Mentorship Is the Key to Success
By Sheldon Smith
I don’t think I knew I was being mentored but when I was still in elementary school some very special people reached out to me, believed in me, and opened doors for me that I didn’t know existed.
At the time, there was no one that I particularly looked up to. The powerful men in my neighborhood were the drug dealers and gang bangers but I knew that I wouldn’t make anything of myself with those types of role models.
A terrible fire, in which some of my family members died, led to the establishment of a youth leadership training organization in my neighborhood, the Metropolitan Area Group for Igniting Civilization, Inc. (M.A.G.I.C.). The organization became a refuge from the streets for me. It was there that I learned community organizing while being mentored by the Founder, Joe Strickland. Joe saw something in me and helped me grow into the position of Lead Youth Organizer.
During this time I also met Dr. Cathy Cohen. She was the lead Investigator of the Black Youth Project and took a special interest in me. I was surrounded by negative influences in the streets but knew I had a safe place at M.A.G.I.C. It was there that I learned the value of mentoring, and I knew that I wanted to accomplish something so that I could mentor someone someday.
I spent all of my teen years at M.A.G.I.C. and when I became a father at the age of 21, I had two initial thoughts. First, that I needed a mentor that could teach me how to be a good father; and second, that there had to be hundreds, if not thousands of other young fathers who needed the same thing.
That was the beginning of The Dovetail Project. I knew I had to find a way to become the father I wanted to be for my daughter. After all those years of positive mentoring, I believed in myself enough to think that I could start my own organization and program to do just that.
Because of this mentality, all kinds of people and resources showed up to help me start The Dovetail Project. Marsha Miles stepped up to be my mentor and grant writer. Dr. Waldo Johnson, an esteemed University of Chicago professor and authority on parenting and black masculinity, stepped up to keep me on the right track in developing my curriculum. And Rudy Nimocks opened a world of University of Chicago resources to help me make it all happen.
During this time I was connected to a director by the name of Mary Morten which led me to participate in a documentary Woke Up Black. Within the film I describe my life struggles and achievements. The film has made an impact on my life because I’ve used my life story as a tool to reach back and mentor others. I was so embarrassed to tell my story until I realized how much it was helping youth and starting new conversations about African American youth.
Now, three years later, through The Dovetail Project, I have mentored 96 fathers and helped them learn the skills to parent, obtain employment, and commit to giving back to their communities.
Woke Up Black followed five black youth for two years. During this time we witnessed interactions with family members, educational institutions, and the legal and judicial system. We saw the social networking that is critical to the successful development of these youth and we provided a rare opportunity to hear youth speak out on some of the important and potentially life- altering topics of the day. The film underscores the humanity that we all share with each other regardless of race or age. For some of the youth profiled, despite extraordinary circumstances, they remain hopeful. For more information, please visit: www.wokeupblack.com.
Sheldon Smith is the executive director of the Dovetail Project.