A community mentorship program that redefines what roles and responsibilities young males of color inherit as “normal” is having such a positive impact that Murray Henderson Elementary in New Orleans took money originally budgeted to hire a police officer, and instead, hired a librarian to better focus on education rather than violence prevention.
The Silverback Society, located in New Orleans, recruits, trains and supports community volunteers to mentor eighth grade boys, before they face the challenges of high school and other experiences. Founded in 2007, the society teaches, motivates and inspires young males of color to seek increased knowledge and strengthen their skills, creating men who have the capacity to contribute to a better life.
Since its founding, the Silverback Society has had an immediate and sustained impact on young males of color in New Orleans, often altering the culture of entire school campuses. These improvements are clearly seen by educators and administrators; school leaders say that younger boys on campus now emulate older boys who are in the program, and every year, Silverback boys dominate in academics and citizenship awards.
“Little boys who grow up in woman-headed homes don't understand that they are to become men who can support homes,” said Lloyd Dennis, executive director of the Silverback Society. “Silverback Society teaches them that if you live by principle and with purpose, you’ll end up where you need to be.”
Beverly Johnson Jelks, principal of Murray Henderson Elementary, said the Silverback Society has made a significant impact on the culture in her school. “They have turned around the lives of many boys that we [otherwise] would not have been able to make a difference with,” she said.
Dennis said that boys who lack leadership and positive examples of responsible, productive males often fail to prioritize their own education.
“We teach that real respect comes when a man is able to do ‘for people,’ not like the ‘street respect’ that comes from what a man can do ‘to people,’ and which fuels the violence in our communities,” he said. “In all the years of our operation, when informed about the difference and asked to make a choice, we have never had a little boy choose the latter.”
Silverback’s approach to engaging young males of color is grounded in “The Seven Silverback Ways,” which include:
- Give respect to get respect.
- Teach by example.
- Give your word only when you know you can keep it.
- Use your time to improve something.
- Treat everyone like you will need them tomorrow.
- Become an expert at something.
- Let your light shine for others.
In 2013, the program operated in four schools in New Orleans, reaching about 100 eighth grade boys. Of those, 80-90 percent passed the eighth grade LEAP test.
In 2014, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the program expanded to seven schools and 200 participants. The program’s efforts have been so well-received that there are six additional schools on the waiting list to begin the program for the 2014-15 school year.
The power of mentorship grows and strengthens within communities and inspires participants to give back and help their peers succeed in school and life. When Silverback expanded to two additional campuses, the eighth grade boys who had participated in the program at another school, Craig Elementary School, decided to start their own mentoring program for fifth grade boys to inspire them from an earlier age.
Dennis said a key component to the program’s success is that they have figured out a way to engage black males out in the community to work on a volunteer basis with young males in schools, further creating more positive role models. The curriculum makes it easy for men to participate, and the structure makes it less stressful for both mentors and young males to participate.
The Silverback Society also uses a “cohort mentoring model,” which engages all the boys in a certain grade. When Dennis and co-founder Pastor Arthur Wardsworth had one-on-one mentoring experiences when they were younger, often they would return to a peer group that did not encourage the positive changes they had made in their values or behavior. But by working with an entire grade, peer pressure is utilized as a positive force for “Silverback Scholars,” with boys encouraging one another to cooperate with teachers and administrators and reach for their dreams.
The Silverback Society’s partnership with schools is particularly important, as it ensures boys who might not be able to participate in after-school or weekend activities due to a host of obstacles, including transportation or a lack of family support, can reap the benefits of this critical program.
Boys who participate in the Silverback Society remain committed to the organization’s pledge: “I will live my life as though generations depend on me, and I will teach and encourage all of mine to do the same.”