Huynh embodies the American dream. A Vietnamese refugee, he rose to lớn the senior ranks at Leo Burnett, left to lớn start his own business, and now thrives as an activist. But a tragic mistake from his past still haunts him.

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What you are about to lớn read is a story of human endurance. A story about a come up so insane you’d think it’s a lie. Some Netflix shit. But it’s not. This is a story about the sustained sustainability of an individual who, in truth, none of you are supposed to be reading about. Recidivism, interrupted. A young man who was supposed to disappear once he was behind maximum security walls. A story about someone who was supposed khổng lồ be all types of things, just not what he became.

“Do you remember your prison number?” I ask Tuan Huynh, who on this early December day of COVID 2020 was still a senior art director at Leo Burnett. He’d been at the landmark ad agency since 2014, working on such high-profile accounts as McDonald’s, Samsung, Philip Morris, and Kellogg’s, but was now preparing for his departure the following month khổng lồ focus on his entrepreneurial và activist efforts.

“Yeah, bro — 64215,” he answers. “That’s a number that will never go away. If I go back to lớn jail right now, that’s going lớn be my prison number. When I’m 80 years old, it’s going to be my number. You never shake that number. But it is a reminder of how far you’ve come.”

Dressed in a đen Leaders hoodie, Huynh sits on the couch of his Garfield Park home, where he lives with his wife, Anna, & their two young daughters, & strategizes on how khổng lồ save Chicago from itself, from the continual molding of little ex-hims. Two years ago, he started an ambitious nonprofit, Chicago Peace, khổng lồ reach the neglected và forgotten kids of this city through a variety of programs.

As Huynh reflects on his own past — how he had spent 15 & a half years in prison, mostly in an 8-by-5-foot cell in Kansas’s Lansing Correctional Facility, after committing a murder at age 18 — he tells me the story of the lotus.

“The lotus seeds start in the mud at the bottom of the pond. Some seeds remain seeds, while others reach for the surface, reach for a certain level of the water. Some gain leaves once they get khổng lồ the water’s surface. Then there are some that reach the surface and get sunlight và bloom into the lotus, the most beautiful flower. And once that lotus lives its course, it turns into a seed again và goes back into the ground. You know, some people start in the mud.”

Huynh at 3, at a Malaysian refugee camp; with his family (in red jacket) after arriving in the United States. Photography: Provided by Tuan Huynh

“What set you claim?” It’s a question that has formatted Tuan Huynh’s life, particularly his childhood. “That’s what we all asked each other, anywhere,” he says. “It’s not ‘What’s up, man?’ It’s ‘What mix you claiming?’ Because you had to belong to somebody.”

As a kid, Huynh belonged lớn the streets, the corners, the hideaways, & the concrete of America. A refugee from Vietnam (he came lớn this country at 3 years old with his family), he grew up in public housing — first in Arlington, Virginia, then in Wichita, Kansas. He witnessed what he calls “the hustle” of America. When your resources are limited, when your value system is compromised systemically, a fend-for-self, survive-or-die, dog-eat-dawg mentality tends to take hold và shape who you become.

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“The America I grew up in didn’t really lượt thích us,” he says of being Vietnamese. “I grew up in an all-Black neighborhood, but a lot of the black people didn’t lượt thích us. When we went into the Hispanic neighborhoods, they didn’t like us either. They bused us into all-white schools, & those kids definitely didn’t like us.”

So he claimed a set, và a phối claimed him. Gang life became his as-one in life. It was like a marriage. They got to know one another, love one another, feed off one another. “My first attempt at selling drugs, I failed,” he tells me, with a hint of a laugh. “You don’t give IOUs khổng lồ a bunch of crackheads.” So he stole some rims off a car to re-up. He had lớn learn the trò chơi quickly. Survival in America. I ask him how old he was at the time. “Twelve,” he says.

“When I was 14,” he continues, “I made a declaration khổng lồ myself: I’ma either get rich doing what I’m doing or I’m going khổng lồ die trying lớn get there or go khổng lồ jail for the rest of my life.” He was cliqued up & descending deeper into the gang culture, but Huynh’s enterprise at that age was business, not violence. The plan — excuse me, goal — floating around inside his brain: “I’m going lớn retire at 18.”

Around 1 a.m., Hunyh got dropped off at his parents’ house. His mother was still up. “She just asked me, ‘Are you hungry?’ và I was like, ‘Yeah, I can … I can eat.’ & then she was like, ‘This is probably going lớn be one of the last meals we will have together, isn’t it?’ ”

But the streets don’t let you go like that. There’s a magnet beneath that concrete. It attaches itself to not only you but your dreams, aspirations, & falsehoods. So instead of working on making his voting-age exit strategy a reality, Huynh began losing himself to lớn the game. Not just claiming sets but orchestrating them.

His leadership qualities at that young age were “a gift và a curse,” according khổng lồ his childhood friend Viet Doan: “He was a born leader, wasn’t afraid of failing, enjoyed taking risks. Everyone close to lớn him knew he was respectful & always generous with anything. But the thrill of living the fast life and earning và getting a lot of respect was definitely something that changed things for him.”

On February 4, 1996, one month after his 18th birthday, Huynh chose his fate the second he pulled the trigger of a Taurus 9 mm pistol. He’d just left a các buổi party at Lan’s Egg Roll restaurant in Wichita. The festivities had broken up after gang signs were flashed, usually an indicator that something is about to jump off. Chronic — as Huynh was called back then — sat in the passenger seat of his homie’s trắng Honda Accord as they rolled up on the crowd that had just exited the restaurant và was still milling around in the street. Huynh decided khổng lồ flex in order to break up the throng. So through a partially rolled-down window, he let off three rounds. He claims he wasn’t aiming at anyone in particular và was trying to lớn shoot above the crowd. But one of those bullets struck 20-year-old Charles J. Smith in the head và killed him. Huynh và his crew took off in the Accord.

Around 1 a.m., Huynh got dropped off at his parents’ house. His mother was still up. “She just asked me, ‘Are you hungry?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can … I can eat.’ và she started prepping one of my favorite dishes, thit kho. Và then she was like, ‘This is probably going lớn be one of the last meals we will have together, isn’t it?’ ”

Did his mother sense something was up? Not specifically. “She just knew the life I lived back then, that everything is short term. I always called her at least once a week, just khổng lồ let her know that I was alive.”

A few hours later, detectives were waking Huynh up at his parents’ house with guns in his face, searching his bedroom, where they found four cartridges and a 30-round magazine for a Taurus 9 mm.

He was charged with murder in the first degree. If convicted, he would face a life sentence — likely a hard 40 years behind bars before he got paroled. If he pleaded guilty, though, he’d serve less time — potentially he’d be out in 15 years. But Huynh, still not owning the crime, wanted lớn go khổng lồ trial. He wanted khổng lồ see the faces of those who had turned against him, who had snitched on him. Like his homie driving the Accord that night, who got two years of probation in exchange for singling Huynh out.

Then, while he sat in a room at the courthouse, his lawyer brought in Huynh’s mother, who begged him to take the deal. “In 40 years, you’re going lớn come home and only be able to trim the grass in front of my grave,” she told him. “But in 15 years, you’ll still be able khổng lồ take care of me.” Huynh took the deal and took responsibility for the crime he had committed.