100 Black Men gala hon­ors men­tor­ing pro­gram grads

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - High Profile - BOBBY AMPEZZAN

On Thurs­day, the 100 Black Men of Greater Lit­tle Rock will hold its an­nual Christ­mas gala at the Dou­bleTree down­town. It will be a mod­est af­fair as th­ese things go — after all, there’s roughly 20 of them, pres­i­dent John Miller says with a shrug.

Th­ese 20 will put on a pro­gram for per­haps 200 folks or more who’ll be “turned out,” as they say. Last year, then-gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Asa and Susan Hutchin­son joined. Min­gling among the ball­room crowd this year will be about two dozen teenage boys in new suits from Fauzio’s.

Some other Christ­mas sea­son, this gala might come and go with hardly a shiver of the nee­dle gaug­ing so­cial event noise, but this year protests and demon­stra­tions have turned the eyes of the na­tion on black men ev­ery­where — the na­tional prayer for peace this Christ­mas sea­son makes men­tion of Cleve­land, New York and Fer­gu­son, Mo.

“We whole­heart­edly re­ject the no­tion that be­ing a young black per­son makes you a threat,” Miller says, and “when we walk them through our pro­gram, we try to equip them with things, not nec­es­sar­ily to make them less threat­en­ing — if peo­ple are go­ing to be threat­ened by you, they’re go­ing to be threat­ened — but we try to equip them with things that will break that stereo­type.”

Last week­end, Miller and a few of the 100 Black Men along with all two dozen in the 100 Academy Men­tor­ing Pro­gram put on a pan­cake break­fast for about 200 par­ents and chil­dren who turned out for a Break­fast With Santa at Martin Luther King El­e­men­tary School. After it was served, Miller and a few of the men called the boys to­gether.

“All right, all right, all right. Every­body in? Raise your hand if you’ve al­ready got­ten your tick­ets from Mr. Har­ris,” Miller said, re­fer­ring to the Christ­mas gala.

The boys make up a big part of the pro­gram. Along with their new suits, they’ll each re­ceive a leather note­book sleeve with

an in­di­vid­u­al­ized let­ter from one of the men. There’s a cer­tifi­cate of com­ple­tion from the Academy, as well as a fi­nan­cial gift tucked into one of the pock­ets.

“Th­ese tick­ets are worth $60 each, OK? So do not lose the tick­ets. We will feed y’all good. It will be a nice night. We want ev­ery­one to be there and look­ing good.”

Then Miller made his “clos­ing re­marks.” The Academy is an eight-week pro­gram that meets each Satur­day inside the Mo­saic Templars Cul­tural Cen­ter. Dur­ing a 90-minute ses­sion, they dis­cuss and con­sider what suc­cess, mo­ti­va­tion, trust and other character at­tributes look like. They wel­come guest speak­ers. One of them this year was French Hill, the con­gress­man-elect for the 2nd Dis­trict.

“Look fel­las, we love you guys, and when we started this pro­gram three years ago, our num­ber one job was to make sure that brothers knew that peo­ple cared.”

Just be­fore this speech, Miller met in the hall with state Rep. Fred Love , D-Lit­tle Rock. Miller is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­cial work at the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock. His work to date has been on race and eth­nic­ity in Amer­ica, and one of his spe­cial­ties is sui­cide — its in­di­ca­tors and preven­tion. He was dis­cussing this and some re­cent grant awards with Love. Among all deaths in the black com­mu­nity, sui­cide ranks 16th, but among those ages 16-24, it’s third.

“We don’t want th­ese guys ever to have the ex­cuse, ‘No one ever cared.’”

Miller started the Academy with a few boys. With word of mouth and a con­certed re­cruit­ment ef­fort, the 100 were able to raise that num­ber to about 18 last year, and this year it’s 24.

“I’ll be hon­est with you, I hon­estly thought th­ese guys would be on their high horse think­ing they’re bet­ter than every­body,” said Christo­pher McCol­lum, 16, whose mother made his decision to join the Academy for him. “But even though they’re suc­cess­ful, they’re down-to-earth cool peo­ple. Be­cause at first I didn’t want to come here. I thought th­ese were go­ing to be some stuck-up peo­ple ….”

Role mod­els? Clearly the 100 and its Academy have cre­ated a clas­sic Big Brother/ Lit­tle Brother dy­namic, but nei­ther side used the phrase “role model” ex­plic­itly.

“Well, it [may be] for some young black men, but me, I have a role model in my life,” said 15-year-old Bray­lan De­brow, who says he’d like one day to open his own shoe store. This ser­vice was about “get­ting ex­pe­ri­ence help­ing out our com­mu­nity and the kids — show­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion.”

“I think it’s good to show more [ap­pre­ci­a­tion] than what we are show­ing.”

And, in so do­ing, earn some ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

“We teach our young men about suc­cess,” Miller says. “Mo­ti­va­tion, aca­demic suc­cess and trust, but guess what? What does the world need to know about black men? That we have suc­cess, that we are mo­ti­vated, that we do have re­spect for aca­demics, and trust.”

His­tor­i­cally, the 100 Black Men were some of the most af­flu­ent in their re­spec­tive com­mu­ni­ties, but, at least here in Lit­tle Rock, the sub­stance and the im­age of it has changed.

“My good­ness, man, I wish we had the kind of money as an or­ga­ni­za­tion to give each one of th­ese kids $5,000 schol­ar­ships, but we don’t.”

What they do have is street cred, not as moguls or stars but real-life suc­cess sto­ries. They haven’t riches, but they have con­cern, and they have time. They of­fer both.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/BOBBY AM­PEZ­ZAN

Univer­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor John Miller heads up the 100 Black Men of Greater Lit­tle Rock, which hosts its end-of-year gala Thurs­day, at which the two dozen or so mem­bers of the youth acad­emy Miller and others started will...

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/BOBBY AM­PEZ­ZAN

John Miller (cen­ter) says, “We teach our young men about suc­cess — mo­ti­va­tion, aca­demic suc­cess and trust, but guess what? What does the world need to know about black men? That we have suc­cess, that we are mo­ti­vated, that we do have re­spect for...

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