Rickey Layfield, '13, M.S.Ed. '16, Pays it Forward to Support Chicago's Youth
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Rickey Layfield, '13, M.S.Ed '16 (Photo: Gary Comer Youth Center)

“NIU saved my life,” said Rickey Layfield, ’13, M.S.Ed. ’16.

After earning two life-changing degrees from NIU, Layfield is paying it forward by returning to his roots to work with Chicago’s youth.

As regional manager for Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man® program (BAM®), which serves at-risk youth in Chicago through mentorship and counseling, Layfield supervises counselors in approximately 14 different Chicago Public Schools. He describes BAM as a “rites of passage program” where each counselor he supervises holds a caseload of about 55-60 young men and administers a “30-lesson curriculum that focuses on the core values of integrity, respect for womanhood, positive expression of anger, self-determination, accountability and self-determination.” Participants receive one group counseling session per week and an unlimited number of individual counseling sessions—all in school.

Layfield is also the co-founder and chief operating officer for the Urban Male Network (UMN), which specializes in mentorship and youth development, both in and out of school, spanning from Chicago’s West Side to the south suburbs. In his roles, Layfield’s focus varies day to day, from directly serving youth to developing internal systems and protocols. He figures out what topics to cover in his youth groups, creates new curriculum, plans field trips and talks directly to participants’ parents.

Layfield credits his great childhood to his mother, who was always positive and encouraging. She kept him busy with after-school and summer programs, where he learned the importance of youth development and engagement at a young age.

“My mother had me when she was 17, but she was a great parent. I had great parents,” said Layfield. “My mother always said, ‘An idle mind is the devil’s playground.’ She listened, taught me to ask questions, valued my education and did everything she could. She didn’t smoke, drink, or introduce me to any bad habits. I always knew she had my best interests at heart.”

Growing up moving from a Trumbull Park housing project to 79th St. to 61st St. on Chicago’s East Side, Layfield described his neighborhoods as violent areas.

“I remember looking at a color-coded Chicago map with safety scores reflecting neighborhood violence and quality of living,” he recalled. “Every neighborhood I lived in was blue, the color for low quality of life and high levels of violence. Still, I enjoyed what most 90s kids enjoyed. I read the Goosebumps book series, played video games, shot Super Soakers, and watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.”

When high school came around, Layfield became involved in gang-related activities to protect himself.

“Unfortunately, there’s only so much a mother can do when you live in certain environments,” Layfield remarked. “As a kid in the housing projects I had to fight often. Since I didn’t have any older siblings, I often had to fight guys my age, their big brother, and their little brother. There was even an instance when another kid tried to slit my throat. As I got older, I grew to learn how to protect myself. This led me to become gang involved in high school.”

Layfield continued, “There was a moment when all of my closest friends were incarcerated, and I was the only one out. I wondered why I was special. We were just kids, but we lacked guidance. Seeing my peers fall victim to gun violence, and a few close calls I had myself, made me view life differently.” 

Although his friends were narrowly focused on the war they were fighting with the guys down the street, Layfield was thinking about his future and earning an income. His mother spoke to him about college or getting a job, but Layfield knew he had a better chance at making more money with a college degree.

“I was a kid in AP English and had a 3.4 GPA,” he said. “I applied to every school I could think of in Illinois and got accepted. I picked NIU because my gut told me to, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Layfield didn’t wait long to get involved on campus. He learned how to develop an organization from the ground up as a co-founder of Liberated Minds, a student organization with the goal of creating educational programs for the campus with entertaining events. Layfield was also part of the Black Student Union and eventually served as its treasurer. He served as president of the Campus Activities Board and the Epsilon Phi chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, senator of the Student Association, and part of its finance committee. He helped create the “Rep Yo Org” event, which showcased talent from various student organizations in hopes of encouraging other students to get involved. 

“My friends writing me three-page letters from jail while I was enjoying college changed me,” Layfield said. “It made me humble and want to make a difference at NIU.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Layfield went on to pursue his master’s degree in adult and higher education. In addition to his education, he says his college mentors helped change his life. 

“I was put in an environment created to develop students,” said Layfield. “The leadership I learned in the streets came with transferable skills that made me a campus leader, but having mentors helped. As a freshman, my mentor and Campus Activities Board president, Kevin Smith, made me read the Student Association constitution and bylaws. Fuad Raji, who was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and served as the Student Association's chief of staff, supported me early on and played a huge role in my experience as an Alpha. Marlon Haywood became a mentor and we now run UMN together.”

Layfield’s love for his hometown and his combined diverse life experiences put him in a position to relate to the youth he works with today. Working on the “front line” as “part of the solution” fulfills Layfield.

“I am the person today that I wish my friends and I had in high school,” he said. “Recently, one of the students I counseled early in my career earned his college degree and is now a BAM counselor. He said I was like a father to him, and he wants to impact others in the same way.” 


As part of an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, former President Barack Obama shared his perspective on the BAM program and how he has been involved. Click the image below to watch.


(Photo: CNN.com)