“As an African American young man of color, I don’t like how stereotypes can shape what others believe about me,” said Tommy Sherrod, a 19-year-old sophomore at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College pursuing a major in nursing and a minor in political science. “...when you hear them over and over again, you begin to believe that they are true.”
Inaccurate stereotypes, including widespread portrayals in media and other outlets, are just one of the many ways that structural racism influences perceptions of young men of color. However, a six-week summer program called “I WAS HERE: Teen Leadership Development Institute,” hosted by Trinity Outreach Corporation, Inc. has demonstrated how it is possible to profoundly change the lives and future of young men like Sherrod.
Sherrod was among 24 young men of color between the ages of 13 and 18 in Moss Point, Miss. who began a journey to understand structural racism and eventually come together to make changes that, “may one day change the world,” he said.
He said, “By being in the program, I have become more informed on history, politics and the economy, and how structural racism affects African American men. I now have a better understanding of who I am and where I came from. I’ve learned to take my spiritual life more seriously and been able to build new connections. Now I want to take what I have learned and share it and be an influence on others.”
I WAS HERE is one of the 25 programs chosen to be a part of the Mississippi Young Men of Color grant initiative launched by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2013. It builds a foundation of understanding and awareness for young men of color about structural racism through classroom instruction and hands-on experiences, engaging them in deep dialogue and community projects to overcome barriers and stereotypes.
“A lot of the young men had really not been introduced to the idea of racism in systems that create inequity,” said Cathy Keeton, executive director of Trinity Outreach, Inc. “We began the conversation on racial inequity in structures like health, housing, education, employment, criminal justice and the community. And we talked about how this impacts them – not from a place of bitterness or blame – but from a place of solutions and how to use policy to dismantle structural racism.”
Students were able to share their own experiences, as well as explore the history of racism through trips to the African American Museum of Archives and History in Mobile, Alabama, and the 50-year celebration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Atlanta, Georgia. Then, they took steps of their own to make an impact on their community through a series of community service projects that, according to Keeton, help break the stereotype about these young men.
Of the original 24, nine of the teens wanted to dig deeper, and spent the fall engaged in what became the Young Statesmen Mentors program – which explored how to speak about the topic of racism and apply racial concepts to influencing existing and future policy. The students engaged in debates, often in front of their parents, about the issues they, and their peers, wrestle with in their own lives.
Kenya Bowens had two of her sons participate in the programs, Kenyun (17) and Keshawn (13), and was so committed to the program that she became a volunteer herself.
“As a single mother of three boys, I want to keep exposing them to the right things in our community,” she said. “One of the things that happened as a result of their participation was that Kenyun wrote a policy and presented it to the superintendent of the Moss Point schools. He wanted the schools to talk about African American history, as well as that of other cultures, throughout the year. He felt it was important that people know where they come from and how they’ve achieved and how far they’ve come. The school is now considering his proposal. I was so proud of him!”
The Young Statesmen also had a strong mentorship component, as students traveled to neighboring states to meet leaders, some from Moss Point, who could speak to them about their potential, how the mentors had succeeded in their chosen fields and offer the young men a vision of what their own futures could be.
Sherrod was profoundly influenced by one of the mentors who joined them for numerous classes.
“Shawn Shumont probably had the greatest impact on me of all the people who spoke to us,” said Sherrod. “He was the ideal role model. Even though he has a family and work, he was willing to devote time to working with us. I really felt that he had power and leadership and a spiritual connection that showed us we could do anything we put our minds to.”
But as Keeton said, the best outcome is that these young men have become mentors themselves. As the second class of I WAS HERE prepares to start this summer, many of the first cohorts’ students will become teachers and leaders at the when the next group of young men joins the Teen Leadership Institute – including Sherrod’s little brother, Jalen.“Communication is key to us being able to change the future,” said Sherrod. “Right now, we are all broken apart. But if we can speak to the children – you must be able to speak to the children – everyone can come together and slowly but surely, the world will become a better place.”