by Melia LaCour
Our youth are watching us. Our every move answers their unspoken questions: “Am I safe?” “Am I accepted regardless of the color of my skin?” “Will I get what I need?” Sadly, most young men of color will move through our classrooms throughout their academic careers learning quickly the answer to these questions is a resounding “no.” Our schools fail to provide structures to support their success while denying them opportunities to foster healthy self-esteem and strong leadership skills. How do we provide them with what they rightfully deserve? Meet local African American leaders, Willie Seals III, Marcus Harden, CJ Dancer and Kendrick Glover who have designed school and community based programs to open new doors for young men of color in the South King County region.
Seattle natives and longtime educational leaders, Seals, Harden and Dancer created the “Academy for Creating Excellence. (ACE) “to support the social emotional wellbeing of young men of color. “I have been a school counselor working in an alternative school and after 14 years, their needs are still not being met,” Harden explained. “The three of us got together and talked about this frustration and what we could do about it. We said, ‘why not us?” Dancer agreed and added, “At some point we have to say what we are doing in schools is not working for most of the kids. Are we ok with that?”
Last Spring, fueled by great frustration and heartfelt commitment, the three innovators collaborated with Goodwill’s Work Training Program to pilot a youth leadership class for 20 high school boys. “The purpose of the program is to educate on what it means to be a man in our society,” explained Seals.
The program has recently launched its second cohort of 16 teens and provides well-rounded curriculum rich with the necessary skills for young men of color. “It’s about self-actualization,” Harden said. “I like to say, ‘I am not going to build the house for you, but I will give you all the tools to build it yourself.’ “
These tools are embedded in the program’s four objectives: compassion and understanding, educational and cultural foundations, values of perseverance and determination and using talents for the greater good. Teens actuate these objectives through several components: college and career awareness, entrepreneurship, social skills development, health and nutrition, service projects and cultural foundations.
On October 21st, ACE will debut as a school based program. Recently, the trio connected with Highline School District’s Midway Elementary School Principal, Rebekah Kim to bring the program’s unique brand of social emotional support to her building. “Our goal is to support and build confidence in our young boys of color so they don’t feel defined by how the media is portraying them, “Kim shared. “We want to them to be confident and show them that leadership is built from within.”
The program will align with the character traits that Midway staff are fostering within their students while also focusing on improving attitudes and behaviors, reducing emotional distress and improving social behaviors. “As men of color we want to uplift and fill them up,” Seals shared. “I want to instill power in these young men so that they can write their own destiny no matter what their challenges are,” Dancer added.
As ACE launches at Midway, leaders will form a collaboration with Glover Empower Mentoring (G.E.M.) which will support boys of color at Pacific Middle School in the same district. Founder Kendrick Glover, who has been working with young men in the Kent School District since 2012, is expanding his program to include Highline School District. Like ACE, G.E.M. also focuses on the social emotional needs of young men of color and has been created as both a community and school based mentoring program.
Housed at the Kent Parks Community Center, the program’s foundation is Wednesday night community mentoring which convenes 20 to 25 young men to discuss community, political and other issues. Glover facilitates this group with several male mentors of color. “The youth don’t get to see black men in a room who are talking and sharing their opinions on a regular basis. Kids get to ask them questions: How did you get your job? What kind of education do you have? We model respectful conversations.”
Additionally, G.E.M. provides after-school mentoring programs in three Kent middle schools. The program is supported by 16 mentors, 90% of whom are men of color. Glover, along with these mentors, run weekly mentoring groups with the goals to improve school achievement, graduation rates, school attendance, discipline referrals, increase self-esteem, employment, community service and decrease youth pregnancy. The cornerstones of the program are the three I’s “Inform, Interact and Inspire. “While these outcomes are critical to student success, Glover states the most significant impact for students are those things that can’t be measured. “For a young person to have a positive relationship with an adult who looks like them is so important. It’s amazing when they call us when they get a good grade or use the concepts we teach them.”
G.E.M. provides a number of supports to young men. “We teach them to be self-advocates and to learn how to navigate the system.” These lessons are taught through a number of different avenues. Most recently, Glover collaborated with Kent Police Chief, Ken Thomas to conduct quarterly dialogues with young men of color to discuss the issue of police brutality. Kent police have already implemented a strategy suggested by the youth. “We wanted to see the police out of the cars walking around saying ‘hi, how are you doing’ to the kids. They have implemented this now,” Kendrick shared. For more information about G.E.M., please visit gempowermentoring.org.
The magic of ACE and G.E.M. lies in the action they take to support young men of color to be successful. As leaders they are not only empowering youth during a time of great racial tension, they are transforming the very communities in which we live.
Melia LaCour is the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.