My name is Temesgen Tocruray and I was born in Berkeley, California and grew up in Dallas. Growing up I played basketball, football, baseball, and I was in ROTC. I got into modeling when I was fifteen, and did a few stupid things like that. I was also really academic—I tried to make all A’s and B’s. I went to college at Texas Southern. My dad always said to study something that you like, so I decided to study theater. Being on stage helped me with my confidence, it helped me to read and to enjoy reading, and it helped me with my speech and speaking in front of people. It really developed me into the person that I am today.
After I graduated college, I sold my motorcycle and moved to LA LA Land! I had some great times and some bad times in L.A. I did the super extra thing for a while, and I booked a couple of things here and there. But I found Hollywood to be a very racist place. I remember once auditioning for a top agent. I had on a full black suit and glasses. I did a Brutus monologue and an August Wilson monologue. It was a top agency, and afterwards they looked over my headshot, which showed me smiling with my glasses on, and were like, “You know, we’re looking for something more like ‘The Wire’—do you have any tattoos you can show? That’s what we’re really looking for.” And it hurt me a lot that they just wanted to erase me and put something else on me. It taught me something about how the world views me as a black man. Not just Hollywood, because Hollywood is just a reflection of what the world thinks and what the media portrays. I ultimately decided LA was not going to be a place for me to create great art, so I moved here to New York.
Once in New York I eventually ended up working at Rikers for many years as a teaching artist, and I had a certain connection with that population. I ended up doing a workshop at Fortune Society with the college program, and I knew I wanted to work there. So I started researching, and when the position opened up for Recreation Coordinator, I said I’ll do it! As long as I can help these men develop. I’m really feeding my own spirit and soul doing this work. It’s also helped me to just settle down. Before, I always kept my bags packed. If I booked a show, I was out. If I got a film, I was out. So it really helped me to settle down and just breathe. I feel it’s my duty to do everything I can so that if just one individual says, “This isn’t for me. I want go to school, I want to get my CDL and become a truck driver, I want to be a cab driver,”…anything else outside of the life of crime, then I feel that I did something right. I’ve got several cousins and friends who I’ve watched get locked up and get out again and again and again. I think it’s a vicious cycle, and for us to sit around and not do anything about it, we’re just as guilty as the people committing the crimes and the people locking them away. The sad, sad story is that there’s no rehabilitation in prison. I think Fortune Society offers something amazing to the clients. But if I offer you a million dollars, and you don’t realize it’s a million dollars, if you think a million dollars is only five dollars, you might not fight for that million dollars. So we have to change the system and change the way people think, not necessarily give them more options. But for those who want to take advantage, I think Fortune Society offers a lot to them. We have a lot of success stories.
My biggest influence growing up was my dad. I didn’t realize it growing up, but my dad was doing what I’m doing now; when he picked my friends up and took them to basketball practice or took them to football practice, he didn’t ask for any gas money. If we went to eat, they ate with us. That simple step was helping someone out. He’ll help anybody. And the funny thing is, my grandfather back in Eritrea was doing the same thing that I’m doing now before he died. He was helping recently incarcerated people find housing and get help. That same sense of charity has rolled down to me.