Changing the Conversation Among — and About — Young Black Men

(Original Source Story, Slideshow, & Audio Here >>


About 60 black students from middle schools and high schools throughout Central Virginia gathered recently for the second EMBODI conference in Charlottesville. WMRA’s Jordy Yager was able to attend the day of workshops for a report on how local African-American leaders are striving to empower the next generation of young black men.

ERIC JOHNSON: Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen. We’re going to go back to question #2 first. We ready over here? Because I told you I would come back, you gotta be a man of your word right? You say you’re going to do something, you gotta do it…hey, hey, hey, represent, represent.

That’s the sound of Buford Middle School Principal Eric Johnson commanding the attention of a room full of high school boys on a Saturday afternoon. While all of their friends are enjoying a weekend free from school, this group of about 60 African-American students has trekked from all over Central Virginia to Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville for a full day of workshops and conversations.  It’s all geared around one thing: how to improve their lives so that they can become more powerful leaders in their communities.

The conference is called Empowering Males to Build Opportunities for Developing Independence, or EMBODI for short. It’s put on by the Charlottesville Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, which is led by Bernard Hairston. Hairston was the first African-American principal of Burley Middle School and currently works as the executive director ofAlbemarle County Public School’s office of community engagement.

BERNARD HAIRSTON: We are at crisis. We are at crisis because that’s what the media says about that. That’s what the data says about African-American men — we are at crisis. That’s the message that we hear. We have to learn how to control that message because there are a lot of positive things that African-American men are doing…So, having a session like this is all about changing mindsets, changing practices, and giving some direction, a new direction in how we educate our young men.

The day was divided into three main workshops — health, education, and character development.  The group of about 100 participants was divided into three smaller groups — high school, middle school, and parents. Each group made their way through each workshop.  Panels of speakers covered issues that ranged from healthy eating habits, to how to excel in majority white schools.

I sat in on every workshop, popping in to listen to the adults and the middle schoolers. But I spent the majority of the day with the group of 38 high school students. Their very first workshop, character development, was by far the heaviest. And at first the teenagers are exactly as you’d imagine them: reticent, shy, scared of embarrassing themselves. But about 15 minutes in, after some prodding from Wes Bellamy, the conversation picks up. Bellamy is an Albemarle High School teacher, a Charlottesville city council candidate, and vice president of the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia. He asked the group:

WES BELLAMY: How many of you have ever had a negative interaction with law enforcement?  Raise your hands high.

Easily a third of the hands in the room go up into the air. One student tells the group about the cops busting an underage party he attended. Some of the kids at the party ran into the woods to hide. The police told them to come out. Some did, but one who didn’t was later caught, recalled the student. He was brought back to the police car and beat by an officer right in front of him.  Bellamy tells the kids that they already have two strikes against them: they’re black and they’re men.

BELLAMY: That’s not fair, but that’s the world that we live in. Y’all gotta be able to play the game. Whether that’s playing school, whether that’s playing life, whether that’s playing police. You gotta be able to play the game. And if you can’t play the game, you’re going to lose. Do you know what happens when you lose? [You go to jail or die.] Jail or die.

The group talked about how popular culture and the media make it seem like all black men are pre-destined to go to jail. They discussed how money is not the only measure of success — even more important is the quality of their character and whether they’re making a difference in the world. They talked about the peer pressure to be cool instead of good at school. And they discussed the importance of focusing in school, even when they’re bored or they don’t see the relevance of a subject.

They also heard from 27-year old Daniel Watkins. Watkins is most well known for being the lawyer for Martese Johnson, the African-American UVA student whose bloody face made headlines around the world after Alcoholic Beverage Control officers arrested him earlier this year. Those charges were later dropped, and Johnson has since filed a civil suit.

DANIEL WATKINS: Giving back and investing in the community is something I take very seriously, because I think specifically young black men lack role models, and lack role models who look like them. And so as an attorney, it’s a little peculiar, because I think of it as: Well I went to college, naturally, and I went to law school after that, and now I’m working. But for a lot of people, having that identity as a black man means so much and to a lot of people it means, ‘Hey, this is something that I can do.’

Before the day got underway, Watkins delivered the conference’s keynote address. As he walked back and forth on the auditorium’s stage, speaking without a mic, he recalled the advice his high school football coach gave him. RUN he said. But not run like you might be thinking. But R-U-N: Remember who you are, Understand where you’re going, Never give up.

WATKINS: … And the sky is absolutely the limit, so make sure you RUN, make sure you keep running, Remember who you are, right, Understand where you’re going, and Never give up.

At the end of the day, after nearly six hours of discussions, each group tried to sum up what they had gotten out of the conference.  Buford Middle School principal Eric Johnson led the teens, and helped walk them through some of what they had learned.

JOHNSON:  But the bottom line is this:  Sometimes we don’t have the upper hand.  But what you all have is resources, you have knowledge, you have the know-how.  And even when life throws you an ugly curve, even when life frowns on you, there is something you can do about it besides complaining, and not doing anything.  OK?   [Speaker fades out…]

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