Now a United States Court Probation Officer in Greeneville, Shaquana Kennedy has overcome challenges and beat statistics to fulfill her dream.
Kennedy shared her story and thanked those in the Cleveland community who helped her get there during the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Prayer Breakfast Saturday.
“Do not let your circumstances or your background define who you are; you have to move on from that,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy was primarily raised by her mother, as her father was in and out of jail.
“I grew up in the projects on 6th Street, government housing, and am proud of it ... That’s who I am,” Kennedy said. “I will never forget all of my experiences living on 6th Street and all those things that come with it.”
Kennedy attended Blythe Avenue School, the precursor to Blythe-Bower Elementary School. The students there were in the same economic situation as Kennedy and her family.
“That’s where all the poor kids went to school ... We didn’t have all the resources the other schools had, but we didn’t know we were poor because every one looked alike,” Kennedy said.
In middle school, Kennedy realized, “I don’t have anything. I come from nothing.”
“It was then that I began to develop this idea and mind frame that if I wanted something out of life I got to get — I have to go and get it. No one is going to give me anything,” Kennedy said.
Education became the avenue to advancement for Kennedy.
While she had good grades, Kennedy also got in trouble while in school. A day in a courtroom over a fight in school was “a turning point in my life to let me know I need to get it together.”
Adults at her local community recreation center and her youth group leaders at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church made a profound impact on her.
“They might not know it, but they put something in us that we took into our adult lives,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said she knew “if I want to make it out of the ‘hood, then I have to further my education and work.”
She got her first job at 15 and has been working ever since.
At the age of 16, she had a $240 car payment. She said this taught her responsibility and money management. She said this developed her work ethic.
“I had a dream. I had a work ethic. I was going to get there by any means necessary, any legal means,” Kennedy said. “I was focused. I have to get us out of the ‘hood. I have to get us to a better place... This is not how I want to live my life.”
A mentor at her church helped her with college visits and her application.
“I knew I wanted to be in a field where I could help someone,” Kennedy said.
She became interested in criminal justice and began working toward her bachelor’s degree.
She became a probation officer with the state of Tennessee for this area.
In her current role in Greeneville, Kennedy said she can talk to those on probation in a way they can relate to, while being professional, because she understands where they come from and what they are going through.
“I’ve learned they respect that, when I can get on their level and understand where they are coming from — not to be confused with being their friend,” Kennedy said.
“We come from the same communities and the same backgrounds, and that is not the life they have to have. I just want them to know that.”
Kennedy said she had cousins and friends who had been sentenced by the same judge for whom she now works.
She said if it was not for God, she could have been in the same situation.
“I am the product of two high school teenagers — unwed. I grew up in the projects. I went to the most impoverished school in Cleveland. I received every kind of government assistance there probably is. My daddy was in and out of jail then wound up in prison. I am not supposed to be sitting in the federal court room with the United States District Court judge [as a probation officer] because the statistics say that I’m supposed to be a high school drop out. I’m supposed to have three or four kids by three or four different men.
“I’m supposed to be a drug addict. I’m supposed to be on government assistance now,” Kennedy said.
“This is not where I’m supposed to be, but God ... God has led me, and God has guided me throughout this journey, and I won’t ever even try to pretend that I forgot where I came from.”
Kennedy said she hopes to move back to Cleveland one day and once again be involved in the community she grew up in.
The Community Prayer Breakfast was sponsored by the NAACP of Bradley County, 100 Black Men of Bradley County and Minister’s Fellowship of Cleveland-Bradley County.