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CCRI graduate wants to help youths
Student Success Story, May 23, 2011
Paris Fisher, 40, of Pawtucket had a half-a-million-dollar business and was living a fast-paced hip-hop lifestyle, but something didn’t feel right.
“The nightclub scene and the fast life, it was beginning to rot me from the inside out,” he said.
After a spiritual awakening and religious conversion, Fisher walked away from his business and a few years later, applied to the Community College of Rhode Island at a time when he only had $500 in his pocket.
He founded a program for at-risk youth in Pawtucket schools and, as a CCRI graduate, is bound for Rhode Island College to study social work.
Fisher’s desire to change his community runs deep. Born in Prospect Heights in Pawtucket, he grew up in a single parent household in the 1970s and ’80s amid a culture of drugs and street violence.
Fisher said his mother, Mary, provided her family with strong values and safe home and worked hard to help her children succeed.
Outside of the home, Paris turned to the burgeoning hip-hop movement, which seemed to be an escape from the street life. He starting to break-dance when he was just 10 years old and began to rap when he was 15. He hoped to make a living at it, but his life took him in a different direction.
Fisher graduated from high school in 1988 and was enrolled in an eight-month program at the Opportunities Industrial Center of Rhode Island. It was at that time that his girlfriend had the couple’s first child.
“I was a father early on in life and it was pretty difficult,” Fisher said. “I didn’t have a clear idea what I wanted to do.”
In 1993 he got a loan from a good friend, Jaime Rua, and used it to buy 100 shirts in a style associated with the young hip-hop movement.
With the help of his brother, Mark, and some friends, Fisher began selling them out of a space in a tailor shop. POAM Clothing, short for “Prospectors on a Mission” in a nod to his neighborhood, was born.
“I didn’t have any background in business, and obviously no college experience, but it started taking off,” Fisher said. “At that time hip-hop clothing was not in the malls, it was a rare, new thing … you couldn’t find what we were selling.”
After three months, the store was successful enough to move into its own space, one that quickly grew into a hub for the Rhode Island hip-hop scene.
POAM Clothing became the ultimate local source for hip-hop fashion and music and eventually expanded into an entire mini-mall with a barber shop, cell phone store, recording studio, print shop and gift shop. Fisher hosted rap concerts, talent shows and break dancing competitions in the basement community space.
He became involved in concert promotion and the POAM line was featured on MTV and in The Source, a magazine dedicated to the hip-hop scene. “We weren’t just a business, we were a hip-hop movement,” Fisher said.
But this lifestyle began to wear on him. “I started getting discouraged with the music,” Fisher said. “They were swearing a lot and we were selling this to kids and families.”
Some of the jeans in Fisher’s store retailed for $100, and he saw people of modest means “doing whatever they had to do to get those.”
“I was tired of selling image,” Fisher said. “Hip-hop used to be the voice of the community … now you don’t hear that anymore. Now it’s being used to destroy the community.”
At the same time, Fisher had a rebirth in Christianity, a tradition he had been raised in but neglected in his adulthood. He closed his business in 2005.
“What caused me to leave at the end was the realization that it wasn’t the store that was the most important thing. It was the people,” he said, “not a building.”
“A voice in me, and to me it was God, said, ‘If you build up the people, you can always get the structure, or a building. Build up the people first.’”
Later that year, Fisher started an after-school program at his alma mater, Shea High School, called Project Peace, which focuses on crime and drug abuse prevention and allows youths to express themselves through music and poetry. The program works with about 15 or 20 students each year.
“My goal was always to help the community, even through music,” Fisher said. “It was pretty cool to go back and give back,” he said.
In 2008, Fisher started a middle school offshoot called Camp Skills, in which the students from Project Peace mentor the younger students.
While working at Project Peace, the school social worker, Shara Plynton, suggested that he go to college to study social work.
“I really felt like there was a need to sharpen up my communication skills and my leadership skills so I could come back and meet the youth right where they’re at,” Fisher said.
He began looking into CCRI in late 2008 and early 2009, while he was suffering from insomnia and depression. He had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, but forced himself to go to CCRI in January to enroll.
Fisher’s financial aid came through at the last moment in a way that seemed miraculous.
“After that first semester, it just strengthened me. I took it one class at a time,” Fisher said.
He graduated as a General Studies major with a 3.54 GPA as the first member of his family to attend college and will share the commencement stage with one of the graduates from the Project Peace program.
Fisher’s son, Paris Junior, is graduating from high school and will attend CCRI this fall.
“Coming here was such a great experience,” Fisher said. “It’s more than I expected.”
He added, “It’s been a really amazing journey and I hope it shows people my age that it’s not too late.”
He plans to continue the Project Peace program and has even come back to hip-hop, using the medium he loves to spread a new message.
He has a CD single available on iTunes and CDBaby called “Born,” in which he raps:
“And this time when I rhyme, it’s not for game, or for fame, it’s to proclaim Your holy name.”