Review Fix recently sat down with Author Wes Moore in Orlando after he finished giving a speech to over 10,000 students for the annual Phi Theta Kappa convention. This year, Wes Moore achieved a great deal of fame and popularity due to his book “The Other Wes Moore,” which chronicles his life as a troubled teen growing up in Baltimore to a successful global investment banker for Citibank on Wall Street, a White House fellow and an Army veteran, all of which is juxtaposed to another man named Wes Moore, who grew up in the same neighborhood around the same time, but whose life led to a different path due to poor choices. He is currently 31 years old, and in 2009 was named one of the “40 Under 40 Rising Stars” in Ebony. In 2007, he was named one of the “Top 30 Leaders Under 30” in Crain’s New York Business.
What led to the creation of your book?
The Baltimore Sun wrote an article in 2000 about how I received a Rhodes Scholarship. It’s an international postgraduate award for study at the Oxford University. In the article, they wrote about my childhood and some of the difficulties I had growing up. That same year, The Baltimore Sun ran a series of articles about another Wes Moore. He was from the same neighborhood as I was, grew up raised by a single mother and was roughly about my age, just a little older (about 35). The decisions he made landed him in prison, but I realized that his story could have been mine and my story could have been his. Our lives were eerily similar, and I decided to reach out to my namesake who had been put in prison for life for the murder of a police officer. I actually learned about him when my mother called me while I was in Africa for a study abroad program and read about him in The Baltimore Sun. Knowing how similar our paths were, I made the decision to reach out to him.
What is the purpose of your book?
When I began writing to Wes, I wanted to see what happened to him to lead him down that path. After about a year of exchanging letters, I began to visit him around 2001, and for the next six years I developed a bond with a man who seemed like my polar opposite to anyone looking on the outside, but was really no different from me.
“The Other Wes Moore” is a story about the letters and visits that we shared. It chronicles both our childhoods until this present time. I really wanted to know the differences between us and what happened to cause two dramatically different fates. The intention of the book is not only an exploration of the why, but a primer on how to help other Wes Moores. I felt like Wes and I shared much more than space in the same newspaper. What I discovered was that his story could have been mine and my story could have been his. I wrote it to understand our destinies, to explore larger questions like opportunities and fate and about our individual choices as well as our priorities as a society. I asked, “How we can affect the lives of people and challenge readers as to how we can make our communities better?” That’s why the book includes an extensive, 30-page list of organizations where readers can help themselves and others. I hope people use this book as a guide to shape their impacts on the lives of others.
I also wanted this book to highlight the critical work various service organizations around the country are doing on behalf of families, single parents, kids and veterans. I really want to applaud the services they provide, draw people who need help to them and encourage those who can donate time or funds to the organizations to do so.
What happened when you first wrote Wes? Was his reaction positive? Was he suspicious of you?
I wasn’t expecting to hear from him, honestly. In the letter, I asked him general questions about life in Baltimore and his life now, which in retrospect seemed a bit naïve. The letter he wrote back answered all of my questions. He told me that he appreciated the fact that I wrote to him because, as he puts it, “In prison, you feel like no one knows you exist anymore.”
What was the fate of “The Other Wes Moore,” and what did you realize about yourself through it?
Wes is now in the Jessup Correctional Institute, a maximum-security unit, where he is serving a life sentence without parole. Wes was convicted of murder. He and his older brother were suspects of a robbery, and when they were trying to escape, a police officer named Sergeant Bruce Prothero ended up shot dead as he tried to do his job. Sergeant Prothero was a father of five, and in my book I wanted to make it clear that it is he who is the victim, not I or Wes. Wes states that he is innocent, but my purpose of the book wasn’t to play judge or highlight who is the good Wes Moore, the bad Wes Moore. Like me, Wes grew up in a precarious community, and like me he grew up in a neighborhood that was literally working against him. He is no different from me, that’s what I realized.
What was life like for you growing up?
My father, who was a fairly popular news reporter at the time, died when I was 3, and my mother raised me and my two sisters all alone. We were financially stable till my father died, and then we moved to NYC and lived in the Bronx. My mother decided to send me to military school in Pennsylvania because I wasn’t doing well in school, was getting caught up with the wrong people. I didn’t really care at that point. I was hanging around kids who were spray painting graffiti all the time and actually got arrested because I hung out with them. After my mom threatened me several times about sending me away, she finally kept to her word, and before I knew it, at the age of 12, I was on a bus heading to military school. I hated it there so much – I tried to run away almost three different times. After being granted a phone call from my mother (which was rarely allowed), things were put in perspective. I told my mom I’m sorry for everything I had done, that I’ll be a better student and I’ll be a better son. My mother stopped me and she said, “You know, too many people have worked too hard to get you there, and your father is looking down and he’s proud of you. And we all just want you to give it a shot.” She basically told me that I had no choice but to stay because my family made a huge sacrifice for me to be there. I didn’t find out till I was older that my grandparents sold their home to help fund my education.
Once the year ended, I was doing well academically, tactically, athletically, and I was a real leader amongst my class group. And that was something that my mother always said. She said, “He always had leadership skills, he just was always channeling them in the wrong direction.” After graduating high school with honors, I entered college at Valley Forge and was a part of Phi Theta Kappa’s International Honors Society. Then I joined Phi Beta Kappa once I transferred to John Hopkins University.
How did you end up in the military?
Well, I started looking at different basketball scholarships and decided I wanted to join the Army. After the two years at Valley Forge I graduated as the regimental commander, which was the top ranking cadet in the entire school. I also started looking at where I was going to transfer to, because Valley Forge was only a two-year school.
So I received a commission in the U.S. Army, and at 19 I became an Army officer, and actually, I think at that time I was probably the youngest Army officer in the entire Army, and I also had an associate’s degree.
While in the Army, I started looking at different schools and applied to five, and actually got into all five. And then one of the schools I applied to and visited was John Hopkins. I loved that school, and decided to go there because I wanted to study international relations. Plus, it was in my hometown of Baltimore.
What did you enjoy about being in the military?
A lot of the male mentors that I had up to that point had been men in uniform because of Valley Forge. I didn’t have a father growing up, so they adopted that role and became family to me. I loved the leadership aspect. I loved the fact that, you know, you’re in charge of their health, their welfare, their development. And I liked that, I thought I was good at it. I knew how much people had sacrificed and suffered in order for me to get to the point that I was in, and I wanted to give something back.
You seem like an all around great guy. Do you have any flaws or vices?
Honestly, one thing I’m not good at is listening. I’m someone who, you know, gets so driven and focused on something that I don’t listen to people’s advice. That’s something that I’m definitely trying to work on. Also, since I’ve had multiple leadership roles, I have to understand that people are going to make mistakes and I have to be able to let them rebound from those mistakes and move on.
With the success of your book, what are you currently doing now?
Well, I had a huge interview with Oprah in April, which was a huge catalyst to spreading my message. I was also on “The View” to speak about my book. I’m pumped because I just learned that the book debuted on The New York Times Bestseller List at number five and on The Wall Street Journal Bestseller List at number five. I really can’t thank my supporters enough for their belief in the book and its mission. It’s turning into a true movement. I appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to speak about the book, as well as on NBC and CBS. I’ve been really blessed by the life that I’ve had. I was on the “Charlie Rose” show on PBS few weeks ago, which was an amazing experience. I’m also excited to be heading back down to my alma mater in Baltimore, and will be seeing one of the founding members of STAND, which is an organization we started years ago that works with youth in the juvenile justice system in Baltimore. Not to mention the good crab cakes. I’m flying out to L.A. in a few weeks and will be on KTLA Channel 5 Morning News, then will be speaking with the students at the New Designs Charter School right after. I’ve been really blessed by the people that have been involved in my life. They have really worked and tried to guide me and steer me in the right direction. Right now, I just feel very blessed and fortunate about all the things happening in my life.
What about NYC?
I still call NYC home and live there with my beautiful wife, Dawn, in Manhattan. My mother and two sisters stay in the Bronx, as well as other relatives. I actually still work for Citibank to the surprise of many; I just had to put in a couple of sick days.