By Candice Wagener

AJ Carr is a soft-spoken, quick-witted 14-year-old with a gleam in his eye and a goofy side. He’s also the founder of nonprofit Building Bosses, determined to build up other young entrepreneurs and leaders, and change the perception of youth of color in this community.

Entrepreneurship runs in the family. AJ’s mom, Dorecia, owns a talent agency, helping young actors achieve their professional goals. She stands right beside AJ in support of all of his goals, like when he told her at age 5 that he wanted to be on television. AJ, who already has a credible portfolio with small parts on “Mercy Street” and “Chicago PD”, snagged a lead role in Showtime’s “The Chi,” slated to debut in 2018.

When he was 13, he told his mom he wanted to start a nonprofit. She knew nothing about nonprofits, but she made it happen.

“I just knew that my son wanted to do something to help people, that was the focus,” says Dorecia. “And I don’t believe in telling him he can’t do something, so I said ‘I gotta figure it out.’”

That’s exactly what the Carrs have been doing from the get-go. Pregnant at 17, Dorecia admits she had no idea what to do with a child and that she and AJ “grew up together.” Living in Chicago with her mom, she leaned on her for guidance, but not for long. AJ was just 2 when Dorecia’s mom was raped and strangled to death in a killing that remains unsolved. Soon after, Dorecia’s brother was killed by a stray bullet intended for someone else.

Despite these tragedies, Dorecia reminded herself that the perpetrators were once someone’s kid: “If we catch it early… and give [kids] the support that they need to go in the right direction, less situations like this will happen. I knew my family was gone but for the people that were still here, I knew that I could still make some type of difference and that’s really what drives me.”

That attitude has clearly rubbed off on her son. That, and the words of his fourthgrade teacher, who believed in him at a time when he was at his lowest: “You can be bigger than what you’re looked at as.”

Build, Own, Serve, and Succeed is Building Bosses’ slogan and AJ’s overarching mission in changing perceptions and relationships within the community. “If all of these kids have somebody to reach out to them despite where they come from, despite how they’re perceived, I think it can really bring a better economy, it can bring less violence,” says AJ. “I want kids to be able to wear a suit, look clean, and be bosses, and at the same time, wear their clothes, talk like they do, and be themselves without being looked at as if they’re a thug or anything like that for it.”

As part of Building Bosses, AJ created Level Up, an afterschool program run out of Badger Rock Middle School which provides much-needed performing arts opportunities for low-income youth. The impact of Level Up is already apparent.

“It’s just really cool because kids that are looked at as bad, they come in and make you feel like everything is amazing,” says AJ.

Like a 12-year-old arrested in the Verona Area School District because he wouldn’t take a seat in class. AJ took it upon himself to meet with this kid’s principal to have a conversation about solutions.

“This wasn’t his friend or anything,” comments Dorecia. “He just couldn’t understand the logic behind arresting a child. He wanted the principals to see that we need to come up with different ways so that we can keep the children engaged and make them feel like they want to be here and that they’re accepted.”

That same boy demonstrated quite a talent for singing during Level Up, exactly what the curriculum was intended to do— bring out a different side of kids through positive expression.

The other side of Building Bosses is hosting events, fundraising for a good cause and bringing community players all together in the same venue. Its kickoff event last September benefitted Occupy Madison, and brought together the community, police and fire organizations on the North Side at a time when interactions were tense.

It was there that the Carrs first met Becki Ralyn, a self-described white, lesbian mother of two biracial daughters who was looking to make a difference because of how heated she felt about the state of community-police interactions. A friend had directed her to Building Bosses’ Facebook page, where she quickly volunteered to decorate for the event.

“I thought it was amazing to try to get together a community that didn’t seem to have any relations at all and that totally inspired me,” says Ralyn.

Ralyn was so inspired, in fact, that she committed to donating 10 percent of the commission she earned on her first house sale, having just gotten into the real estate business. To date, she continues to split a portion of every commission to Building Bosses and Occupy Madison—both causes that AJ is passionate about. Ralyn’s fifth grader also attended Level Up this past year.

“Anything [AJ]’s involved in I’m pretty much involved in,” says Ralyn, adding that their two families have become tightknit over the past year. “I think he’s the one that’s going to do what he says he’s going to do. What he envisions is obtainable to him and he’s not going to stop until he gets there.”

For more information about Building Bosses, visit buildingbosses.com.

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