A 'role model deficit' for young black men

Ben Jealous says there's a role model deficit in struggling black communities.

Young men may imitate what they do see. They definitely will not imitate what they don't see.

As a child I was blessed to grow up surrounded by role models who looked like me, often no farther than my grandmother's living room in West Baltimore. During the summers I would spend time at my grandparents' house, where there was a constant flow of visitors that included many pioneering black doctors, politicians, social workers and law enforcement officers.

One of the earliest black judges in Baltimore, Judge Bob Watts, taught me how to think for myself by always taking the time to ask, "Boy, what do you want to argue about today?" Clarence and Juanita Mitchell were in my grandparent's church community and helped stir inside me a fiery passion for civil rights.

My grandmother understood the importance of this implicitly. She made a point of telling me over and over how each of these men rose up to achieve their station in our community and why each continued to invest their time in making the world better for young men like me.

Increasingly, young men in our community are not as lucky as I was. Unlike 40 years ago, those of us who have "made it" have largely segregated ourselves into pockets of middle and upper class communities. Meanwhile, those of us still struggling have often remained in the "old neighborhoods." The end result for young men is a role model deficit.

There is another type of role model — those who inspire from afar. I was talking recently with Jarvis Sulcer, a colleague at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La., with a definite role model deficit. He found inspiration through an issue of Ebony magazine that featured profiles of black Ph.D. students. Years later, he could still remember the date of the issue that he had taped to his bedroom wall, and the names that gave him strength as he eventually pursued his own Ph.D. as a nuclear physicist.

The role model deficit is what inspired me to work with Trabian Shorters, founder of BMe Community, to co-edit "Reach: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading and Succeeding." Our book collects 40 first-person accounts by black men who build community, men who have achieved success and then made the conscious choice to give back. Some of the men are famous, most are everyday heroes, but each man is a role model and proof that success is defined partly by those you share it with.

There's Rev. Tony Lee, who leads the Community of Hope A.M.E. Church in Prince George's County and encourages congregants to "come as you are — doesn't matter what you did last night or even this morning." There's Emmanuel Cephas from Baltimore, whose childhood fascination with science fiction led him to develop software that will make math and science more engaging for struggling students. There's Alfred Liggins in Silver Spring, who has built Radio One and TV One into a strong voice for our community.

Too often in our inner cities, what our young men never see is us: men who are giving back to our communities and lifting them up in the process. I hope this book can play a small part in changing that.

Ben Jealous is partner at Kapor Capital and former president and CEO of the Baltimore-based NAACP. His email is benjealous@kaporcenter.org.

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