, it’s just I think it’s so it hits across so many different levels with different people. And yeah, I’d love to read it at some point for you.

Chanda Smith Baker  51:46

It’s also a parenting story, right of wanting to keep your kids close.

Jesse Leon  51:51

I was gonna tell you that too. But I’m not a parent. So I didn’t want to make the assumption.

Chanda Smith Baker  51:56

No, like, you’re like, why would you go to this place? Go to Harvard, I don’t even know where this place is what the hell is Cambridge, right? You could just go up the street, and I can see you on the weekends, and I could make you food.

Jesse Leon  52:06

She was mad. She was mad in the book. She’s like, my son, he’s leaving for Harvard. God knows where Harvard is, it’s by New York. Can you believe it by New York, New York? And why does he Why doesn’t he come home, be close to the family and go to San Diego State. San Diego State is the best university in the world. Because that’s all she knew that for the teachers she worked with as the lunch lady where they went to school. And so, it wasn’t until the secretary wrote on the chalkboard in the teacher’s lounge, please congratulate SB, her son just got into Harvard. And so, teacher after teacher, and I remember when even the principal came to congratulate me, mi hijo who I’m so proud of you. So oftentimes, we forget to support each other, and inspire each other and educate each other on what exists out there. And luckily, my mom had people that supported her on my educational journey.

Chanda Smith Baker  53:14

So, you wanted to inspire and you use the word hope a couple of times. And can you just share your version of why you think hope is necessary?

Jesse Leon  53:26

There’s a scene in my book that I put it in there specifically because two scenes in particular, but one when I was I couldn’t get as detailed as I wanted to, but I, I was on. I was on a run. I was up already for a few days on crystal meth. And I used to love mixing crystal meth and heroin. And I was trying to find somewhere to sleep. And I didn’t want my family to see me in the condition I was in. And I had slept in the park before. And so, I go down. It was afternoon, evening, evening time. And there were all these white kids skateboarding. I’ve never skateboarded, I’ve never rollerbladed to this day, rollerblades were just becoming trendy. And people were rollerblading in the park and laughing, and I remember feeling so broken. Because I’m 18 years old. I’m not that different in age than a lot of these kids that are playing. But I’m a dope fiend. I weighed 135 pounds, and I’m hopping in and out of cars with random strangers to support my drug habit. And I felt hopeless. So, I went down into the bushes of the park. I found this area, and I remember cleaning out the leaves and laying on the dirt because the smelling of eucalyptus from the trees and the feeling of the dirt on My face helped me feel grounded to something, something secure. I started crying. And I rolled over and I looked up at the sky and I said, God, why me? How did I end up here? I was. I was a loving, nerdy kid who just wanted to read National Geographic color books. How did I end up here, homeless pretty much sleeping in a park? And then I remember praying to God to help me. And I had this little tiny glimmer of like a candle being lit way at the other end of the room. That told me I was gonna be okay. I didn’t stop using that night. My life didn’t change immediately. But it’s that little, that little glimmer of hope. And these moments of magic of people coming into my life at the right time, that started making that candle brighter. And having that little bit of hope helped me not kill myself, one day at a time. So that’s the reason I wrote my book. How do you go from sleeping in a park, under a bush strung out on crystal meth and heroin, to graduating from Harvard, managing multimillion-dollar philanthropic investment for various foundations, helping build the light rail system in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and bringing communities together. Managing over a billion to a billion dollar in public financing resources for affordable housing across the country, if not for hope. Because people like Jo-Anne stately people like you believing in me, and it’s my duty to believe in others, and encourage them to not give up. And try to make sure that that little light on that candle doesn’t go out. That’s why I think hope is important. And I’m crying and not because of a trauma. It’s okay for me to cry. I have friends that call me chio’ and cry baby, I cry when I get the sense of hope. That I know that my intention is having an impact. And I can at least help one other person. When I get a DM of someone telling me thank you for telling your story. I relate. And so that’s why I hope for me is important. Barack Obama talked about it in his book. You know, so? Yeah. Wow.

Chanda Smith Baker  57:59

I mean, it could seem like such a passive word. But it is a word that can keep one foot in front of another. Whether you are on the streets or whether or not you’re in a boardroom or whether or not you are at home. You can have an overwhelming sense of where do I go next. And there’s just a little glimmer of something that says, I can go here next, it may not feel significant. But there were a lot of ,maybe what have seemed, insignificant steps that amounted to a lot for you.

Jesse Leon  58:40

Tell it, tell it. You hit it. Yeah. And it’s those insignificant moments that I’ve been able to look back on. Literally part of the journey of writing my memoir and even reading it on audiobook if you haven’t listened to the audible oh my god, the audible I have. I mean, I put my heart and soul into that audiobook in both English and Spanish. The Spanish version comes out in January. So cathartic, so healing for me. And I’m able to look back at those moments of magic. Like my sponsor, my first sponsor, this African American guy who looked like Debo from Friday. Very like buff, hypermasculine, who just loved me in a caring way, without judgment. I didn’t tell them I was dealing with my sexuality or identity issues until over a year into working together on step work. And even then I’d feel him out because that’s what we do when we go through trauma. We try to feel somebody asks you what their reaction is going to be. And we either stop and don’t go further. Or depending on how the reaction is if we feel safe, will disclose a little more. Pause. Okay, I can disclose a little more. He loved me, for me that black man taught me how to be a man in recovery and how to build a foundation made of stone in recovery. That’s paved the way for me to be the man that I am today. And I’m eternally grateful for him. However, that significant moment, was my last night using, chapter 15, I believe, when he actually picked up the phone at like, 11:30 at night, when he would have been asleep with his wife and his kid, because he was a drug and alcohol counselor, worked long hours. He picked up the phone and he wasn’t angry. Why are you calling me this late? Like, hello, I’m crying. I said, I don’t want to live like this anymore. Why does this keep happening to me? Why am I living this life? Why is my life so F’d up? And he said, You don’t have to live like this anymore. He said I got you. You lost the war. Jesse, not just the battle, but you lost the war. Give up, bro. Quit trying to control your drug use. I got you. That little moment. That little moment, which is why I try to communicate why it’s so important. Just sometimes hang in there a little bit after that pause. Allowing people to have that moment can be so impactful in changing somebody’s life. And I had so many of those come into my life with the most beautiful people, Jo-Anne Staley in Minneapolis-St. Paul, when I’m thinking, Oh, God, I can’t I can’t do this. It’s just way too much.

Chanda Smith Baker  1:02:00

We can definitely have part two on that journey. We have to wrap I don’t even want to wrap. But what I will say is, thank you for just in this conversation, the reminder that we are all more than what we see. Right? The significance of seeing someone, the importance of holding on past the pause. I mean, I love that, right? Because we can be so busy. And we can actually sense when something’s not right. And we make a decision in that moment. Are we going to care for the person? Or are we going to continue with the task? There’s decision points. There’s inflection points all day long. And even as you were describing that I was thinking of all the kids in school, that are trying to find someone to tell something to that we’re so busy managing that we’re not relating. And as they’re seeking were safe spaces, I hope that we are creating more and more safe space for each other to evolve. Because clearly, when people can evolve, they get to some great places. And they’re able to impact beyond what they could imagine. And ways that they could have never even dreamed of. Because once you start once you start moving it’s hard it’s hard to start momentum when you when you get it. I’m so grateful for for you your life, your your commitment to others, because without the commitment to others, you would not have shared your story. “I’m Not Broken” a memoir, Jesse Leon, you touch on enough that I hope everyone is curious enough to go and buy the book and read it. It is not an easy read. But it was harder for you to live it. It provides dimension and understanding of what it takes to move through something to move from survival to thriving. I just I appreciate you. So, thank you.

Jesse Leon  1:04:12

Thank you so much, Chanda, for having me on your show on your podcast. And somebody said hope because you kept talking about evolve. Somebody said hope is helping other people evolve. And I don’t know how I feel about it yet. But thank you what I need from individuals that are listening to this podcast because I’m learning how to ask because it’s not easy for me as a survivor of sex trafficking to ask is if you hear of any public speaking opportunities and philanthropy where I can continue to carry my message at Council on Foundations, Hispanics in Philanthropy conference, Native Americans in Philanthropy are just regional events. Please keep me in mind And I’d be happy to especially linking my experiences and my professional background, read the book, buy a copy for someone that you think might enjoy listening to it on Audible or on audiobook or reading the book physically, or an eBook, to read a review. Reviews really, really matter. And I’m new to social media. I don’t know anybody on booktalk helped me just get the word out. It’s not about sales for me, as much as it is to try to have a broader reach, so that other people don’t experience what I do. And that they also continue to have that glimmer of hope. So, thank you, Chanda, so much for having this heartfelt conversation with me. I really feel like I made a new friend and an ally and give Jo-Anne a big, big, big hug and kiss.

Souphak Kienitz  1:05:54

If you enjoy this show and want to learn more about what we do here at the Minneapolis Foundation, please visit us online at And of course, if you want to follow Chanda or the Minneapolis Foundation on Twitter or Instagram, that’s ChandaSBaker or MPLSFoundation.

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About Our Guest

Jesse Leon

Jesse Leon is a social impact consultant to foundations and investors on ways to address issues of substance abuse/addiction, affordable housing, and mental health. He is a native English and Spanish speaker and fluent in Portuguese. He is an alum of UC Berkeley and Harvard and is based in San Diego.

Read Jesse’s recent op-ed in the San Diego Tribune about America’s Fentanyl overdose epidemic. You can also find Jesse on the following social media platforms:

Twitter: @JesseLeonAuthor
Facebook: jesseleonauthor
Instagram: jesse_leon_author
Where to purchase his book: I’m Not Broken