IYW Shawn Blanchard Portrait Shot

Story highlights

Shawn Blanchard once aspired to be a rapper and drug dealer

A part of his transformation began when one brother died in a drug deal and another went to prison

Blanchard served as Detroit's Director of Youth Services for his city he created 5,600 jobs for Detroit youth

Now, Blanchard is the city of Detroit's liaison to President Barack Obama's My Brother's Keeper Initiative and will release his first book How 'bout that for a crack baby: Keys to Mentorship and Success "

CNN  — 

Looking at Shawn Blanchard today, it’s hard to believe the polished, well-spoken University of Michigan grad and Detroit city official once envisioned a life as a kingpin drug dealer.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” he laughs.

For Blanchard, these words are more than a personal motto – they are a heartfelt mission to those in need of change. The Detroit native is now dedicating much of his life as a mentor helping men and women to set goals and tap into their fullest potential.

As a child, Blanchard’s childhood was anything but traditional. He says he was born with drugs in his system to a mother who supported herself by shoplifting and to a father he barely saw.

With both parents unable to care for him, Blanchard was given to his paternal grandmother. He says, it was his grandmother who taught him the importance of having an education.

“My grandmother was always demanding when it came to school,” he recalls. “She made sure school was at the forefront of my mind.”

However, despite her efforts to keep him on track, Blanchard says his life was instantly “turned upside down” when his grandmother passed away.

“She was the rock of my life. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

At 12 years old, Blanchard was on his own.

“I became an old man at the age of 12. I had to be pretty independent,” he remembers.

After his grandmother died, Shawn says he on his own. At age 11 he learned how to sell drugs.

His two oldest brothers, who were Detroit drug dealers, were his role models.

“One of my brothers was considered one of Detroit’s most notorious drug lords,” he reveals.

“He had it all … I wanted to be just like him,” he says. “Once my grandmother was gone, there was no filter.”

In a neighborhood saturated with gang activity, drug sales, and crime, Blanchard says successful professional role models were hard to find.

While there were some blue-collar factory workers in the community, he admits they didn’t share the same wealth and lifestyle that his brothers had.

“The same things you would see celebrities on TV have, they had,” he says. “And, they had respect.”

Also, Blanchard couldn’t work in a factory at 12 – but selling drugs had no age requirement.

“I had this duality going on. I was this smart kid, but at the same time I was selling drugs,” he says. “I lived a double life.”

Blanchard says a part of his transformation happened when one of his brothers was killed in a drug transaction and the other was shot and went to prison.

“It didn’t look like it was going to end pretty well,” he says.

“I had to be a bit more strategic and make a choice. Am I going to do this the right way? Or am I going to do this the wrong way. So I started to focus on the right way.”

As a teen, Shawn once dreamed of being a drug lord. A part of his transformation came when one brother died in street violence and another went to prison.

After high school Blanchard went onto the University of Michigan. He credits the help of a high school counselor to get him get there.

“I always kept a 3.7 GPA with the exception of my 11th year,” he says. “That’s when the pressures of wanting to do the negative things in life started to get me.”

Blanchard says his counselor, a Michigan grad, became the “push” he needed to get through.

Blanchard graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in mathematical economics. After graduation he moved to New York City, got a master’s degree in secondary math education, became a high school math teacher and founded a mentorship program for young men. Through that program Blanchard says he became the legal guardian of a troubled teen who became senior class president and graduated high school with a scholarship to college.

After five years in New York City, it was time for Blanchard to return to Detroit. “I love my city,” he says. “The same way that I was giving to youth there, I can give to my family right here.”

He went on to serve his city as the director of youth services where he oversaw youth initiatives under the mayor’s office. In his tenure Blanchard created 5,600 summer jobs for young people by working with Detroit businesses.

In this role Shawn also served as a “Big” or mentor to 14-year-old Lance with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit. Blanchard and other mayoral staff participated in a unique initiative partnering the nonprofit with the Detroit mayor’s office.

Parents sometimes need help keeping their kids motivated and inspired.

As Blanchard says, “Everyone needs mentorship at every level. The affluent kid from some suburb needs to be mentored – it takes a village.”

“The tangible result that I have seen is a lot of self-confidence is built in the students,” says Clare Carr, site-based supervisor for Big Brothers Big Sisters Detroit. “The students are just very grateful for anyone who is willing to offer that (mentorship) in their life.”

Shawn graduated from the University of Michigan and became a respected high school math teacher in the Bronx, NY.

Recently, the 33 year-old community leader transitioned out of his role as director of youth services to pursue his passion of becoming a national spokesperson for mentorship with the release of an autobiography, “How ‘Bout That For A ‘Crack Baby’: Keys to Mentorship and Success.”

He continues to serve his the mayor’s office as the liaison to President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative for the city of Detroit—a national action plan to address the “persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” Encouraged within this federal initiative is need for mentorship.

“It is key that our young people see a living example of what they can do no matter what their life circumstances maybe,” Blanchard says.

The community leader hopes that by transparently sharing his story, youth will be inspired to reach their goals.

“…Their dreams are not just dreams but they can become a reality,” he says.

And for those who doubt they can, Blanchard has one simple message for them:

“There are no limits. We can do anything.”