Redemption Road

  • November 7, 2016


Andre Mouton felt like a fraud. Here he was, rescuing students who were failing at east Oakland’s Castlemont High and telling them to go to college, when he had not been to college himself.

No one else accused Mouton of hypocrisy, nor would they. He came from a life on the street, of bouncing around different high schools, of selling and taking drugs — and eventually serving a two-year prison sentence for second-degree burglary. Students related to him, listened to him, respected him.

Today, many credit him with turning their lives around.

Impeccably dressed in a starched shirt and tie, Mouton sits at a Starbucks and recounts his life story. He didn’t meet his mother until he was 19 years old. His father never made time for him. After the death of his grandmother, who raised him until the age of 12, he was put into what he calls a horrific foster home in East Palo Alto. He first landed in juvenile hall at the age of 13. “I grew up with negative influences,” he says. “I idolized negativity.”

In his late teens, his so-called best friend turned him onto crack cocaine, and he fell into a downward spiral. “It was very dark,” he says. “I never thought I’d come out of it.”

When he was sent to Folsom State Prison, “It was a blessing,” he says. “I looked in the mirror and I got my spirituality right.”

“I grew up with negative influences. I idolized negativity.”

And he did earn a redemption, of sorts: In 2000, eight years after being released from prison, Mouton started Student Advocates For Education, which mentored and advocated for at-risk youth, with the goal of seeing them into college. He managed to garner support from the Oakland Firefighters’ Random Acts program, who supported him with food donations, computers and fundraisers while Mouton began single-handedly taking students on eye-opening cross-country trips, to places like Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was assassinated, King’s birthplace in Atlanta, Ground Zero in New York and historically black colleges.

After several years of success, Mouton applied for and was granted a pardon by California Governor Jerry Brown in 2012 — the same year he decided to put S.A.F.E. on hold to resolve an issue that had been long eating at him.

To complete his college degree.

He began with enrolling at College of Alameda, where he earned an associate’s degree in political science and a certificate in violence prevention. He then transferred to Cal State East Bay, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in political science/pre-law in 2015 while maintaining a 3.5 grade point average.

“By taking kids to college every year, I felt hypocritical about not having a degree,” Mouton says. “I told one of my students we would go to college together. I beat him to it.”

At age 55, Mouton is still at East Bay, working toward a master’s in public administration, with plans for a doctorate in education after that. He originally planned to be a lawyer to advocate for the underserved in the criminal justice system, but realized that he would only be helping people after they got into trouble. “If I get my master’s,” he says, “I can help prevent that.”

His former students vouch for him. Ayesha Anderson, 32, was once failing high school, but went on to earn associate’s degrees in medical billing and coding, African American studies, and a certificate as a nursing assistant. Today, she is also pursuing a bachelor’s in sociology at Cal State East Bay (and her twin sister Tauheeda is at UC Berkeley), none of which would have happened, she says, without Mouton.

“I was in ninth grade at Castlemont High School and I was not doing anything I was supposed to do,” Anderson says. “I was in the streets, I was selling, I was not living up to my potential. He came to Castlemont and he would not give up on me, no matter what.”

Case in point: If Anderson didn’t show up at school, Mouton would go to her house. “He told me I was smart, and I could do it,” Anderson says. “He empowered me to do better with school and with life. He caught my attention. He’s a special person in my life.”

Although Mouton is concentrating on college and raising his two youngest children, he still takes on students on an ad-hoc basis and hopes to relaunch S.A.F.E. as an independent nonprofit organization in the near future.

He also acknowledges the challenges of working with troubled youth — and why his past makes him uniquely qualified. “Not many people could bear the disrespect and lashing out these kids give,” he says. “I’ve been called everything. But I never gave up on them. They have layers and layers of issues that have never been dealt with. You’ve got to be extremely forgiving. You’ve got to think outside the box if you want to make a difference.”