The Foundation of Hardnotts University
By: Cindy Brown, Journalist/Author
The School of Hard Knocks was around long before Jay Z reshaped its meaning, capitalized on its pain, and turned it into a commercial success. It was around long before I was born in 1964. They called it School because it was supposed to educate you, to teach you the hard way about the true meaning of what Street Life was really about, about what Street Life could do to the spirit of a man.
Duane Fernandez Sr. took the term to the next step and re-coined it not as mere urban lingo, but as a life-experience-university of sorts. From his own painful upbringing in the Hartford projects and with his own legally-earned blue-collar capital, Duane, who was called Muffit in the Charter Oak Terrace housing project where we were raised, built his own mentoring and youth awareness organization and called it Team Hardnotts University. He was attempting to take away the stigma and shame of Street life from those of us who were victimized by it. He was somehow disqualifying the brutality of the Street experience and giving some validity to the lives of those of us who survived it. Muffit was doing it for the kids. He was making sure the next generation who is living through it right now, amidst all of the violence and murders and drug mayhem, understands that there is another world, a better world, outside the Hood that they can have.
Although Duane is a soft-spoken brother with a quiet demeanor and the patience of a saint, his wit is razor-sharp. He's a brilliant strategist who knows how to navigate in both mainstream and ghetto societies. A keen observer, Duane's not one to argue a point, but he never gives up and he never backs down. He'll simply out-think you. Quietly, analytically, he figures out ways to maneuver through the maze of corporate rhetoric and red-tape to accomplish what he knows will meet the needs of the under-served urban environment.
I'm a lifelong member of Duane's Team Hardnotts University and I'm very proud of that. I joined it back in the mid 90s because I saw that its leader was a visionary and that this was a youth awareness organization that was ahead of its time. Even then, Team Hardnotts University was part Scared-Straight and part Real-World. Duane had found a way to organize a select group of spokesmen which included a former murderer and drug hustlers, ex-convicts, a heroin-addict of 30-years and a woman who had three children by the age of 19. He had forged this group into a finely-hone team of witnesses who went into prisons, schools, half-way houses and detention centers and made crooked kids turn straight. It was a phenomenal program. It was a program Duane funded with his own money. It was ahead of its time.
Now, Duane has launched yet another exciting new endeavor to rescue troubled kids. Shooting With Cameras, Not Guns, is his latest brainchild. It's yet another program that offers alternatives to the Street. This latest program incorporates all of what Duane has used firsthand to beat The Street; creativity, passion and a love for urban humanity.