The importance of black men mentoring

Stephen Powell



Friday night’s program of Black Men and Boys Week, held at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Education and Conference, dealt with black men mentoring young boys.

Dr. Christopher Warren, project coordinator of Figuring It Out for the Child (FIOC) in the Family Study Center at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg (USFSP) and a myriad of local and nationally recognized speakers kick-started a discussion throughout the city addressing misconceptions and stigmas surrounding young black males.

Before introducing the guest speaker for the evening, Warren said one of the most powerful mechanisms for healing and breaking the cycles is mentoring.

“It is absolutely imperative that we find ways to bridge these generational gaps and show these young men that they are not alone,” he said.

Executive Director Stephen Powell at Mentoring USA took charge of the rest of the evening.

Powell, who has worked in program development and management for local and national non-profits, talked about some important mentoring ground rules and stressed that where you stand becomes your community, adding there are no geographic boundaries for love.

He recalled while talking with a group of young men outside a church a few years ago in Oakland, Calif., he asked one of them his impression of black middle class worshipers.

“‘Y’all come into our hood, get your praise on and y’all bounce,’” Powell said one young black man answered. He likened it to a team going into a huddle only to come out of it and sit down rather than run a play.

“So when we come together in communities like this, we have to be very intentional about running plays in our communities,” he said.

Too often we talk about mentoring as though we have to fix someone, he noted, when mentoring is a lifestyle that should exist on every level of our lives, be it professional or even spiritual mentoring. What happens when we frame mentoring as a tool to fix people, you then have parents who feel like they’re being displaced.

He explained the term ‘at-risk’ carries negative connotations when speaking of our children and when we use this moniker often enough, we’ll start to believe it. They’re not at risk, he explained but we as a country are at risk when we don’t support and encourage their “bright young minds.” Though Powell’s father passed when he was five and was raised by a single mother in East Orange, N.J., he said “by every definition” he would’ve been categorized as being “at risk.”

“But nobody in my community who ever stood up for me ever framed me in that manner,” he said. “The men in my life stood in the gap, so I never felt like I didn’t have anything.”

So instead of being at risk, talk about our children being “at promise” or “on the brink of success,” he said.

Powell warned against “drive-by” initiatives, stating that we need sustainable programs but the only way to achieve that is through a shift in consciousness. There’s an old saying he said, that goes, “women build relationships and do things, while men do things then build relationships.” So when we talk about programs, he explained, it’s important to have activities for male mentors in which to engage for the ultimate benefit of the boys.

Mentoring USA programs have helped increase the literacy rate among young black men, of which a disproportionate amount are not reading at their grade level. High school graduation rates have also increased through their programs as well, and they are committed to helping young men get enrolled in colleges and vocational schools.

“The job of a mentor is to find out what our young people want to do and be the wind beneath their wings,” he said. “There are a lot of unhappy adults in this world because they are living someone else’s dream.”

When our boys are mentored well, Powell said 98 percent stay in school, 98 percent do not become teen parents, 85 percent do not use drugs and 98 percent avoid gang participation.

Before he discusses mentor training with a recruit, Powell said he needs to understand who they are, where they come from and what they’ve overcome. A good place to start is teaching a mentor the timeline of trauma experienced in the United States. Mentors need to understand these traumatic events to understand themselves and the legacy of pain this country has left for black people.

• 1619 is the year given to mark the beginning of slavery in the United States.  We see the slave trade and how it impacted the country.

• When we talk about policing in our country now we see cops killing black men, but this all started with slave patrolling. From its inception, policing in the United States has always been about the monitor and control of black bodies in support of the enslaver, slave labor, chain gangs and prison labor.

• The Emancipation Proclamation basically ended slavery in the 19th century, but then the Black Codes began, drastically restricting the rights of newly freed slaves. Vagrancy laws were central to the Black Codes when states classified not working as criminal behavior and allowing convict leasing where state prisons hired out convicted people for labor. Chain gangs are born and become what we call the Prison Industrial Complex.

• Decades of widespread lynching and domestic terrorism by whites begin in the 1890s.

• In the 20th century, Jim Crow was in full swing and kept black people from voting, owning property, working and living as full citizens. Prosperous black communities were attacked and burned to the ground all over the country.

• AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) mandated that in order for a woman to receive the supplemental financial aid needed to make up the difference between what a black man could earn and what was needed to support a family, no adult male could be present in the home.

• Black children began growing up in homes without an adult male present. The black family, which prior to this had remained in relative tact, is destroyed.

• The Reagan and Clinton administrations cut social services at the same time deindustrialization and trade deals wipe out jobs.

• The War on Drugs begins as soon as the Jim Crow ends and is essentially a war on the black community. It disproportionately targets black people and escalates in the incarceration of black men at double and triple the rates of whites, despite the fact that using and selling rates are the same across the races, with some data indicating whites use and sell at higher rates.

• Major media labels our children as super predators and invest in international images of black children as thugs and gangsters and the problem in the world—effectively dismantling any moral authority we had in the world vis-à-vis the Civil Rights Movement.

• Black men are profiled, terrorized and murdered by police.

While teaching mentees the trauma timeline, Powell said mentors must remind young people of their power, such as consistent slave revolts and escapees, black people defying laws against learning how to read and write, Harriet Tubman escaping slavery and going back to the South to free her family and more than 300 other people and many more examples.

Powell pointed out that you are losing if your oppressor knows your history more than you do.

We share history because our children’s sense of worth has been diminished when not outright destroyed by all the killings with no accountability, under-resources schools, a spirit-draining media that tells our boys how limited their options are in life and by the lies and lies of omission about who we are, he averred.

Powell went on to speak about the sustainability of mentoring programs, saying that there is no need in starting a program that cannot continue.  Giving an example of his church, he asked the pastor if a quarterly offering could be taken up to help fund his program because he knew grant funding would inevitably slow.

“We don’t want to be so reliant on grant dollars because priorities shift.”

He also warned against egos. Powell said he’s seen movements halt because egos are not checked.

“Who’s winning at this point,” he asked. “Our kids our dying because you want to get more speaking time at an engagement. In order to be purposeful, sometimes we have to be egoless.”

Powell went on to give advice on the best days and times for mentoring programs, the differences between mentoring and tutoring and how to inspire and recruit men to want to work with young black boys.

The week-long event was sponsored in part by the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Healthy Start and other organizations

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