A native New Yorker, Marvin Pierre knows all too well about the impact that mentorship can play in a young Black man’s life. In fact, his life may have taken a different turn if it wasn’t for the men that played a role in his life as a young boy. Knowing that, Pierre began developing 8 Million Stories during his year as a TNTP Bridge Fellow. Now, the program has helped hundreds of black youth and boys build meaningful relationships in their community, develop critical life and job skills, continue their education and secure meaningful employment. It’s safe to say his mission to become a change agent is being fulfilled. And there’s no stopping him anytime soon. The next step for this Alpha Phi Alpha member? Opening a K-8 school for young boys of color in Houston, Texas. In this interview with ESSENCE, Pierre speaks about the impact that our prison pipeline has on young Black boys, and how he hopes to change that through his organization, ‘8 Million Stories.’ ESSENCE: You have an interesting career trajectory — starting in finance, and then transitioning to education. What sparked that shift? MARVIN PIERRE: I started at Goldman Sachs, which gave me good career experience. But it was short-lived because of the financial crisis in 2008 and ultimately left me unemployed. I got laid off, and was in a really unique place in my life where I was trying to decide if I should stay with finance, or pursue something that I was passionate about, which was working with kids — mainly young boys. My best friend from prep school was a principal in a Brooklyn elementary school at the time. She reached out to me because she knew I wasn’t working, and asked me to come talk to her boys. She said, “They don’t take school seriously. You came from where they came from, and you beat the odds. You can hopefully inspire them to do better.” The talk went really well, and I really connected with the young men. As I was hanging out in the classroom, I stumbled upon a chart in the classroom that represented the reading level of the boys in the class. It was a class of fifth grade boys, and the highest number was a 3. I knew what that meant for the young men in terms of outcomes, you have a higher chance of dropping out of high school, or being involved in the juvenile or adult criminal system. At that time I decided it was time to take a leap of faith, and get into the education space. ESSENCE: How did the idea for 8 Million Stories come about? M.P.: Vanessa Ramirez (the co-founder of 8 Million Stories) made me aware of a big issue in our city of Houston, which is the school to prison pipeline. I didn’t know a lot about it, so I did my own research, and found out that on an annual basis we refer almost 12,000 young people between the ages of 10 to 18 to our juvenile system. Oftentimes, they’re for non-violent offenses, or minor offenses that happen everyday in the school — a fight or doing something they just shouldn’t have done. Instead of those kids being reprimanded with suspension or in school suspension, they’re being referred to our local juvenile facilities. I realized that kids were not only being referred to the system, but that there were a lot of barriers to re-entry for those kids. Mainly from our school districts, who wanted to keep those kids out, because they labeled them as “troublemakers.” We began to see in the data that because the kids couldn’t go to school, they didn’t have any means for employment and they ended up back in juvenile facilities within 3 months. That’s how the idea of 8 Million Stories came about. We wanted to create a direct way for kids who were told no from our school systems, that we’d provide with an opportunity to further your life and get on the right track. We created a program that gets kids involved in the juvenile system, a direct way to get their education completed, and also give them vocational training and focus on the most important thing that most kids who’ve been involved with those systems deal with: the trauma that they carry every day. Through our social and emotional learning in our program, they deal with group therapy and intensive therapy sessions. We work to heal those kids so that as they transition into other communities and spaces, they’re able to leave their past experiences behind and move forward. ESSENCE: How did you realize that this was your purpose? And how can other black men tap into realizing their own purpose? M.P.: My purpose was defined for me in moment when I was in that classroom and looked at the chart of 5th grade reading levels for those young black boys. I thought back to my early childhood — I had a mentor named Dr. Stan McFadden, and had a chance to go to a boarding school in Cape Cod, Massachusetts called Tabor Academy. He was one of my mentors that I think really helped me to navigate life and really see that despite all of the challenges that I had to overcome, I still could be successful. One day he said, “Marvin, I want you to know that you’re going to be successful, no matter what you do in life. But I want you to always remember that as you climb up the ladder of success, to look back and pull up another.” I never knew where that would play in my life until I walked into that classroom. I kid you not, I looked at the chart and said, “Wow. This is what Dr. McFadden was talking about.” That moment when I stared at that chart, I was almost in tears, because I knew what their reality was. There’s never been a day where I’ve second guessed the career decision that I’ve made. I’m living my purpose and my passion. For our brothers, it’s so important for us to be self-reflective in terms of what legacy we want to leave. How will people remember you?