On the 19th floor of the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. building, Tom Lewis holds up an issue of People magazine and asks 20 young men if they think they might be able to find good role models therein.
"Probably not," he says, answering his own question and disdainfully tossing the magazine over his shoulder. Copies of Sports Illustrated and Cosmopolitan quickly follow, failing to meet the role model test.
"Find some role models close to home," Lewis, the chief information officer at USF&G;, advised the young men -- a group of 9th- through 12th-graders from St. Frances Academy enrolled in a program called "Boys To Men." They were guests Wednesday at a luncheon co-sponsored by USF&G; and Junior Achievement. In addition to Tom Lewis, the boys heard vice presidents Earnie Hines and Jim Lewis and senior auditor Angie Bridges speak about how to achieve academically and professionally.
Joshua Thaniel, program director of Boys To Men, started the project two years ago. The former Marine, who grew up in the tough streets of East Baltimore and graduated from St. Frances, returned home from the service to find conditions had not improved.
"When I was in college I did a term paper on the socioeconomic decline of the African-American male," Thaniel said. "I got tired of people citing problems without solutions." He came up with the idea for the program, which is part high school course and part fraternity, according to Thaniel.
The 115 boys in the program take courses in African-American history and culture, economic development and entrepreneurship, social development, politics and community service, career development and physical fitness, including martial arts and military drill. Thaniel teaches all the courses.
The program had to grow on senior Russell Allen.
"At first I didn't like it because it was all boys," Allen said. "If TC wanted to be around only boys, I'd have gone to an all-boys school. But [the program] teaches us a lot about how to survive as young black men."
Anthony Carter, also a senior, praised the program.
"It's positive," Carter said. "All aspects. [The program] takes freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors and puts them together." The juniors and seniors mentor the freshmen and sophomores, Carter said, but the upperclassmen also learn from the underclassmen.
The boys, indeed, presented a refreshingly unstereotypical image of young black males at the luncheon. (The stereotypical view is an evening news shot of a young black male spread-eagled on a police car.) Neatly dressed in white shirts, ties and dark pants, they engaged in playful banter during the breaks between speakers. Mercifully, all of them had ignored the trend and kept their pants pulled up to their waists.
They asked intelligent questions of the speakers. Hines had to explain why car insurance rates are so high, how companies can detect fraud, what expenses USF&G; has, why the color of a car is so important in determining insurance risks and why boys 18 and under are considered such high risks.
Allen even challenged statements of two of the speakers. When Hines claimed he could predict how many people would die from a large population sample, Allen spoke up.
"That's not possible," the youth claimed. Tom Lewis told the boys that money and power were not a part of success, but Allen was having none of it.
"Power can be a part of success, if you use it right," Allen contended.
Such assertiveness is part of growing into manhood. If Allen and the other young men are any indication, St. Frances' Boys To Men program is achieving its goal. Thaniel agrees, saying the program is doing "extremely well."
"The parents are overwhelmed," he said. He gets letters and calls all the time from mothers and fathers who say the program has changed their sons' behavior for the better. Those who attended the Million Man March and returned with a zeal to improve their communities might go to St. Frances and look in on Joshua Thaniel's program. The young men in it who dress well, speak articulately and don't think being a good student is nerdy or a white thing could set an example for similar programs in public schools. The program's ultimate goal was best expressed by Anthony Carter.
"[Boys To Men] is helping us to build the perfect black man," he said. "You start that by education."
Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.