From left: Sam Vaughn, Deandre Johnson and Michael Kenneth Williams
From left: Sam Vaughn, Deandre Johnson and Michael Kenneth Williams

Changing the System That Raised You

By Bradford William Davis


Deandre had the look of someone at home at The Whitby, a luxury midtown Manhattan hotel. Dressed in pristine white sneakers, matching jeans with styled rips along the knees, and a crisp button-down shirt, his dress exemplified the fashion-forward attire of many in attendance at a special screening of “Raised in the System,” the premiere episode of VICE’s sixth season.

But Deandre wasn’t invited as a member of the press or as a high ranking representative for VICE Media — he was one of the young men profiled in the episode, an “at risk” youth from Richmond, California, proximate to gang-related gun violence.

Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire, The Night Of) serves as a special correspondent in “Raised in the System,” reporting from juvenile detention centers, street corners and elementary schools about the United States’ disproportionately high youth incarceration rate while seeking solutions that might help kids stay out of prison.

“Where I’m from, you don’t have doctors, lawyers, or nothing,” Deandre said. “You had drug dealers, gang bangers, stuff like that.” His bleak survey of his community is made plain in the episode, by the bullet holes decorating his garage door, a snapshot of his environment filmed during his introduction to Williams.

Williams discussed his desire to help more young people like Deandre avoid the system. In a post-screening Q&A with bestselling author Wes Moore, who himself was incarcerated, Williams lamented the “generation of young people” lost to America’s prison system. “How can this not matter to me?” Williams asked, recalling his own dalliances with juvenile courts, and the family members and friends that spent decades in jail. “How can I not leave breadcrumbs for the next generation? I couldn’t look myself in the mirror [if I didn’t help].”

Success is using what I have been given through my career for the good of my community.
- Michael Kenneth Williams

For Williams, “getting out the hood and never looking back” is not an option. Williams told Moore that success means being welcomed back to help the blocks where he grew up. “When I go back to my streets of Nostrand Avenue, of East Flatbush, of Vanderveer [the housing project Williams grew up in], the love I receive from my community, that’s success for me. They’re still happy to see my crazy butt!”

“So what if I’m on television?” Williams added. “That has no bearing on them if I’m not tangible and accessible. Success is using what I have been given through my career for the good of my community.”

Though Deandre was celebrating the premiere thousands of miles away from his community, his heart wasn’t far from his hometown. Deandre works as a mentor for Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety, the program that saved him, helping change the system that could have easily ensnared him. He hopes anyone, particularly those with a background like his own, will learn about his turnaround so they might find hope for themselves. “I want everybody to see ‘Raised in the System,’” he said. “Especially people that are incarcerated.”

So yes, Deandre looked like he belonged at The Whitby — but he has other places to be.