Alumni Spotlights

Bruce George, '89, Shares His Story as an Inspiration for Others

December 13, 2011 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09

Life could have been different for Bruce George. The product of a single parent home, a member of a number of NYC gangs, a drug abuser and self-described “stick-up artist,” Bruce could have been just another angry young man in a world that he felt offered no opportunities for him. Instead, he made one important decision and that decision changed the course of his life forever.

It wasn't easy for him growing up in the Bronx, Bruce says. “I was a young, impressionable kid, I came out of gang culture, came out of gang life. Anything you can imagine, I did it; any drug you can imagine, I've taken it. I got kicked out of high school for inciting a riot. Any negative thing you can imagine, I did. I was a young, angry kid.”

“It was my environment,” he continues. “There weren't opportunities. I made excuses, I fell in with gang culture. I was in four or five gangs.”

But then he heard about Job Corps, a free education and training program that helps young, low-income people earn a high school diploma or GED, and train for a career.

“Job Corps was the spark that lit the flame that enabled me to graduate from there,” Bruce says. “It was by the grace of God that I was able to go to Job Corps.”

His time in the program was not easy, he admits. His anger and need for attention led him to set fires in broom closets and break windows. But there were teachers there who believed in him, and that made all the difference.

He earned his GED and a friend told him about Niagara University and its NUOP program. Interested, he came to Niagara Falls, visited the NU campus, applied for admission, and was accepted. “At that point,” he says, “my life changed. That a Catholic, private university opened its doors to people that can't afford to be here? When that opportunity comes, you better jump at it.”

He fell in love with psychology and philosophy and connected with professors who encouraged him in his studies and made him want to learn. He met people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, which he says “widened my frame of reference.”

“I had the opportunity to rub elbows with people that did not look like me and that changed me,” he says. “NUOP saved my life. If I didn't go to college I'd be going in the wrong direction.”

After graduation, Bruce pursued a career in the mental health field, until the issues he was helping his clients deal with became “too close to home” for him. He then worked in sales for several years. When he was fired from his last job in sales, he says “it was the happiest day of my entire life. That's when I had the opportunity to start sowing the Def Poetry Jam seeds.”

Bruce had been writing poetry for decades, inspired by his mother, a published poet. As his interest evolved, he got into hip hop and the spoken word, a form of poetry that expresses social commentary. One night, while watching Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam, an HBO television series that has helped to launch the careers of several stand-up comedians, he realized a similar concept could do the same for poets.

“I got this epiphany ”“ a mic, an audience, and a stage ”“ Def Poetry Jam.”

He took his idea to artist and poet Daniel Simmons, Russell's older brother. At first, the elder Simmons was unconvinced that the concept would be successful, but Bruce's persistence persuaded him to set up a meeting with his brother.

Failure “never crossed my mind,” Bruce says. “I had such a belief, such faith. It was needed, it was necessary, it was timely, it was relevant, and I knew in my heart of hearts that it would be successful whether Russell had taken it mainstream or not.”

Bruce's passion for the show and his detailed proposal about how it would work sold Russell on the idea, and he took the idea to HBO. The four-show pilot, featuring actor and rapper Mos Def as a host, premiered in 2002. It was an immediate hit, and the show was picked up for six seasons. In addition to up-and-coming spoken word poets, celebrities including Caroline Kennedy, Benjamin Bratt, Jewel, Dave Chappell, Cedric the Entertainer, Phylicia Rashad, Alicia Keys, have appeared on the show to recite their own original poems. The show earned a Peabody Award in 2002, and its stage version, which premiered in November of 2002, earned a Tony Award. The show has toured both nationally and internationally.

Today, Bruce is a lecturer, author and social activist who travels around the country sharing his story to inspire others to find their path in life. In October, he made his way back to the university that he says changed his life to speak to students about artistic expression, to conduct a creative writing workshop, and to host a spoken word showcase. And although it had been years since he had been on campus, his appreciation for the education he received was as strong as ever.

“Without Niagara University, there would be no Def Poetry Jam,” he says. “I would not be where I am today. I am a proud Purple Eagle.”