Get to Know Alfonso J. Mayfield
AM: I am originally from Milwaukee, WI. I grew up in Milwaukee’s inner city. And like the story of many inner city kids, I grew up around a lot of crime, drugs, dysfunction, violence, and poverty. I had a big family, three brothers, three sisters, although we didn’t all grow up in the same household. Primarily, it was a loving household thanks to my mom, but my dad wasn’t there very much, and when he was, he displayed abusive behaviors and didn’t support the family the way he should have. It’s funny because at the time, I didn’t look at this as a bad thing—it was just the way things were, the way my life was. My family was very close, and I was kind of a quiet kid and sort of stayed to myself. I liked to draw, to write, and I also liked basketball. I was good at it—I was successful in high school, and I got a partial scholarship offer to play in Mankato at Bethany Lutheran College. Actually, I was very lucky to receive an offer to play basketball. All through high school, I knew I wanted to go to college, and I knew I was supposed to go to college, but I didn’t know how to do it. It’s funny to me now, but I didn’t know what that meant and what steps to take in order to get there. I thought that going to college was the natural next step, and so I didn’t even fill out any applications—I didn’t know that was necessary. If it hadn’t been for basketball, I may not have gone at all. I was very fortunate.
Alfonso, Tell us about your journey!
What happened next?
I was given the scholarship opportunity, and so I went off to Mankato. One of my older brothers was supposed to come with me, but actually, the day before we were supposed to leave, he decided to go to Brainerd, MN, where he got a scholarship. I was devastated. I was in this brand new place, all by myself, hesitant to leave my dorm, and I was miserable. I received a very, very warm welcome, but I was terrified to be away from home. I didn’t want to be away from my family. I wasn’t very big on change—and at the time I didn’t even understand the benefits of being at school. For the first couple of weeks, I didn’t want to leave my dorm room—my team mates had to come and bribe me just to play ball. I didn’t want to do anything. But they were persistent, and they eventually got me out and I warmed up to it. After the first year, I was happy to be in school and on a new adventure. Now when I look back at it, it was the best decision I’ve made in my life.
How did college change the way you perceived the world around you?
As I left, I began to see new things: I was used to an impoverished community and I was used to unhealthy relationships—as I look back, I can call it that now. I was used to single parent families, to verbal and physical abuse, crime, drugs, and kids with very little ambition. And that wasn’t present in Mankato, and I started to look at life a little bit differently. I started to question my upbringing and the things that I was used to. I began to ask a lot of questions: Maybe what I known life to be wasn’t healthy, maybe the things I saw weren’t right? The biggest impact on me was that I started to see professional men—family men—and how they interacted, you know? I can’t really say that I had an influential male role model growing up. There were men that I looked up to—mostly my oldest brother. But other than him, I idolized business people that I have never met like Jaz-Z and Warren Buffett. But I looked up to these professional men in Mankato and admired them for different reasons: not necessarily for their lifestyle, but for how they interacted, how people admired them, their personalities.
I didn’t have that positive influence when I grew up: the men in my life were alcoholics, womanizers, and drug dealers. There were no happily married couples in my family, or even in my view. But when I was in Mankato, I began to see that. I began to see professionals, I began to see men with dreams. I began to see men take care of their kids and be loving husbands. I started to see how men took care of their wives and cherished them. It was beautiful, but as simple as it may seem, it was brand new to me. I really admired it. So I started to really question everything: what was I going to do with myself? I knew I didn’t want to get back to Milwaukee and fall victim to the environment as so many had. It wasn’t always bad, and it wasn’t like everybody was in the streets, but most people struggled. Most of everyone I knew was living close to poverty level and no one was really trying to break out of that. And I wanted more for me and my future kids. I didn’t want them to struggle.
Did you struggle with confidence when growing up?
I can say that I was confident kid to a certain extent. I wasn’t very influenced by others, and I was very good at staying away from harmful things around me. But I can also say that I struggled with my own identity. Especially as a young black kid going to go school in the suburbs with predominantly white students, I didn’t have a strong identity. I didn’t understand why I would go to school and my friends were all well taken care of, they had big houses, they got cars on their 16th birthday, they didn’t want for anything. And I didn’t understand why I was the complete opposite—I wasn’t comfortable, because I wasn’t like them. It was struggle for me—I didn’t want to be that poor black kid. Don’t get me wrong: I was always popular, but I was trying to hide the fact that my family was broke. I put this mask on, and I was trying to be something that people wanted to see. This was primarily because I wasn’t given the knowledge and guidance of my history and the way the world is. Like many of our kids today, I knew nothing about history and heritage. I was never given the strength to face many of the social situations I was in. I, later, built that strength through my efforts to educate myself.
Let’s talk a little more about college. What did you study and what did you do after graduation?
I went to school originally to be a doctor, and after my first year, I gave that up. My second aspiration was to become a businessman, and to run my own business, so I began to pursue that and I got my degree in Business Administration. But after graduating, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I began working in retail: I was a manager at Kohl’s department store. I thought it was great: I was making good money out of college, and it was a track to eventually running my own business. This was around the time my mom was sick. My mom had been sick for most of my life: she battled with cancer, and even though she beat that, she was often in the hospital. My mom was our support system. If it hadn’t been for her, we wouldn’t have had much. So I moved back to Milwaukee to help take care of my mom, because her condition was getting worse. I began working with a marketing company, creating marketing campaigns for clients such as Sears. Afterwards, I went back to retail and managed a clothing store. Again, I was thinking: This is good, it will help me run my own business
Let’s talk a little more about college. What did you study and what did you do after graduation? Continued...
I was working there for a little less than a year, and then my mom passed in 2010, which hit our family very, very hard. My mom was the glue for our family—she brought everyone together, and everyone admired her. Months later in the same year, my older brother was shot and killed. Needless to say, 2010 was a rough year for my family.
During that time, I left the retail store, because I just wasn’t happy there. A friend of mine told me about a position at the Boys and Girls Club. I’ve always wanted to do something for my community, my neighborhood, and communities like mine, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. The position was a significant pay cut, but I needed to do something different. So I went for it and I began working with high school kids, working to secure internships and jobs for them, and giving them training and workable skills. It was great—I loved it! I fell in love with those kids, and I fell in love with working with them, and I said: Okay, well this is something that I can do.
I was working in that position for a couple of years, but I always knew I wasn’t going to stay in Milwaukee. I only stayed as long as I did because of the compounding deaths occurring in my family. And so when things began to settle, I moved to the Twin Cities, which was my original plan after I graduated from college. There was a similar position open at Urban Ventures Leadership Foundation as I had worked at the B&G Club, so I applied to be a Job Developer. I took a leap of faith and moved out to the Twin Cities, without even being offered the job. But eventually, I did get that call from Urban Ventures and I got the job. I wasn’t working with kids but with adults who had some sort of barrier to employment, whether it was addiction, or lack of skills, or a previous conviction. I enjoyed doing that, and I was promoted twice: I went from a Job Developer to Supervisor, then to a Director. I was there for three years. I also tried to get involved more with the community: I joined the board of Oasis for Youth, which finds resources for homeless suburban youth. Urban Ventures is a great organization, but I wanted to get back to working with kids, and working with youth. I then stumbled across Rêve Academy, and the Director, Student-Run Businesses sounded like a great fit, which would allow me to work with students, and apply some of my business background.
It sounds like you are really passionate about working with students.
I decided a while ago that I wanted to be a role model for inner city youth. I wanted to be that guy that could change a kid’s outlook on life, as I once saw. That someone who can inspire kids, and that tells them that they can be more than their past. You can be more than what you are used to, and the world is a whole lot bigger than what you may see and your opportunities are, as corny as it is, endless. And that’s the truth. It’s tough hearing that when you are kid in the inner city, because you don’t see it, and it isn’t real to you.
Somewhere along the way, you also got your MBA, right?
Yes! My mom had always wanted me to get my Master’s. At the time, I didn’t know why, but I do now. So I graduated 2014 with an MBA in Business Administration. One thing I want to do is always to continue to invest in myself, and to continue to learn and be a life-long learner. I even considered going back to school for my PhD.I don’t know what I would do with it, but I just want to continue to learn.
I originally did it for my mom, and now it is something I am very glad I did. Then I realized it is right on the path with what I wanted to do as far as breaking my own cycle within my own family, having been there and wanting to provide more for my own kid. I did have a daughter in 2011, she is five years old now. She is my heart. To do whatever I need to do, so that she will never want for anything, and so that I can teach her things that I had to learn on my own. I am excited to be a father. I think it’s the most important job on this earth. A lot of the issues and problems you see in the inner cities stem from fatherless homes. That’s another reason why I want to be that role model for the kids. I am not trying to be someone else’s dad but I want to be that positive male influence that could help break their own cycle. If we can just begin to start to think that way, we can change our cycle. And sometimes it doesn’t take much–maybe it’s just going college, or getting your graduate degree, or maybe it’s getting out of the city just to see other things. It doesn’t take that much. It takes commitment, and it takes the willingness, and if we just begin to think in those ways—I want different, I want more—we can start to break our own cycles. And I am saying this like it’s easy, but’s really not, because that cycle is what we know, it’s what we’re inherently taught.
Family, for one. I see these kids, they are out running the streets, and I was the exact same way. If it hadn’t been for my tight-knit family, I don’t know if I would have been able to, I’ll say, make it out. They were my inspiration, and I see them and I say, man you guys are awesome. We just didn’t have the resources, we weren’t living the American Dream. I wanted to be someone who can help my change family’s path, and even break that cycle. My family was very motivational for me, especially when I had my daughter in 2011. It made me think: wow, I am responsible for this human being, and I am going to be a huge a factor in how this human being turns out. That’s a huge, huge responsibility. I want my daughter to have all the opportunities in the world.
What have you found to be the most important value that helps you achieve your goals?
What are you most looking forward to in creating SAFE Homes?
I am looking forward to putting dreamers on a pathway to success. I am looking forward to helping in opening up the world for troubled youth. I am looking forward to helping them break their own cycle, and even giving them the inspiration to dream, and daring them to dream. And I am looking forward to ten years from now connecting with these kids and hearing their story. I know that SAFE Homes is going to have a huge impact on this community, and on these kids, and I am looking forward to hearing these stories ten years from now. It’s going to be awesome.