Wenona Thompson says she’s a fighter. Sometimes, as she talks with her head bowed, she seems embarrassed by the things she’s done. But other times, she speaks with conviction, dark brown eyes fixed straight ahead.

Thompson, 26 and a mother of two, runs a program called Girl Talk that encourages young women in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center to tell each other their stories. She hopes they will gain perspective on their lives and heal before going back to their communities.

Thompson uses herself as an example.

She doesn’t like how she acted as a child and teenager, physically lashing out at everyone she was “at war with.” At the time, Thompson was angry with her mother for spiraling into drug addiction as their family came undone.

By age 11, she was living almost on her own in the Ida B. Wells public housing development on Chicago’s South Side. She began hustling in grocery store parking lots, asking to carry customers’ bags for spare change.

Soon she was also offering sexual favors. Then, when she was 16, she tried dealing drugs.

It didn’t last long. In 1992, Thompson was arrested and charged under a law in which juveniles are automatically transferred to adult court for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing development. A bill to change this law is currently awaiting Gov. George H. Ryan’s signature. (See Keeping Current)

Thompson was convicted and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

The night before she was released, she wrote a poem called “Don’t you hate it, but you can make it.”

With pride, she now recalls how she pushed herself through college and into a job, even when all seemed against her.

“I am a fighter,” she says.

Thompson shared her story with The Chicago Reporter.

When did you begin dealing drugs?

At 16 years old, during my second year of high school. [At that point] I was not getting any closer to the dreams I had. But I was getting more desperate to meet them.

When I started to sell drugs, it was like the bottom of the barrel for me, –˜cause I saw how it is with my mother.

I can remember standing out there on this one day. I was just holding the money, and people were coming just left and right. I felt pleasure because I had so much money coming in and out of my hand. The man had to leave, and I was holding onto his rocks [crack cocaine]. So many customers were coming. So, up in my head, I said, “I am just going to sell it to them,” and it went like that, and I wasn’t standing out there so long. He gave $50 for this–”for nothing but passing out stuff.

How did you get caught?

There was this young sister, this single parent. She was married and had two kids at the time. She was low on cash and needed money, by all means necessary. She decided to sell her husband’s rocks. I had more of a hustle move so she wanted me to be her partner.

I had $10 rocks from the woman. But a lot of people wanted boulders, which is $20 rocks. I wanted my boyfriend to think I was the number one girl.

I go get my boyfriend’s rocks and then I go outside. Next thing you know, one of the guys on security called “Blue Code.” This is my first time running from the cops. I know how to run, but, at the same time, this whole mentality kind of blinded me from feeling like I would get caught. So I went back over there and started to sell drugs. All this time, I was high off marijuana.

The detectives were going toward me. I thought that I was a girl so they wouldn’t see me as a drug dealer.

As I walked past, one of them grabbed me and asked, “What have you got in your pocket?” And I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Come with us.”

I seen a lot of guys get locked up and come back out. Well, it was a different process for me. They said it was 11 grams and 5 ounces, and they said, because it was over 5 grams within 1,000 feet of a school on [Chicago Housing Authority] property, with intent to deliver, –¦ it was a Class X felony. [To me,] all this came out of nowhere.

What did you do when you got out?

I went to Kennedy-King College, because they told me there was nothing I could do unless I had those degrees in place. At this time, they was making the welfare-to-work changes. I had to go see caseworkers regarding my employment status. I told them, “I am going to get my two-year degree.” They was like, “That is not a requirement to stop your clock.”

But I refused for them to spook me. So I went and I applied for [Federal] Work-Study at Kennedy-King College, and I let the boss know that I needed some way to prove to public aid that I was working.

What did you do after you finished school?

At first I was working with this young women’s leadership group on the South Side, but after three months I found it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I quit that job, and I didn’t find work until three months later, and I went through a great depression. It took so much for me to go to that point, yet it was still hard for me to find a job. I was scared. I started thinking the dream I had for myself was an illusion–”that I would always be poor, and [there was] no need for me to keep fighting.

I always kept my connection with Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers [a nonprofit service organization]. I was at a steering committee one day, and a little letter came up to me saying they was looking for a coordinator for Girl Talk. As soon as I got that piece of paper, I just knew this was something. It was like sunshine was moving out of the clouds.

Headshot of Sarah Karp

Sarah Karp

is an associate editor for our sister publication, Catalyst Chicago.