As Juneteenth approaches, it is important to extend our celebrations beyond the accomplishments of the past. Many of us have been inspired by the giants of the past – Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, Malcolm X and others. Driven by a sense of duty to their communities, they were willing to dedicate themselves to the traditions of social justice. By preparing themselves with a quality education they were able to understand the foundational reasons leading to social and economic despair. It was James Baldwin who helped many of us understand that poverty and social inequities stem from America’s original sin — racism; and, at its root, according to Baldwin – and others – is the 400 year legacy of slavery and a less than honest attempt to understand that legacy.
We must now look to the future. While continuing to celebrate the giants, we can turn our lens toward the next generation of leaders. It was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me that helped the men involved in the Center for Male Engagement at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) understand the current plight of Black men, Black boys and Black sons, should the race problem not be solved. With the help of the advisers and Center for Male Engagement coaches, they arm themselves with education, informed irreverence and a high degree of social awareness. They defy the odds, and now we look to them to change lives and change communities. Three brief stories illustrate this pattern.
Sadly but not surprisingly, Quamiir’s upbringing is an all too familiar story of a Black boy in Philadelphia. Quamiir’s father was sentenced to life in prison when he was an infant. When he was in the third grade, his older brother was murdered. Not traumatic enough, during the same year, his mother, unable to deal with the loss of her child and a life unimagined, succumbed to drugs and was determined by the court to be an unfit parent. Quamiir’s grandmother, being the steady force in the family, stepped in and up to raise him and his younger brother, but Quamiir had already lost his sense of direction.
Struggling to find a sense of belonging, stability and purpose, he was able to find it in street life and selling drugs. Neither being arrested nor his grandmother’s countless prayers were enough to deter him from this chosen path. Then, on one fated day, his best friend, and the person that he was selling drugs with at the time, was shot and killed. The judge sentenced Quamiir to a residential program for troubled teens in Philadelphia. While there he received a letter from his younger brother saying how much he respected and looked up to him. Envisioning a life that he wanted for his younger brother, Quamiir had a moment of clarity and embarked on a different life path. He eventually graduated as salutatorian of his class, left the street life behind and after his release, enrolled at the college and in the Center for Male Engagement program.
Robert attended Girard College, a free residential K – 12 private school in Philadelphia. His mother’s decision to send him to Girard College was partly because he was a bright kid, but also because, as a single mother, she was deeply worried that she would lose him to the streets. She thought Girard College would give him a chance to be somebody. Simply put, she wanted to save his life. However, life had different plans. Girard College could not protect Robert from what loomed beyond its walls and at eighteen years of age, he was convicted of drug and gun possession. He would eventually do two eight-year sentences with an 18-month gap between the two.
Upon his final release, he was determined that he would no longer get in his own way. Now a father, he committed to a life of volunteerism and mentorship in the hope that he would help keep at least one young black boy from making the same mistakes he made. Through the suggestion of his mentor, he decided that college was a viable option and decided to enroll at CCP and in the Center for Male Engagement program.
On the surface, Jachai is not the type of student that would concern you. Bright, driven, focused and mature, he entered Community College of Philadelphia through our Gateway to College Program. He excelled academically and immediately was recognized for his leadership potential. You could not be in his presence and unimpressed by the ways he presented himself. You simply walked away knowing that this young man is and will be more than okay. That is, of course, until you observed him when he did not think you were watching. Among his peers, Jachai engaged masterfully yet emotionally guarded, and it was in those shielded moments that you became concerned about the young man that hid behind the mask that grins and lies. After completing the Gateway to College Program, Jachai enrolled in the Center for Male Engagement program.
Quamiir, Robert and Jachai represent the reason why the Center for Male Engagement program exists. These three men have different backgrounds and life experiences, but each of their journeys led them to the Center for Male Engagement program. Each one needed a space to be welcomed without judgment, an opportunity to be supported among peers and staff despite their circumstances, and an unwavering expectation to live by the affirmation, “I am because we are and because we are, therefore I am.” Now, fully armed, each has demonstrated what can be achieved when you give yourself permission to be, give, grow, lead, learn and serve. Quamiir has since graduated from Howard University (2017) with a B.A. in elementary education. He is a fourth-grade teacher at Bethune Elementary School and a motivational speaker. Robert graduated from CCP with high honors and will graduate from Temple University in May 2019 with a B.A. in adult and organizational development. He continues to volunteer and currently works at CCP as an academic mentor for Pennsylvania’s first Middle College at Parkway Center City. Jachai received his high school diploma and associate degree with high honors in liberal arts in May 2018, had a summer internship at City Hall and plans to attend Temple University in the fall 2019 majoring in business administration. Both Quamiir and Jachai are also among the city’s student representatives for President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.
They are just three of our modern day Black male heroes who participated in the Center for Male Engagement program. They are shining examples of how we prepare our students to know who they are, how to forgive (themselves), see beyond their immediate circumstances, persevere, stay conscious, pay it forward and ultimately, boldly take their rightful places in the classroom, the community and on the global stage.
Dr. Donald Guy Generals is president of the Community College of Philadelphia. Derrick Perkins is director for the Center of Male Engagement at the Community College of Philadelphia.