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VOL. 43 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 22, 2019

Boy with a gun is now man with a plan to help at-risk teens

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The guy who long ago buried “Trigga” – his gun-slinging street name – is running a few minutes late because he’s straightening out a work-site problem concerning one of his employees.

In a couple of hours he must leave for a noon-hour meeting with a magistrate who will, he prays, expunge juvenile arrest records detailing his transition from vandalism to violence, from armed robbery to large-scale drug dealing. His path to becoming Trigga.

After that meeting at the Juvenile Detention joint downtown, Robert Sherrill will stick around, doing what he does at least twice a week. He’ll trek from pod to pod filled with youthful criminals, talk with them, embrace them, listen to them. It’s part of his post-Trigga life’s mission to show hopeless kids behind bars – where he was a regular “customer” during his youth – that there is a pathway, perhaps long and winding, but worth the struggle, on which they can flip their lives’ promise from darkness to dawn.

“They need hope,” Robert says, excusing himself for his tardiness and plopping in the comfortable conference room to describe, among other things, his own youthful hopelessness and its result.

“Trigga was my street name, because I always would tote a pistol, and people knew I would use it,” says this true gentleman, a kind and much-celebrated entrepreneur, role model and suburban husband and father. To him, “no child left behind” also means fighting the street-life-reinforced anger and rehabilitating the kids behind bars, reintroducing them to society as good citizens, fulfilling promise they don’t even know exists.

He’s his own visual aid in soft-spoken preaching of God and redemption during those jail visits, when he enters Metro classrooms and even when speaking with a cynical old journalist who has stepped in too much blood in the last almost-half-century.

Just by being him, rap sheet and all, Robert Sherrill – entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker, social activist and still-undefeated-champion windmill tilter – demonstrates there is hope, no matter how dark the horizon.

“I’m the poster child for this,” he says as we sit in the conference room of his cleaning company in an industrial park tucked a few hundred yards behind a Tiger Mart and a KFC, just off Harding Place near I-24 and nearer still to the Metro Police Department’s South Precinct.

That cop shop, of course, houses folks in blue who are his friends and partners in the struggle now, but who were his sworn enemies back when he was running the streets, nurturing a reckless lifestyle that led to his five-spot in a federal pen.

“I served my five-year sentence,” Robert, 36, says while taking this small breather from his hectic day of cleaning buildings, getting his record cleansed and saving young lives.

After his time with the jailed juvies, he has to come back to run his Imperial Cleaning Systems Inc. (he insists I use the “Inc.”), the company he created for himself because he knew employers frown on hiring felons. “And then I go home (to Sumner County) and be a husband and father,” he adds. “That’s just a regular day in the life of Robert Sherrill.”

His laughter is genuine, self-deprecating and infectious.

Robert began to map out business plans and life’s mission in the year after he took his biggest fall for trafficking cocaine. He was released and on the street for about a year – “working my way through the (justice) system,” awaiting conviction and sentencing – when he began chasing flickering hope he’d avoided so long.

He knew he needed to change so he didn’t die before he got old. He wanted to raise his family. He resolutely buried evil “Trigga” and began his mission to divert kids from following his blood-spattered pathway.

“During that year I was on the street, I had a job (in cleaning) and I started going to Juvenile and mentoring kids,” he recalls. “I knew that when I was released, I wouldn’t go back. I was going to help.”

The rest of his plan was worked out when he was in the Arkansas federal jail cell. Rather than use the prison experience as a “university” where he could graduate to a more successful crime life – the unfortunate path of too many shiv-waving incarcerated – he applied himself to learning business and figuring the details of how he could help young people escape the street life that snagged him when he was 13.

This father of five – ages 3-16 – was married to Paige when he was convicted in 2007 and locked up the year later.

“I was sitting in my cell, thinking about the mistakes I had made and making plans,” Robert says.

“I had a dad who died in prison when I was 16. I wanted to look to the future, change the fabric of my family’s legacy. That was the motivation.

“It wasn’t all about me. It was my family and what I was going to leave when I leave the earth, other than being a drug dealer in North Nashville and tearing down the community.”

He also plotted how he would climb over the figurative walls his violent life had built.

“I’m a convicted felon,” he acknowledges. “I knew before I was released it was going to be hard for me to get a job to provide a livable wage for my family.”

The cleaning business was a natural for him. He could be his own boss – erasing the job-interview castigation by “mainstream” employers. It also was a business in which he had worked during the time between his arrest and the day the judge punched his ticket to five years in the big house.

That planning paid off. After his 2013 parole, he couldn’t open any business right away but was required to work. He followed the parole board’s direction and had jobs at two Nashville restaurants. He says he enjoyed that work fine and, in fact, “I thought that after a year, I was going to run” one of them. “But after a year I was only given a dime raise, so I knew I needed to do something else.”

Robert Sherrill has traveled far from a federal prison to becoming an entrepreneur and a man who spends much of his time trying to save the lives of juveniles living the life he lived beginning at age 13. He also hires fellow felons looking for a step up after their prison.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

Hence the cleaning business – specializing in restoration as well as cleaning up commercial buildings and construction sites – was born. He employs 16 people – many former felons – in the field plus has a five-person office staff that also includes ex-cons celebrating redemption.

That office has been the HQ from which he has hatched dreams and schemes, authored an amazon.com best-selling memoir “The Journey Back to Now” and operates other hope-fueled ministries, such as “Imperial Cares,” to provide jobs and internships for, among others, Nashville residents enrolled in post-prison re-entry programs.

His successes and missions in the six years since he left the federal pen in Forrest City, Arkansas, include efforts in real estate, transportation and logistics. He also is a leader in various local entrepreneur-training programs. He is a paid inspirational speaker, traveling across the country “speaking about hope, redemption grace, favor and the ability to overcome.”

“I just got $5,000 plus transportation and expenses for a speech in Florida,” Robert says, adding those funds, like much of the profit from his other business efforts, are rolled back into his Impact Youth Outreach, which takes him and other entrepreneurs and leaders into 20 schools. There they provide ears, mentorship, detail opportunities for community service and help the kids learn life skills and gain upbeat life-views.

“So many of these kids are lost,” he explains. “I just want to focus on saving lives.

“I want to keep growing my business more into the direction of philanthropy,” with the primary target being helping these kids.

“I want to give back and mentor kids, give ex-felons a job placement.’’

Many of these felons, by the way, got their pre-prison training as lost kids – like he was – who grew up hopeless and graduated to lonesome, ornery and mean.

“These kids have been traumatized,” he says. “They have suffered from molestation, abandonment, physical abuse and neglect.

“I know, because I was there growing up.”

“My daddy died in prison when I was 16,” he repeats. “My mom was on crack cocaine real bad.” He suffered mightily from neglect, the fuel which helped lead him more than slightly astray.

Robert’s not the only one who worked hard to change that bitter scenario. He smiles when bragging that now his mom is “doing great, married, she has a good job and she’s been clean 15 years. We have an excellent relationship.”

Impact Youth Outreach’s second annual “A Night Among the Stars” fund-raising gala is scheduled for July 20, 7 p.m., at the Omni Nashville. All proceeds will go toward the 2019/2020 operational and programming budget. Tickets, $125, can be purchased at https://impactyouthnow.org/anats/

Freda Clay, his kind and forthright mom with a smile in her voice, is among his biggest supporters. “I think it is amazing,” she says of Robert’s post-prison accomplishments. “The whole time he was in this world, I thought he was amazing.

“Even when he was locked up, I would write long letters, tell him he was an anointed guy and God had big plans for him.”

She looks back to her own mistakes. “He was pretty much raising himself when he got out on the street. It started with my drug-addiction, of course.”

Freda allows that though debilitated by drugs, her mother’s love wasn’t vanquished. “I might have been out there on drugs, but I was still his mom. I still was worried. I still had concerns.”

Her well-armed son was running the streets of North Nashville, after all. Hardly a mom’s dreams for her offspring.

Robert details his descent. “I was left out to raise myself when I was 13,” he says. “My sister went to live with an aunt, and my brother went to live with Granny.

“But I was on my own, staying pillar-to-post, sleeping in cars, crack houses, occasionally at Granny’s or a cousin’s house.”

He was learning he didn’t matter. And that’s what triggered his immersion into the world of crime, a profession that saw him arrested, mugshot taken too frequently, as a youth. It prepared him for a career in more serious, “grown-up” crime and punishment when he was an adult. He shows me a gallery of mugshots that display his life from his first arrest through his “career” development.

“Look at how young that one looks,” he says, pointing to a fresh-faced little kid. It’s Robert, of course. Then he runs his finger through the other mugshots, showing an aging street punk, who sometimes even is smiling as if it’s all just a lark. That, of course, was Trigga.

“My first crime was when I was 13,” he says, leaning back in the chair in the conference room decorated with portraits of Obama, MLK, Malcolm and a mural celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation and showcasing key figures in the fight for equal rights. Muhammad Ali – a longtime acquaintance of mine who will forever be The Greatest – is there, standing over Sonny Liston. Miles Davis, Jack Johnson, M.J., Nat Cole, Angela Davis and scores more blacks of influence fill that picture.

“That first crime was vandalism of a building in North Nashville,” Robert recalls. There was no personal gain here, just boredom and hopelessness at work. “I didn’t have nothing else to do.”

“After that, the crimes got harsher and harsher.

Sherrill talks about hope with an audience of young people.

-- Photo Provided

“I was a runaway, trespassing, armed robbery, you name it. The robbery was of people on the street,” he says. No business stick-ups.

“After that I got into drugs, cocaine, possession for resale.”

He has difficulty remembering how many times he was arrested, leaning back in his chair and forcing fingertips together. “I guess 12-13 times. I was just living day-to-day. I didn’t think about the future. I was so hopeless.”

He was well-armed for misadventures. His primary weapon in those armed robberies was a .9mm Glock, a weapon symbolizing wealth and taste in the street-punk stratosphere.

As a felon, he is no longer allowed to own firearms. But when he was wild in the streets, “I used to tote all kinds of guns. Rifles AND handguns.”

He takes a little sidetrack here to talk about how the Second Amendment and the shameful proselytizing for unrestricted gun-power by lobbyists and the legislators in their pockets has helped create a world in which the housing project where he grew up was called, deservedly, “Dodge City.”

“That has been our downfall,” he says, speaking of both the kids of the projects and of the nation. I personally doubt that James Madison and his powdered pals meant that guns should be readily available for street punks and deranged mass-killer wannabes. Robert agrees with me.

If you can’t get guns at the big-box discount house or pawn shops, just ask around, he says, shaking his head. You’ll have no problem getting a gun.

“Watch what is happening now. It’s just sickening.”

Robert retreats to his own story after his emotional rant about the Second Amendment and the tacit endorsement of gunplay by Congress and the gun industry.

“As I progressed and got older in the street, I got real deep into the drug game,” he says. “This is where I caught my federal charges.”

That was his final time behind bars, he’s proving.

Not his first, though: That came when he was 16 and decided to rob a pedestrian, who turned out to be an undercover cop working a sting. “I got away from them, but they were very upset. They knew who I was, so they beat the crap out of me when they caught me.”

He spent two years in Taft Youth Development Center, where he earned his GED without learning that crime isn’t the ideal way for a kid – even one who believes himself bulletproof – to make a living.

His lifestyle caught up with him again when he was 22 and convicted on a drug charge that earned him a year’s room-and-board in Metro jail.

While he didn’t yet learn crime was a dead end, he did learn that none of the folks he encountered in the criminal justice system “were consistent. None of them really cared.”

“I was a hardened little kid who thinks he knows it all,” he says, adding that his mentorship program is to help fill that void of engagement, to walk with the young people “all the journey,” demonstrating the “care” he didn’t receive.

“I visit 200 a week in the schools. I listen, first to understand and then to be understood. I have a relatability element many (who are helping youth) do not have,” he points out.

“I try to be an influence in their lives, outside of rappers and professional athletes,” he continues. “That’s who they all want to be, think that’s the way out.

“I want them to know you can be a businessman. Entrepreneur.”

Basically, he’s trying to divert the kids from the dark side… or let them know there’s a way back if they’ve already crossed the line.

“I’ve been to prison. Look at me now,” he tells them. “Hard work and determination can change any outcome. I didn’t let it stop me.”

Robert preaches that Metro recreation programs need to catch up to the times, give young people what they want to keep them in a safe environment and not stealing, drugging and murdering or being gunned down on the streets.

“Kids are bored. There is nowhere to go but be mischievous in the streets. The community centers are not offering things that are relevant.

“Shooting pool and playing Ping-Pong was what we did, what we had,” he says, looking back at Trigga’s early years. Course now “Trigga’s dead. That’s what I said…” (to paraphrase Curtis Mayfield in the drug-fueled blaxpoitation film “Super Fly.”)

“The community centers don’t cater to (kids and teens) now,” Robert says. “They need video games. They need YouTube. TV runs our culture, so we cannot be stubborn and not acquiesce to the demands of the teens.

“Look where (ignoring those needs) has gotten us now. We need to create, be progressive for them, so they can come off the street and do things that are meaningful to them.”

He can see ghosts of old Trigga in some of the kids, those in schools and on the streets and those who are locked up.

In Juvie, he deals with, loves, all types of juvenile offenders, even “those who have committed the most heinous crimes in the Nashville area.”

“I try to give them something they probably hadn’t had in a while. I give them a hug,” he says. “These kids could have been my children.”

He advises compassion. “Before we point a finger at these kids, let’s see what path they have gone down. We have almost had to hold them to a standard of an adult, when their mental capacity is not developed.” Help them. Rebuild their souls. Don’t banish them to lives in incarceration hell.

Of course, he has had plenty of time to think about these things and how his own “upbringing” – as it was – turned him into a cold-blooded, almost-unreachable thug, going full-speed ahead toward a bullet from another punk or perhaps a law officer … saved only by a pair of handcuffs.

His past is real, but despite his personal reclamation, he has had difficulties in realizing all his dreams.

“When you are a convicted felon, you can’t get contracts. You can’t get nice apartments. … And then there’s the embarrassment of being put off a job site, even though I’m a CEO of my own company.

“They find out I’m a felon, and it’s ‘Sorry, Mr. Sherrill, you’ve got to leave.’” The dreamed-for better life is blocked by societal attitudes.

That is history now. “Twenty-four hours before Governor Haslam left office, he signed my pardon.”

With that in hand, Robert went to the district attorney’s office to petition successfully to have his state record expunged.

“That puts me on a level playing field,” he says, adding that right now he is waiting on President Trump to sign a federal pardon.

“I’m working on it,” he adds. “You never know with these things.”

Although he’s celebrating his cleaned-up record in Tennessee, he says that if Trump signs “I’ll feel like I’m a new birth, born again in the physical sense. It’s surreal to get a fresh start on life. To possibly be in that position is unimaginable. I can only hope and pray.”

He points to the framed Haslam pardon on the wall in the reception area. It’s the most important of his “prizes,” though he has been well-celebrated for his achievements and contributions.

“I was Nashville Business Journal’s 2018 ‘most-admired CEO,” he says. “I was the 2018 minority businessman of the year by the Nashville Minority Business Center, the Nashville Black Chamber 2018 Rising Star and I got the Power Move business organization’s 2018 best in entrepreneurship award.”

More still are on the walls and shelves of his company HQ.

R.I.P. Trigga.

Robert’s looking to the future, and he has a friend in high places. “God told me he sent me through what I went through for a reason,” he continues.

“God knew I would tell the story, about how it happened, to those who are stuck, who don’t believe there is life after a mistake.

“I want to save lives.”

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