In Atlanta a few weeks ago, I attended my fourth annual 100 Black Men of America conference considered by many to be the premier organization for the mentoring of African American youth in this country. Begun in 1963 by pioneers like baseball great, Jackie Robinson, and David Dinkins, who later served as the first black mayor of New York City, and others, the 100 as it is known today was incorporated in 1986. Today, there are over one hundred chapters nationwide, and an international chapter in London, England, each operating under the universal slogan, “What They See is What They’ll Be”.
Eight years ago I was invited to join a group of a half dozen men to discuss establishing a chapter of the 100 in South Bend. Today I serve as president of the local chapter, the second holder of that office since we began in 2010. Initially, what brought us together were concerns about the plight of young African American males and, more generally, an earnest desire to serve the African American community. The 100 Black Men of Greater South Bend now has fifty-five men, entrepreneurs, doctors, dentists, educators, lawyers, fire and policemen, politicians, business executives, janitors, clergymen and retirees. What binds us as a unit is our love for and dedication to the young African American males in our community. Many of the youth we serve do not have strong father figures in their lives, or other adult males to guide them as they navigate life. Without positive adult male role models, they are more at risk for gang involvement and encounters with the law. And without an active father figure in their lives, they are more vulnerable to poor academic performance, lack of ambition, and low self-esteem. Our hope is that every young man we mentor becomes an active and productive citizen who achieves his personal ambitions.
Our programmatic initiatives — mentoring, education, health and wellness, economic empowerment and leadership align with those of the national organization. The Freedman Academy is our flagship program. During the school year, twice monthly on Saturday mornings, we gather together as mentors and mentees to discuss a potpourri of topics as wide-ranging as what’s happening in the mentees’ lives and what they have observed in the news and in their communities. We have dedicated sessions on hygiene, sex, treatment of women, gentlemanly decorum, proper behavior in encounters with law enforcement, study habits, goal setting, careers, drugs, table etiquette, bullying, use of language, etc. Each session begins with the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of Lift Every Voice and recitation of the Freedman Academy Pledge, the expectations of a 100 mentee. We then listen to a recorded message of significant moments in black history. The groups are then further divided by age — second through third grade, fourth through eight grade, and high school. Each group has an appropriate curriculum, and for the middle school we include the Junior Achievement Curriculum. To further reinforce African American history, we do readings, followed by discussions, from Henry Louis Gates’ book, Life Upon These Shores. For some, these readings are difficult, but the power of the lessons learned about black achievement exposes them to the possibilities in their own lives.
Making real the infinite possibilities for black youth was embedded in one of the keynote addresses at the national conference by Former Secretary of Labor, Alexis M. Herman, who was one year behind me as an undergraduate at Xavier University of Louisiana. She gave a spirited luncheon talk about staying connected, staying informed, and staying encouraged. In her talk, laced throughout with humor, she reminded the conference attendees to stay connected to our young charges reminding us that in this world of high tech, there is no substitute for high touch. She reminded us that the work of the 100 consists of making a difference through active and purposeful engagement with our mentees. And according to her, that thread of connectedness is rooted in the history of enslaved black Americans when the nuclear family was broken but now reversed through the connectedness of mentor and mentees. She urged us to stay informed, to understand our history to better overcome the challenges facing African Americans and to know the current issues that endanger us – the negative messages of political discourse and social media. And finally, Secretary Herman exhorted us to stay encouraged and not to be discouraged. In spite of the current challenges of economic and social inequalities, we, as black Americans, have advanced, and that the work of the 100 is a bridge for our youth to make progress and achieve. Whether they are on the honor roll or the welfare roll, Secretary Herman urged us not to abandon our youth, so that with care and attention, each one can excel.
Earlier that morning, at breakfast, each table was encouraged to discuss the impact the 100 has on our lives. As I’ve worked with our youngsters over the past years, that question of whether we were making an impact on our mentees often surfaced in my thoughts. Comments from our mentees, though not surprising, were refreshingly affirming. Here is a summation of what they expressed: “I want to help others have character because that is important.” “I’m a better person.” “I have the courage to do anything that I want to do.” “I’ve learned a lot about black history and the impact that others have had on society.” “I am a better person for myself and for others.” “I’ve learned to change my behavior in positive ways.” “My grades have improved.” “I’ve learned from my mentors.”
Involvement with our young African American males, has given me the opportunity to pass on the lessons I’ve learned from my parents: lessons of integrity, honesty, perseverance, and self-esteem. Additionally, they taught me the value of developing persistent study habits, understanding that I could accomplish what I wanted if I prepared myself properly, the importance of nurturing spirituality within myself, respecting myself and treating others with respect. Unlike many of our mentees, I came from a two-parent household that instilled aspirations in me and my four siblings. A high premium was placed on education. My father’s words still ring in my head, as I know they do for my four siblings, “You will go to college and you will graduate. What you become is your choice. You may be a garbage man, but you will be an educated garbage man.” And my brothers and sisters will agree that we were fortunate and blessed to have had such loving parents.
Sartorial splendor appears to be de rigueur at these 100 conventions. Among approximately two thousand conferees, hundreds of mentors and mentees are nattily attired in bowties. The first time our chapter brought mentees to the conference, they surprised me by sporting bowties. Since then though, our youngsters attend the conference neatly attired in matching polo shirts with our local chapter’s loco. But what always amazes me at each of these conferences is the attention to decorum with particular emphasis among the young toward civility and politeness. Each conversation or greeting by a youngster is peppered with sir; “Good morning, sir,” or “Where are your from, sir,” or “Yes sir,” or No sir.” And even a chance encounter in the hallway or on the elevator, a younger adult will inevitably address me as sir, as I do with an older gentleman. These conventionalities remind me of my own southern upbringing when adults were always addressed in a respectful manner. I’ve had a hard time adjusting to modern times that permit children to address adults by their first names. Such familiarity was unthinkable during my youth.
But what is most remarkable about these annual conferences, setting aside the camaraderie that spontaneously occurs among total strangers, is the exchange of ideas. Learning from others has proven beneficial in developing our chapter’s programmatic initiatives. Our barbershop hypertension and prostate screenings are outgrowths of what we learned from priorities established by the national organization and work being done by other chapters. In South Bend, with the aid of our two local hospitals, Memorial and Saint Joseph, we send nursing students from Indiana University South Bend and Bethel College to the barbershops to help men monitor their blood pressure. And in partnership with Riverbend Cancer Center, we annually participate in outreach for prostate screening.
Among the numerous workshops and information sessions, the most gratifying event is the youth breakfast. The program, emceed by the young people, is a display of talent and creativity. There are musical presentations, poetry recitations, individual talks, all equally moving and inspiring. Observing and listening to these poised young people effaces, at least during those two hours, feelings of hopelessness when confronted by the problems besieging the black community — the under achievement academically of African American males, the high dropout rate, the lawlessness of the inner cities with black on black crime, gang and drug activity, the over incarceration of black males and high unemployment among minority communities. Rather, these young people, generate positive energy and give a face to “What They See is What They’ll Be.”
In keeping with the 30th anniversary conference theme of “Positive Influence, Powerful Impact,” I am confident that 100 Black Men of Greater South Bend is adding value to the lives of the young men we serve while simultaneously making an impact on our Michiana region. We know this anecdotally from our interactions with and comments received from the broader business, civic and educational community. We’ve developed a strategic plan to guide us in the immediate future and we’re establishing metrics that will measure our success. We’re far from perfect but we’re committed to continuous improvement. We use our annual winter gala of over seven hundred attendees to showcase the work we are doing. As at the national conference, our young charges are the evening’s emcees. They are the best ambassadors of our accomplishments and our aspirations. We, the 100 Black Men of Greater South Bend, have ambitious plans for the future, but we know that with the continuous support of our community, we will succeed in reaching our goal of improving the lives of our African American males.