Tony Gunn Jr. grew up with the realization that there was a strong possibility he could become a negative statistic.
He said he was “in a city surrounded by many of them.”
Even though he had good grades and loved school, he was aware “there was a lot of activity as a young Black man from St. Louis that I had to push back against.”
He wanted to find his own path.
“Something was itching to get out of me.”
His motivation to succeed has led him to become an author of 10-plus books, a holder of three college degrees, an artist and an advocate for his community.
As a young man, he created an organization called Not A Statistic Enterprises as an umbrella group to organize his outreach efforts.
His work has even allowed him to meet former President Barack Obama.
Writing books from a young age
Gunn started writing to express himself as a child.
“It flowed and felt natural.”
He penned his first book while in eighth grade.
In high school, at the Clyde C. Miller Career Academy in St. Louis, he studied aerospace dynamics and mass multimedia.
He also had a child. That altered his perspective again.
“I started thinking about youth mentoring and how to be a good example,” he said.
When he was a teen, his aunt passed away. That left four of his cousins virtually parentless.
He and other family members stepped in to assist.
This aided him in his decision to turn down academic scholarships in Oregon.
“I didn’t want to be too far from St. Louis, so I’d still be able to be hands-on with my little cousins.”
That’s how he decided to become a Bear.
Earning three degrees at MSU
Gunn wanted to be a veterinarian when he was young.
“I took in every street animal I found, from squirrels to opossums, cats and dogs. I even nurtured hurt birds.”
He considered studying science at MSU, but then remembered his love of writing. Soon after declaring a major in journalism, his love of technology tugged at him.
“I never did pick out a dream career!”
He did internships in media and in coding. He took courses that appealed to him, with an eye on what could “take care of my responsibility as a father and to my community.”
“I don’t like to spend my time just sitting down. I like my calendar full.”
It wasn’t just classes that kept him busy. He also served on a student diversity council.
“I love the fact that I could share my ideas with (President) Clif Smart.”
In his down time, “my outlet was working on a book in the commons area in Blair-Shannon, or bowling and playing pool.”
Meeting former President Obama
He also frequently traveled back to St. Louis.
He was involved with HomeGrown StL, an initiative dedicated to improving the well-being of Black boys and young men.
“Through that work, and my books, I became an advocate and example in that organization. I got the opportunity to meet former President Barack Obama. I was informed on my birthday in December 2018 that I could go meet him in San Francisco. The thought of it was breath-taking. But just sitting in the room with him, it was a chilled, relaxed environment. His approach and demeanor just made him feel like an uncle. I gave him my latest novel. Since then, I have been able to talk with Obama virtually a few times.”
About a month or so after the first meeting, the team at the Obama Foundation reached out to Gunn.
“They wanted to do some virtual training with me about young leaders equity, and to talk about my presence as a young leader.”
From those conversations, Gunn started what he calls Project You Belong.
“It will soon be a nonprofit. I want it to work with young Black men to empower them through literacy and shine light on some areas of mental health,” he said.