Whenever he can, Kingdawud Burgess gives food and water to people he sees trying to survive on the streets. Having experienced homelessness, he knows firsthand how hunger can lead to desperate acts.
King lost his mother at the age of 10. She was a single mom and the only source of support he and his brothers and sisters had. “I didn’t know my father until after my mother died,” he says. So he moved from his home in North Carolina to be with his father in Washington, D.C. — at that time, “murder capital of the world,” King notes.
His dad was also the source of the first violence he ever experienced. “He beat me up,” King says. “He liked to fight, and he liked to yell.” Such behavior from his only male role model led King to get into fights as well. Soon, he was out on the street, selling drugs to survive. By the time he was 13, he had been arrested and thrown into the justice system for the first time.
Upon release, he went right back to the streets and the only living he knew. Another arrest followed. “Then I got out again, and by then I didn’t want to stop smoking weed and trying to make money,” King recalls. “But it was right back to jail.” The pattern seemed set, until he found Islam. “I did everything wrong and my life went wrong,” he adds. “So I thought if I did everything right, maybe I had a chance at being happy and at peace.”
But once he was released again, he knew he had to get away from the East Coast. “I came to Los Angeles because I didn’t want to fall back into trouble,” he explains. “If you don’t change the people, places and things round you, you risk going back to what you did before. And most of the people I’d been associated with were drug dealers and users.”
Santa Monica College soon became a part of that new beginning. But the path would not be easy. “I came to California without anywhere to stay or any family to turn to,” he says. “I didn’t have anything” — anything, that is, except for his resolve and the opportunities SMC offered.
Connecting to Resources — and Community
“SMC made sure I stayed focused,” says King, who earned associates degrees from the college in film studies and communications and is completing a third in liberal arts. But, when he started at SMC, he not only had an intense hunger for learning but also faced literal starvation. Plus, even while maintaining a nearly 4.0 GPA, he says, “I was homeless that whole first year.”
Worried about being stigmatized and judged, King tried to keep his situation a secret from his classmates and teachers. But some of them found out — and reacted by taking him to the financial aid office and other sources of support. Later, a student from the Black Collegians connected him with SMC’s Extended Opportunity Program & Services (EOPS) program and counselor Nick Bravo. King was also put in touch with Benny Blaydes, SMC lead counselor and advisor for the Inter-Club Council, which oversees the college’s student organizations.
King quickly found himself getting the help he needed. “They made sure I was everywhere I needed to be, and they gave me food vouchers so I could eat at the school,” he says of the SMC’s wraparound services — and its supportive students and faculty.
When discussing SMC, King emphasizes the “community” part of the college’s name. “Where can you go if you don’t have a community?” he says.
It is also a community to which he gives back, to help other students get vital support. For example, when SMC launched its RISING Program — which stands for “Re-entering Incarcerated and System Impacted Navigating Greatness” — King immediately took part. “In addition to mentoring, he’s helped raise awareness about RISING services for students with incarceration experience,” says Nick, who runs the program. “He also brought their stories to light so others could understand what people who enter the justice system go through.”
Sharing stories is a driving factor in King’s life. He has testified before Congress about the plight of people enduring homelessness. He also became a subject of photographs by noted multidisciplinary artist Awol Erizku, whose works have been seen everywhere from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to galleries worldwide and major publications.
King collaborated with Awol on New Visions for Iris, a series of photographs seen at hundreds of bus shelters in New York and Chicago as part of an ambitious public art project. Yet the works for which King modeled were intensely personal for him, as they portrayed his personal struggle and spiritual growth.
Part of that growth came through writing. While in prison, King wrote 50 novels, seven of which he has published since enrolling at SMC. The challenge of crafting them went beyond creativity and coming to terms with his experiences. He had to save up for pads of paper on the roughly $12 earned each month from working behind bars.
“That’s not much, and you need it for phone calls and other things,” he says. When he had no money, he bartered with other inmates for their paper. He also had to buy typewriter ribbons, because computer access was nonexistent. “I had never even seen a computer or smartphone until I came to SMC,” King says.
In addition to his creative endeavors, King has started several businesses and heads the nonprofit ManyBrilliantMinds, which helps homeless people find jobs and housing. During his time at SMC, he has continued creating, writing and helping others. Having written so many books, he wants to start adapting them into movies to widen their reach. His audience keeps growing, with nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram alone.
“Then we can get to the next chapter, which is putting those books into the hands of the people who most need to read them — including that kid who’s going down the wrong path,” King says. “He might need to read that book to get back on track to where he needs to be.”
“King sees film and communication as avenues to bring people together and spark change,” Nick says.
Wherever King’s artistic and entrepreneurial paths take him, he will remain part of the SMC community and continue mentoring students in the EOPS and RISING programs. “SMC has done a lot for me,” he says. “The people there made sure I could see my dreams — and now I can reach them.”
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