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Stepping up against violence by mentoring at-risk youth

By La Risa Lynch | Last updated: Apr 25, 2010 - 12:24:37 PM

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Nearly 1,500 people crowded into a basement of a south side church in Chicago, seeking to fi nd opportunities to mentor at-risk youths or fi nd programs to service them. The effort was part of a call to action to get more Black men to become mentors. The effort was spearheaded by Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, a Chicago-based advocacy group. Photo: La Risa Lynch
CHICAGO ( - Time for talk is over, declared Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, a Chicago-based education advocacy group.

Action is needed to address low graduation rates, high violence, unemployment and incarceration rates among Black youth, he said, noting that 37 percent of Chicago's Black male students graduate from school.

Mr. Jackson believes reversing those odds begins with injecting positive Black male role models into the lives of at-risk Black youth.

“We are wonderful talkers,” Mr. Jackson noted. “We are wonderful theorizers, but we are slow to get into action.”

So, Mr. Jackson issued an clarion call to get 1,000 Black men to volunteer as mentors. More than 1,500 came out to a volunteer sign-up fair held at a south side church April 9.

More than 60 social service agencies offering support from tutoring, to programs on how to build toy cars and becoming a sound mixer crammed into the church's basement. The crowd was a mix of men answering Mr. Jackson's call and parents seeking programs to enroll their children.

The turnout signals a need and a want for people to get involved, especially in a city plagued by recent gun violence. The police alone cannot stop the violence, but Mr. Jackson argues adults actively involved in young people's lives can.

“Through mentorships, we can teach these young boys how and why to respect women,” he said. “You can teach these young boys to take care of their elders. You can teach these young boys to respect each other as brothers. The police can't do it. The government can't do it. Schools can't do it.”

The fair also included a screening of “Men II Boys.” The documentary showed how ordinary Black men stepped up to fill the absentee father void in young Blacks men's lives.

Producer Janks Morton said his “ah-ha movement” for the film came after reading a report showing that 82.3 percent of Black children born since 1990 will, at some point in their lives, grow up without a father in their households. That statistic, he added, makes the Jackson effort all the more crucial.

Black boys who have absentee fathers are angry, rebellious, lack temperament, feel threatened by or reject male authority figures, Mr. Morton explained. These factors can lead to violent behavior, he added.

“If you do not have the influence of a father in the home, all the social miseries, challenges and less desirable outcomes around young boys happen because they do not have fathers and mothers in the home,” he said.

Lionell Martin, 38, agreed. Mr. Martin volunteers in his South Shore community, which has an area known for high gang activity called Terror Town. Mr. Martin noted the area is dominated by female-headed households. He contends Black boys look to replace absentee fathers in all the wrong places.

“Gangbang leaders are typically Black males, so they look to those guys as a role models, because they don't have no one else to look to,” said Mr. Martin, who signed up to volunteer with two organizations.

Black boys, he said, need to see positive Black male role models who they can emulate. “We need men to take responsibility for our community.”

Mentoring works, said Jarrell Hobbs,17, who lives in Chicago's Englewood community, which has a high crime rate.

Mr. Hobbs at first resisted his mother's attempts to put him in a mentoring program. But the deaths of four friends, made him reevaluate his life. He quit his gang and found a mentor with Imagine Englewood If, a community service organization.

“I plan on going to college, and I don't want to die,” said the teen, who praised his mentor, Jermont Montgomery, for opening his eyes to a different perspective on life.

“He made me realize it was acceptable for me to be me,” Mr. Hobbs said, adding the kids should have mentors. “It gives them something to do and gives them something positive to be around, instead of being around all these negative influences.”

Mr. Montgomery, 33, saw himself in his young mentee. He too grew up in Englewood, became involved in gang and drugs until he got “caught up” with the justice system. Mr. Montgomery served his time and then went to college.

But like most Black well-to-do men, he moved on with his life and “separated” himself from what was happening in his community. The violence claiming so many young lives should show Black men that their responsibility goes beyond being successful in one's career.

“If you care about the future of your community how can you not get involved?” Mr. Montgomery said when asked why he became a mentor.

Albert S. Vaughn Sr., was part of “the madness” occurring in Chicago's streets until the day his 18-year-old son was claimed by it. His son, also named Albert, was struck in the head and killed with a baseball bat while at a party in April 2008.

Mr. Vaughn, 42, created a foundation named for his son to reach some of the same people he once ran with. Now he talks to school kids telling them that violence and retribution are not the answers to any grievances.

“We got to stand up and let the young men know somebody cares for them,” he said. “Even if I'm not your father that don't mean I can't be a father figure to you and help you in a way that you need help or try to show you there is a better way to do things.”

While Mr. Jackson's effort is directed at recruiting male mentors, Barbara Ellzey, founder of REACH Leadership Program for Girls, wants a few good female mentors.

Girls face a unique set of problems including bullying, “girls hating girls” and teen dating violence, which all impact their well being, Ms. Ellzey said.

“It's important for girls to be included in the mentoring mix because it teaches self-esteem. It prevents teen pregnancy,” she said. “When a girl feels good about herself, she will value who she is, and she is not so quick to give herself away.”

To build self-esteem, her program encourages students to create a dream board. The goal helps girls envision and map out their future.

“The Bible says write the vision and make it plain,” Ms. Ellzey said. “I want them to write their vision, and I want them to make it real plain so they (go) after it.”