As a child, Casey Gerald says he wasn’t his mother’s child or his father’s child. He wasn’t his grandfather’s child or even his sister’s child.
He was Dallas’ child.
“Everybody’s child was everybody’s child,” he said. “Children were seen, and the adults felt a collective ownership of the kids. It was just built into the psyche of people.”
So while his father battled addiction and his mother struggled with her mental health, the Oak Cliff community parented Casey.
“As a child, I didn’t know any difference if I slept in a bed or on a couch or on the floor,” he said. “You could say I didn’t have a home, but I was never without a place to live.”
Casey Gerald will speak at the Cherish the Children luncheon, hosted by the Dallas CASA Children’s Council. The annual luncheon raises funds for Dallas CASA. Looking back on a challenging road through a chaotic childhood to Yale University and Harvard Business School, Gerald credits his success to the community of surrogate parents around him.
His Dallas was the streets of Oak Cliff, and everyone he knew was poor, black and went to church every Sunday. The community-based parenting he experienced sometimes felt oppressive to a young boy finding his footing, but looking back he’s grateful. While on the surface his life was falling apart, he never felt that way inside.
He calls his first real home school, where teachers saw a boy with a bright mind and lots of potential. He remembers teachers who were demanding and had no pity for him but offered an abundance of love and support.
By seventh grade, Gerald’s mother disappeared, and his sister, four years older, stepped away from school and stepped up to parent him. He remembers government housing and welfare, but he doesn’t really know how they made it.
“We were like the Boxcar Children,” he said. “We had each other and I guess it didn’t take a lot more to survive.”
His teachers and the community knew though. They saw a boy struggling and let him know he wasn’t alone in the world. Football and academics ultimately led Gerald to Yale University. And what was Yale University like for a kid from South Oak Cliff High School?
“I can’t recommend it,” he says with a laugh. “Culture shock isn’t the right word. I’d call it culture trauma.”
His accent was impenetrable, the cold weather unbearable and for the first time in his life he felt poor.
“The only thing that kept me there was that I had no money for a plane ticket home,” he said.
But once again the community surrounded him. “There was no lavish pity party,” he says wryly, but there were coaches and professors who saw him and supported him.
“Ultimately, it was the voices of the nay-sayers that kept me there,” he said. “’There’s no way that boy’s going to graduate from Yale. He’s a crack baby. He’ll never make it past the first semester,’ I heard. I wanted to prove them wrong.”
In 2014, Gerald, now a Yale graduate and student at Harvard Business School, was elected student speaker for his commencement at the business school. His speech about combining business with purpose went viral and led to a TED talk that’s been viewed more than a million times. For Gerald, success isn’t the bottom line or making money. It’s being part of the community. It’s giving back. It’s hard work and dedication and caring about other people.
Success can be seeing a young child struggling and lifting him up, even all the way to Yale and Harvard.