At an event showcasing recipients of the Philly Roots Fellowship, a program supported by the Open Society Foundations that equips mentors with the tools they need to help young African-American men succeed, five powerful black male mentors sat center stage.
But it was 19-year-old Rashaun Williams who moderated the conversation among more than 60 black boys. They talked about being on the giving and receiving ends of mentoring and the importance of knowledge transfer between generations to ignite “phresh perspectives.”
The event, which celebrated National Mentoring Month, was co-organized by Techbook Online, a millennial-led news organization headquartered in Philadelphia designed to make the world aware of untold stories, and Sankofa Freedom Academy, a charter high school in the Frankford section of Philadelphia.
The group of teenagers hung onto Williams's every word. They were enjoying themselves, and the positive energy in the room allowed for an open discussion.
When Williams, the youngest BMe Leader in Philadelphia, revealed he was still a teenager himself, the young men reacted with “Yoooo, he a young bull, that’s wassup,” and “Nineteen? I didn’t know you could do stuff like this at nineteen, wow." BMe is a network of black men committed to making all communities stronger. It is backed by a partnership of foundations including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and the Heinz Endowment.
Williams, who is also a popular DJ, told the young men that he did not realize he was being mentored until he saw the impact he was having on other young people’s lives. “An idol is someone you look up to; a mentor is someone who looks back,” he said.
Williams then asked the boys, “What is manhood?” and “What is black manhood?”
One after another of the students popped up and gave their definitions.
“Manhood is when you do things for people but you think of others instead of yourself,” said one student.
“Black manhood is working together—having a collective responsibility,” answered another.
One student said, “Black manhood is defying the odds of what people expect you to do.”
“I think manhood is a state of mind of maturity," said another. "I think with manhood you have to be willing to sacrifice and have priorities. Everything you do should have a purpose, because your actions don’t just affect you but everyone around you.”
Williams asked, “How does society view black manhood?”
A young man wearing a black hoodie stood up and said, “Across the world, we are portrayed as violent, disrespectful to our women, and that we don’t take care of our children. But we know that’s not true. Society is real biased, and it’s harsh on us.”
We have it within our power as a society to topple barriers to equal opportunity for everyone, including African-American men and boys, who often face steep obstacles and inaccurate depictions in the media, which can affect self-perceptions and lead to diminished self-esteem.
Despite the word on the street, African-American men and boys are not problems that need to be solved—they’re assets. Every day they’re working to build strong communities.