“You got it. . . what it takes
Go get it. . . where you want it?
Come get it. . . get involved
‘Cause the brothers in the street
Are willing to work it out”
— Public Enemy, "Brothers Gonna Work it Out"
Public Enemy’s lyrics aren’t just a reminder of my youth but they signify the importance of collective responsibility within the Black community. Growing up in Camden, New Jersey and Philadelphia, I realized that members of my extended family played a vital role in the lives of several Black males. To clarify, when I refer to extended family that includes individuals who don’t share my same last name or family heritage. Historically the Black community maintained strong African familial connections to persevere despite a variety of economic and social barriers. Today, we continue to maintain important linkages that allow us to support each other in times of need.
For instance, within the Black community it’s not unusual for a neighbor to raise someone else’s children. The children no longer belong to them. They belong to us and are treated like a family member. Despite the setbacks, as a community we continue to rise because family–including extended family– is at the center of our universe. I believe mentoring Black men and boys is critical, not because I think they are hopeless but because I’m hopeful my support will make their lives easier.
We live in challenging times. The high unemployment rate among Black men continues despite the success of some members of the community. While we encounter obstacles it’s important to adopt an asset-based approach. Society should focus on our strengths instead of consistently highlighting our struggles.
I enjoy mentoring young Black men because the proverb “each one, teach one” means everything to me. My experience has taught me that mentees frequently teach you more about life than you could ever learn listening to a motivational speaker or watching a documentary. Having a mentee is a life-altering experience. For example, I tutored a high school student who struggled with his reading. He was frustrated because teachers and family members doubted he would ever learn to read. Over a two-year period we worked together to improve his reading, self-confidence and ability to navigate life’s challenges.
Similar to other Black males, he needed someone who believed in his greatness. I can’t take credit for his improvement. With enough support, our men can learn to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or dive into the deepest sea. Potential is only limited by society’s negative stereotypes. Several groups, including 100 Black Men of America, Black Male Engagement (BMe), Campaign for Black Male Achievement, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc. are creating counter narratives about Black men and boys.
Each group is committed to supporting their needs. Volunteering to address some of the systemic issues Black males encounter is critical. With enough community support Black males will excel. According to Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan, the executive director of The Youth Mentoring Action Network, “mentoring can be a site for critical consciousness, liberatory practice, healing and love. Black boys have had to endure such toxic contexts that the mentoring relationships act as more than mere academic support, they become spaces of activism, agency and joy.”
Dr. Weiston-Serdan continues, “it is important for Black boys to have a community of mentors who center them, value them and support them as they usher in a new era.”
Unfortunately some of us struggle to overcome pitfalls. While several of my mentees exceeded expectations, others succumbed to distractions that hindered their ability to succeed. My failure to help eliminate family and community issues from their lives haunts me daily. Their struggles highlight the difficulty growing up Black. The Black community has to work together to solve a variety of issues that limit opportunities for promising young men. For this reason, policymakers, donors, community activists, parents and concerned citizens should take the steps I outline below.
For Us by Us
To solve the problems within the Black community we need a two-pronged approach including: (a) challenging historical inequities and (b) investing in community based organizations. Members of the Black community with economic and political capital should support organizations with strong relationships and the support of the people. Solving the problems Black males encounter won’t happen overnight but with a collaborative effort we can begin to dismantle systems designed to limit opportunities.
Can I Kick It?
We have to give Black guys the chance to shine. This should include celebrating their brilliance. Adopting a strength-based approach is the key to unlocking the potential of Black boys and teens who hail from a variety of backgrounds.
Mentors have to provide our Black youth with the tools to succeed. Our path is littered with both hidden and visible barriers. Countering economic and social issues won’t be easy but we have to depend on each other to change Black male outcomes.
Dr. Larry J. Walker is a consultant and former Capitol Hill staffer. He is the co-editor of “Graduate Education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Student Perspective.” Follow him on Twitter: @LarryJWalker2.