By Rebecca Palermo
Encouraging our Black sons to shine is incredibly important to many members of the Moms of Black Boys United, Inc. Facebook group. We hear countless stories of young Black boys and men defining their ambitions, chasing their dreams, and exceeding their goals. In many of our sons’ lives, mentors play a positive and impactful role, inspiring their mentees to carve out a future that is fulfilling and allows them to make their mark on the world.
Maria Thrasher, a mom of twins, recently relayed the story of her son’s experience with a local mentoring program organized by 100 Black Men of Greater Charlotte, NC. When she moved her family to the Charlotte area, her children were entering middle school, and the family did not have the strong network of support they had previously enjoyed in their hometown of Columbus, OH. A single mother, Maria felt that her son could benefit from the influence of a positive male role model.
When her son, Austin, interviewed with Brian Willis, the organization’s outgoing president, Brian was so impressed with the middle-schooler that he personally requested to be Austin’s mentor himself. In the years since, Austin, who will turn 16 years-old this February, thrived under Brian’s mentorship. Maria reported, “In the last four years, Brian has been present at every school event, every important moment, and has made himself available to talk any time that Austin has needed him.” Brian’s family has developed a close relationship with Maria’s family, and Maria has appreciated the friendship she has built with Brian’s wife, as well as his wife’s influence on her daughter, with whom she shares similar interests.
The overall mentorship program hosts a Saturday Academy, during which mentors tackle different topics relevant to the boys involved in the program, including the series of shootings of Black boys and men by police throughout 2015 and 2016. According to Maria, they confronted the issues head-on, having candid conversations about the dangers Black boys and men face, and talking about the ways that Black boys and men should handle confrontations with police officers and begin to develop a trusted partnership with Mecklenburg County Police.
They also take trips, allow mentors and mentees to spend time with other mentors and mentees in the program, and host a cookout each summer that offers experiences for bonding and recreation. The group participates in community service projects together, modeling kindness, generosity, and civic leadership. The boys also are exposed to men who are professionals in a variety of fields, from doctors and attorneys to the local police chief, athletes, financial planners, engineers, and CEOs.
Maria says that Austin would call Brian a father, a brother, an uncle, a motivator, a wise councilor, a teacher, and his biggest champion. She views the program as invaluable, giving her son a sense of self-assurance while simultaneously holding him accountable and maintaining high expectations of him and the other boys in the program.
Jasyme Tolber and her twin brother, Austin Tolber, Jr.
Maria poses with her twins, Jasmyne and Austin, Jr.
Several hours across the same state of North Carolina, in the town of Kinston, Kristal Suggs lives with her remarkable son, Chris. When Chris was 14 years old, he was processing onslaught of nightly news reporting on local youth violence and shootings. Determined to change perceptions of Kinston’s youth population, Chris founded Kinston Teens, a youth mentoring program which serves elementary school kids throughout the year, plus a summer mentoring program that is the cornerstone of the organization’s work.
Chris enlisted teens to mentor these younger kids, giving the teenagers a sense of accomplishment and the fulfillment that comes along with being a role model, and allowing the grade school children the opportunity to talk, play, and find companionship with older kids who could relate to their worries, dreams, and questions about the future. During the summer program, the mentors and their mentees participate in building vision boards, doing team building exercises, and sharing experiences that have challenged them, soliciting feedback in order to grow and develop creative solutions to problems in the future.
Chris also launched the Black Youth Network, which brings together young Black leaders from a variety of communities to share ideas, inspire one another, and convene both online and in person. These young leaders attended last summer’s Summer Youth Program, allowing kids from a number of states to participate in leadership and team building exercises.
If leading these two organizations wasn’t enough for a high school student to manage, Chris also graduated high school in 3 years and is currently in his first year as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has arranged for a youth leadership council to run the program, though he remains involved, as he feels a strong sense of dedication to his small town and the kids who live there. For more information about Chris’ work, visit www.chrisjsuggs.com.
Chris J. Suggs spends time with the young people of Kinston, NC, as a part of his local mentorship program.
Chris J. Suggs, pictured with Nickelodeon Halo Awards 2016 host Nick Cannon, is honored for his tremendous work at the awards ceremony.
Our sons aren’t the only ones getting involved in mentoring programs in their areas. A Cleveland-area mom reported to us that her husband started his own mentoring program in 2012, when he saw a need for children in his community to develop relationships with Black men who would become positive male role models for boys starting as young as middle school age and even serves young men up to 22 years of age.
The program aims to expose kids to men of differing educational backgrounds and professional expertise, to help them understand the possibilities that are available to them as they grow up. The mentors and mentees hold weekly meetings, which invite open conversation and the sharing of concerns and ideas. It is this Cleveland father’s belief that a simple conversation can change someone’s path in life, and he says that the mentors find it fulfilling to see the kids they mentor grow, both personally and academically.
Since many of the kids in this program come from working parent homes in which they must often be “the man of the house”, the program offers them the chance to be kids and to lean on their mentors for advice and guidance as they navigate the world in which they are growing up.
Moms of Black Boys United, Inc. is incredibly proud of these sons, fathers, and moms for creating opportunities for our boys to thrive and become young men with dreams and ambitions both diverse and fulfilling. As our sons become tomorrow’s leaders, we’re sure that they will carry their mentorship experiences with them, eventually giving back to the younger generation.