A young black man lies on the icy floor of a family friend’s first floor apartment. There is no heat, and temperatures in the house are below freezing. He is enrolled as an undergraduate student at DePaul. He is also homeless.
This young man will go on to becoming founder of Men of Vision and Empowerment (M.O.V.E), working as a youth organizer at Blocks Together on the city’s West Side, and furthering his education with the hope of becoming a candidate for Illinois State Representative.
As he approaches his commencement in the spring Edward Ward, now 23, reflects on the journey it has taken to get this far.
What’s revealed is the road to get there was not easy by any means.
Born and raised on the city’s West Side, Ward was a straight-A student. However, as he transitioned to DePaul, a heightened awareness led to a shift in his academic drive.
“When I was in high school I was surrounded by black students,” Ward said. “I knew I was black, but I didn’t have to think about it. The minute I got to DePaul, I was in a predominantly white class, where I was the only black student. I automatically felt I wasn’t smart enough to be here.”
Ward, being an individual who suffered from low self-esteem, began feeling very insecure about his racial status during his freshman year. As he struggled to find himself within the classroom, troubles at home began to grow.
“At this time I was in the middle of an eviction,” Ward said. “My mom was in and out of the hospital, so I had to take up the burden and go to court on my own, asking the judge to show mercy. They gave us a few weeks, and we get nowhere. We were forced in to the streets.”
A family friend graciously took Ward and his family into their home. Struggling to find a meal, he traveled door-to-door asking neighbors to help in any way possible. Barely making ends meet, Ward was then struck with yet another storm, heartache.
A breakup with his girlfriend sent Ward into suicidal depression.
“My self-esteem has been shattered at this point,” Ward said.
Just when life appeared to be unbearable for the young undergrad, a hero, by the name of Valerie Johnson, came to his rescue.
Johnson, who was one of Ward’s professors during his freshman year, was able to notice his potential and start pushing him in the right direction.
“Edward was a diamond in the rough, but he needed to be refined,” Johnson said. “We all live parochial lives in our various communities. You live in the hood, and your world is the hood. You go out in a more diverse atmosphere, and you can’t use the same attitude. Edward is the perfect person to illustrate why education is important. Education refined Edward.”
Ward recalls the conversation he had with Johnson that altered his way of thinking.
“I was failing her class,” Ward said. “She says to me ‘you can decide to drop out now, work a mediocre job, live a mediocre life and have mediocre babies.’”
Not wanting to have mediocre babies, Ward realized he didn’t want to settle. Being a man of God, he related his struggles to the Christian song, “What’s to Come Is Better Than What’s Been.” As that song played over and over in his mind, he asked himself, “if I ended it now, then where would I be?”
“My situation wins, I don’t win and I don’t like losing,” Ward said.
Having this mindset, Ward began looking for inner peace. Escaping the reality of his environment on the West Side is what allowed that peace to start forming.
“When I had those moments that I needed peace, I would often walk to the lake and just sit there,” Ward said. “I didn’t have to deal with looking outside and seeing people going through the struggle. Being here on campus, it was a different world.”
Ward utilized this time on campus to also begin discovering aspects of his identity. Not having to micromanage his loved ones allowed time to freely start questioning his manhood, something that had been tainted due to a traumatic upbringing.
“A lot has happened that has really scarred me. I didn’t grow up with a father. I was molested by a man who called himself a friend. I never connected with men, so I didn’t understand what it meant to be a man. Now, I take this time on campus to think about who am I,” Ward said.
Ironically, Ward accepted his father’s behavior, and contributes his absence to his growth as a person.
“I had a strange way of looking at things. I didn’t look at what my father did; I looked at what he didn’t do. I realized what I needed and didn’t have, and began to act on that.”
Having this self-awareness enabled Ward to start contemplating how he could help improve the mindsets of other young black men. Realizing the stereotypes plaguing his fellow brothers, he decided to create M.O.V.E, here on DePaul’s campus.
“When you look at me the first thing that comes to mind is possible criminal,” Ward said. “A lot of negative aspects of black men, very rarely do you find positive. I created M.O.V.E. to show that we are going to fight for our people. We’re saying we don’t want a seat at your table anymore. We’re building our own.”
Pastor Keith Baltimore, a minister in the Office of Religious Diversity, was asked by Ward to serve as his organization’s advisor. Believing in what Ward could accomplish, Baltimore gladly took the position.
“What motivated me is I saw what he was doing as an extension of what I would be doing if I were his age,” Baltimore said. “I’m a person of faith and he wanted to create this experience led by faith. I was jumping out of my chair. What came forth was amazing.”
Ward continues to educate and give back to his community through his position as a youth organizer at Blocks Together. Noticing the impact it had on him in high school, he shows youth the beauty of getting involved while not allowing judgment to precede understanding.
“I first came into contact with Blocks Together my freshman year of high school when CPS decided they would lay off all the staff,” Ward said. “It’s a way of holding elected officials accountable. They have neglected the communities and expect you to learn. Young people decide school is not for me. I’m lucky I was able to see things differently. They need more people that are going to reach out and see them.”
With his undergraduate degree now complete, Ward will be applying his assets towards graduate and law school with the hopes of representing the 10th district in the Illinois House of Representatives. Although it’s a long road ahead, he’s convinced that the payoff will be worth the fight.
“I decided that before I run I would make sure I have a strong base of support,” Ward said. “Running for office is in my near future, but I still have some work and personal growth that needs to happen. I believe that graduate school will assist in that personal growth.”
Baltimore was assured that Ward has nothing to worry about, believing his humble character makes him a perfect candidate.
“This is a man of faith,” said Baltimore. “He has that rare ability in leadership to show humility to make the adjustments, and still stay focused on a purpose. I think that’s important.”
As for a note to young black brothers who may have been or who are living in the same condition Ward had, he leaves with these remarks.
“I didn’t imagine myself being here. I didn’t even imagine myself finishing college. You have to know you are more than what people say you are. You have something unique. You are a black man. That is not your downfall. That is your advantage.”