From at-risk youth to visionary leader:         D. Dontae Latson shares how community makes a difference

Dontae Latson, President and CEO of YWCA McLean County
D. Dontae Latson, President and CEO of YWCA McLean County

How does a 10-year old boy with an arrest record find his way to a life of service, leadership and passion for building collaborative communities? A transformation like this may seem exceptional, but D. Dontae Latson is determined to make it the norm.

This personal story of resilience, compassion and “paying it forward” for future generations will be shared at the Multicultural Leadership Program’s (MCLP) graduation celebration by keynote speaker, D. Dontae Latson. Dontae currently serves as the President and CEO of the YWCA of McLean County.

The difficult circumstances of Dontae’s childhood could have led to tragedy, but a loving family and the confidence placed in him by others changed that trajectory and made him into the community leader he is today.

Dontae grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Seat Pleasant. During his childhood, he watched his hometown transform from an ethnically diverse family neighborhood to one ravaged by street violence and the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic.

His grandmother scrubbed and cleaned the U.S. Capitol building for over 35 years. Meanwhile, Dontae’s mother developed a drug addiction; and his aunt, with whom he was very close, passed away from complications of substance abuse. The streets held the constant allure of action, albeit imminent danger, as the corner in the front of Dontae’s home became a crack cocaine and prostitution strip.

Dontae recalls “running wild” without direction as a youth, doing poorly in school and being arrested by age ten.

But a few people made a significant difference in his life. His loving grandmother, strong family ties, and other caring role models ensured that Dontae chose different paths from the other youth he hung out with in the streets of Seat Pleasant and Washington, D.C.

In sixth grade his teacher, Beverly Johnson, told Dontae he could do better—and she helped him to believe it, too. Johnson took a genuine interest in his well-being. Suddenly, a “D” and “C” student was achieving “A” and “B” grades—all because one adult cared.

Dontae’s high school athletic prowess landed him a football scholarship to a small Division II university in West Virginia, but he dropped out after only one year, returning to Seat Pleasant. But one day a neighbor shared with him the sorrow his grandmother felt when she learned he had left college. The news hit him hard, and he decided to go back.

“She never said anything to me when I dropped out,” Dontae said, “but she was so overjoyed when I told her I was going to finish school…. I just felt I could not disappoint her. My grandmother was a very gentle soul — any goodness I have I got from her.”

Dontae enrolled at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, and earned his bachelor’s degree. While in his sophomore year, he received a call from his mother: his brother had been shot and killed in D.C.

Dontae was devastated. The following summer, he lost eight friends to violence. While he could not bring his aunt, brother, or friends back, he decided he could make a positive impact on the lives of others. Encouraged by a college professor, Dontae moved to Cleveland, Ohio to pursue a master’s degree in Social Science Administration, with a dual concentration in Management and Community Development.

After graduation, Dontae returned to Seat Pleasant. By that time, the constant violence in the D.C. area made it infamously known as the “murder capital” of the U.S.

After a long conversation with his grandmother about losing so many friends to violence and prison, Dontae decided to move to Charlotte, North Carolina, with his grandmother’s blessings. There, Dontae found friends and support. There, he became a leader and immersed himself in agency, government and hospital work. But a passionate desire to build community, and not just work for an institution, led Dontae to leave Charlotte for a less-well paid position in Bloomington, Illinois, a place where he felt he could make an ever larger impact.

“Things could have turned out differently, but my grandmother nurtured me, my mother overcame her addiction, my father was there for me, and I had friends, teachers and peers who encouraged me,” he said.

“I went from being an angry young man to someone who believes in the power of the indomitable human spirit, the beauty of community, and the strength of connectivity.”

Community — a nurturing place where people are accepted, loved and encouraged — can completely transform lives. Dontae’s story is but one of those transformations. There will be many more in McLean County, if Dontae has his way.

On April 25, 2015, come celebrate community and witness that future potential with D. Dontae Latson and the MCLP graduates. Hear Dontae’s story and discover how much this community has to celebrate. Come celebrate with us!