High on Reading: “Freeway” Ricky Ross Talks about Literacy at San Bernardino Valley College

SAN BERNARDINO, CA — Sentenced to life in prison in 1996, “Freeway” Ricky Ross had time to confront one of his biggest problems, other than being a legendary kingpin. Ross spoke to an audience of community leaders assembled on the campus of San Bernardino Valley College.

Maximum security incarceration meant days without sunshine, but Ross kept his mind active through reading books, a total of 300. Whilst in the middle of a reading frenzy in the law library, he discovered facts about the law that helped to reduce his life sentence and get him out of prison in 2009. In addition, a reporter’s discovery that one of Mr. Ross’s connections was working for powerful domestic and Latin American forces, also led to a review of his case and a reduction of his sentence.

Fighting against illiteracy

It was in prison that Ross, now in his 50s, and a published author, tackled the problem of his illiteracy. Among one of his many favorites, the classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. Ross encouraged educators to find out what kids are interested in learning about, and then get them relevant reading materials in order to ignite their passion for reading.

He recalled school and wanting to play college tennis, but not being able to enter college due to illiteracy. There were no alternatives: no tutors, no development programs for youth with the desire to contribute positively to society.

Unfortunately, there were adults near schools who were willing to get kids set up in the drug business. This is something Ricky Ross thinks about today. “I never saw a lawyer before until one was representing me in court,” he said highlighting one of the biggest problems facing communities: lack of integration and lack of access to diverse people. This was echoed by one of his childhood friends in the audience who stated that without exposure to people who are well-educated, or who have stable and lucrative legitimate careers, kids will not know much else except the underworld.

“Before, I judged my success by money,” he said after explaining that his speaking engagements on the subjects of literacy and crime are what inspire him to succeed, now. “But we can’t judge success by what kind of shoes somebody has on or what kind of clothes somebody has on. Otherwise, that makes a kid willing to do whatever it takes to get that status. And that’s where we are right now in this society. See, we don’t have a high value on education. I mean, we can look at what teachers get paid.”

One of the most important lessons Ross learned was that investing in oneself is one of the best investments anyone can make. “What I noticed is that what the books told me is working.”

Ross recounted his story to educators, legal professionals, activists and community members on Friday, August 8, 2014. During question and answer time, one audience-member told Ross that his story reminded him of the classic Frederick Douglass text, My Bondage and My Freedom. His enthusiasm for public speaking and for reading is only slightly equal to his zeal for traveling in order to promote his new book Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography, written with Cathy Scott.

One of his current joys is talking with young people about their future. He speaks to youth, to college students, and to professional students, having given talks at UCLA and USC, among other educational institutions. “We have to bring our kids around people who they can associate with. We have to let our kids

The publisher of the Inland Valley News mentioned that many kids are fascinated with gang life. “What can we do as educators to turn the tide away from thug life?” Ross quickly countered with, “Let me talk with them.” The point being that it sometimes takes someone with a similar life experience to make an impact on someone’s life.

Reflecting on his own experience in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Ross said he is not an advocate for more schools, but he is an advocate for better teaching.

“Teachers need to change the way they teach. The way they talk about our kids,” he said. “Napoleon Hill talks about a burning desire, a person with a burning desire, they’re going to get up and take action,” he said. Napoleon Hill, born in the late 1800s, authored the book Think and Grow Rich.

Ross got a lot of questions from the audience about how to promote literacy for youth.

Children will learn best, Ross said, when they are presented with subjects that interest them, such as money. Ross said he became an expert in crime because he was surrounded by crime. “There were very few people [when he was growing up] who could have told me how to buy a house, or how to be a real estate agent, or to be a lawyer. It’s hard to tell a kid to go be productive in school when they perceive that it is not relevant to them. I didn’t know a judge or a lawyer until I was in court.”

Members of Ross’s home community from the Susan Miller Dorsey High School-area, where he grew up, were in the audience. They echoed the need for children to gain exposure to highly educated, caring adults.

This event was sponsored by The Inland Empire Minority Led Resource Development Coalition, a group representing multiple agencies, and leaders working for the common good. Among the organizations in attendance were Curbside Community Center, San Bernardino Unified School District, United Way of San Bernardino County, County of San Bernardino Behavioral Health, and San Bernardino County Board of Eduction, and The Urban Excellence Trainings.