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Men Who Dare to Care

By: Anneliese M. Bruner
Publication: KLCC Bridge
Published: 05/31/08

The growth and development of KLCC youth fellows in partnership with adult fellows has been a boon to partners on either side of the equation. In KLCC communities around the country, youth fellows have been pivotal to the advancement of community-focused change work, providing leadership by deed and by example. In Benton Harbor, Mich., the commitment of a few good men has had personal as well as community benefits.

According to the 2000 census, 3,767 households in the city included children and youth under the age of 18. Of those, 42 percent were female-headed without an adult male present. KLCC Project Lead Gentry Phillips and Director of Youth Programs Liji Hanny have been a steady male presence in the Benton Harbor fellowship’s program. It is easy to see why so many young people in their community look to Hanny and Phillips to fill the space left by absentee fathers.

“You don’t realize how much you mean to them until they are about to go away to school or something,” Hanny says. “To be honest, our fellowship was made so strong because of that connection.”

The positive impact of concerned male role models in the lives of youth cannot be overstated. In African American communities like Benton Harbor, the need for more men who are willing to engage with youth is especially acute. Before coming to KLCC, Phillips worked for several years with the Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor (BGCBH), the host site, and has seen this reality firsthand. Passport to Manhood is a BGCBH program designed for young men to learn responsibility in relationships around such aspects as sound money management and adherence to a strong work ethic. “There is a lack of male role models in the home in our community,” Phillips says. “Female role models are seen differently.” Despite the dedicated efforts of female heads of households, when it comes to young men, Phillips says male role models can be especially effective.

“Our community is like many others in lower socioeconomic areas [that lack] the traditional nuclear family,” Phillips says. “Liji is a man they see everyday who is responsible, has a family of his own and is genuine. We feel like we’ve just scratched the surface of engaging men with young men.”

Young males are not the only beneficiaries of interaction with responsible adult male figures. Hanny sees the benefit for young women as well. “Young ladies know how they should be treated by men because of how we treat them,” he says.

While Hanny and Philips enjoy a convivial relationship with the KLCC youth and other youth at BGCBH, they also realize the serious nature of the responsibility they’ve assumed in these roles. “Once you get the attention of our young people, there’s a certain amount of pressure that goes along with it because [many of] our young people have been disappointed so often,” Hanny says. “They tend to expect adults, in particular male figures, to say one thing and do another.”

With unwavering support from their adult partners, KLCC youth fellows successfully launched a new technology center at the Club a couple of years ago, giving local youth a chance to learn an array of high-tech skills in a safe and congenial environment where youth and adults are on hand to help them learn; they partnered with another nearby community to coordinate a holiday gift-giving drive for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; they organized a community-wide HIV/AIDS awareness campaign; and led efforts to launch BGCBH’s Youth in Government initiative, among other programs.

Liji Hanny (left) has found it much harder than he expected to see the youth fellows move on to college and career pursuits.

Under the auspices of the Youth in Government program, two KLCC youth fellows, Trenton Bowens and Samantha Gunter, now have official offices at City Hall where they are working to increase youth civic involvement as well as planning events for the entire community, including but not limited to youth. Currently, one of the biggest issues in the community is the multimillion-dollar Harbor Shores Development Project, proposed as a 530-acre, mixed-use real estate development that includes a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course on the site of the city’s historic Jean Klock Park. Gunter is fiercely committed to ensuring that the community is not exploited in the project’s development. “We are for development; [however,] we want youth to use their voices to get the best deal out of it. We want a better recreation center, better schools, a better community,” she says.

This past year, several KLCC youth fellows who had been with the BGCBH since their freshman year of high school or even longer graduated and headed off to college, leaving behind a strong legacy of community involvement and personal relationships that are much more than casual. For the men these youth have left behind, the transition has been a challenge, requiring a good deal of reevaluation and readjustment. Although the work continues unabated, for Hanny the adjustment has been much harder than expected.

“It’s so heartbreaking, it’s like the empty nest syndrome, because we opened up and gave so much of ourselves.” Hanny credits the relationship-building that occurred through KLCC as being the driving force behind the openness he and his colleagues experienced in their community change work. “The relationships were good before this, and many of the techniques, like circles, that we learned from other sites gave us that place to go that everybody could just express themselves without being judged. It helped us get through some rough times.”

James Gunter, a youth fellow who is now attending Lansing Community College about two-and-a-half hours away, reflects upon his relationship with the Benton Harbor KLCC fellowship and the male leads in the group. Although he grew up in a dual-parent household, he appreciates the impact that Hanny’s and Phillips’ presence has on BGCBH.

“The effect on young black males [is similar to] that of the father they don’t have,” Gunter says. “To think that a person who has no obligation to you cares enough to go that extra mile for you is great,” he says. Gunter’s commitment to the BGCBH remains high. He continues to respond to requests for help editing videos, making flyers or whatever is needed as he pursues his dream of majoring in biology and eventually becoming a cardiologist.

As far as the future of the KLCC fellowship goes, Hanny knows it’s time to move on and rebuild. “I’m trying to get folks to open up about it so we can move on. We did a lot of bonding and building trust and everybody wants that dynamic back. We just have to accept that it’s gonna be different and make space for others. It’s just been a wonderful ride.”

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