Love, Legacy, and Lessons Learned on the Road with CEO Thomas Lee

Following the First Place for Youth retreat in Alabama, I continued to New York, Washington D.C., the Carolinas, and ultimately to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Georgia, I was moved by the spirit of our ancestors and their unbelievable resilience. I’ll preface my overall reflection with the dual heart-shaped symbol depicted in the picture below from the African Burial Ground in Downtown Manhattan. The symbol means “look/learn from the past to prepare for the future.” 

Heart-shaped symbols have been a recurring visual motif of late at First Place. It’s intentional. To many it represents love, but in the Ghanaian tradition the heart symbol means love and much more. Called an akoma, its literal meaning is “the heart” and the symbol represents love, unity, endurance, patience, tolerance, goodwill, and faithfulness. It also symbolizes tolerance in the face of frustration and stresses the need for patience. According to the Agbo people, a person who is very tolerant is one who is said to “have a heart in his stomach.” It is drawn as a union of two hearts and with it lies the secret of mutual understanding and lasting love. The heart serves as a part of all of us that elicits emotions making us more human and more connected. This kind of love runs throughout our work at First Place. I’ve seen it and felt among our teams and in the stories told by our youth. Why hide it? We need to celebrate it and be unashamed that it’s the critical ingredient of our secret sauce. We have it and it deserves to be nurtured and grown.  

The theme of love was ever present throughout our trip to the South. Even when faced with thousands of reminders of those who were lynched because of their skin and their audacity to fight for their humanity at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, we were grounded by the wise words of author Toni Morrison: “If our hearts are the prize, and I believe they are, then we cannot allow them to become hardened in any way.” 

At First Place for Youth, we’ve made it our mission to provide service and support to transition-age youth. The image below captures a moment when I broke the rules of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery by taking a picture. The image tells the story of George Stinney and the reprehensible way the criminal justice system treats some children. All children are children. It’s unbelievable that has to be said. Jail, prison, death, homelessness, and physical threats are everyday realities for many of our young folks. I’m sure it’s the same for some of our team members. This is no way to live, and this is what we are all fighting to change. 

“We stand on the shoulders of many who did so much with so much less. We resolve to honor their legacy and continue the struggle.”  This quote was placed prominently at the entrance to the Hall of Reflection in the Legacy Museum—an expansive room with over 1000 images of activists, revolutionaries, writers, artists, athletes, and politicians who were renowned for their willingness to question, to hold a mirror up to America and hold her accountable, to serve as prophetic voices, and challenge the status quo. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” These individuals here put their might into bending it to get us there faster! If they could do it, so can we!  


Thomas Lee, CEO 

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