Black Male Achievement Fellows Making A Difference in African-American Communities
By Joshunda Sanders
Amaha Kassa is a Black Male Achievement Fellow
New York, NY (June 21, 2012) -- By fall, an organization known as BlocPower will be helping minority churches, nonprofits and small businesses nationwide reduce their energy bills with retrofit construction projects that also create jobs in communities of color.
Another organization, Visible Men Inc., in Sarasota, Fla., is working with schools and community agencies to spread stories of successful African-American men, exposing black youths and their parents to inspirational images of "real-life" successful black men. Visible Men officials say they focus on what is working for black men and youths, rather than what is failing.
These programs and six others are run by social entrepreneurs who are the inaugural Black Male Achievement fellows. In partnership with Echoing Green, an organization in New York that has provided entrepreneur fellowships for 25 years, Open Society Foundations in New York has launched a special fellowship program designed to improve communities of color and life outcomes for African-American males.
Donnel Baird, of BlocPower, and Neil Phillips, of Visible Men, are two of the nine entrepreneurs making a difference in their communities.
"We are creating opportunities for innovative thinkers and doers to give birth to ideas and solutions that address the most entrenched problems facing black men and boys in America," says Shawn Dove, manager of Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement. "We are encouraging African-American males to play significant roles in their communities and providing resources to support their efforts."
Cheryl L. Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, said the organization is excited to partner with the Open Society Foundations to identify and support social entrepreneurs who deliver positive outcomes for black men and youths in America. "As a pioneer in identifying and mobilizing next generation talent, we believe this partnership with the Open Society Foundations will begin to create a pipeline of best-in-class new leadership for the field," she says.
Rashid Shabazz, a program officer for the Open Society Foundations, says fellows receive $70,000 in startup capital and support through exclusive training, consulting opportunities, mentorship and access to the broad network of Echoing Green and the Open Society Foundations.
"We want the fellowships to support individuals who don't just see problems in their communities but can think big and bold, and see ways to address the problems," Shabazz says. "The status quo has not worked for black males. We want the fellowship to further the people willing to try new approaches and take risks. We need to overcome the legacy of structural and institutional racism that has trapped black males at the bottom of American society."
Shabazz says the fellowship has successfully discovered social entrepreneurs committed to innovative approaches that will obtain results.
African Immigrant Diaspora Alliance
As immigration has become a hot political and policy topic, one of the fastest growing groups of immigrants and refugees in America - those from Africa - has been largely neglected in big organizations.
Amaha Kassa, a first-generation American whose family immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia as refugees, hopes to fill that void through development of the African Immigrant Diaspora Alliance. With support awarded to Black Male Achievement fellows, Kassa plans to launch the alliance in New York in the fall and expand its scope to incorporate communities of African immigrants in other major U.S. cities.
Kassa, who attended Brown University, recently completed a J.D. degree in law at the University of California, Berkeley and a master's degree in public policy at Harvard University. His work has won awards that include the Harvard Public Service Fellowship and the Berkeley Law Dean's Fellowship. His academic pursuits are entrenched in a long history of union and grassroots organizing.
Kassa has organized nursing home workers in Detroit and poultry workers in Alabama. In 2001, as part of his work with the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides, he says, "I was surprised to see how few organizations were working with that constituency. The result was that African immigrant voices weren't really represented in major policy initiatives."
Absence of real influence among members of the African diaspora in the United States was striking, Kassa says, because Africans who voluntarily migrated here are a large part of the black community.
"The African immigrant community is 40 times bigger today than it was in 1970," he says. "It's four times bigger than it was in 1990. Something like 20 percent of the growth over the last couple of decades in the black community has come from immigration."
Earning the Black Male Achievement Fellowship has been a huge asset for launching what will be one of few African-led organizations geared toward the growing African diaspora community in the United States. "There aren't a lot of organizations willing to be the first to take a gamble on a big undertaking like this one," Kassa says, adding that the fellowship is "providing the first step on the ladder, and that first step is killer, so it's critical to have that foundation."
Fight for Light
In Atlanta, Markese Bryant and John Jordan are launching Fight for Light, a modern social justice movement designed to engage black youths in environmental justice projects in African-American communities.
As students at Morehouse College, Bryant and Jordan met in a class on foundations of leadership. Bryant was pursuing African-American studies, and Jordan was aiming for a career on Wall Street. Both were inspired to think deeply about the role of black youths in addressing environmental and sustainability concerns.
Bryant began working with Green for All, a national organization based in Oakland, Calif., and Washington that seeks to build a green economy to lift people out of poverty. The two worked together on a 2010 pilot retrofitting project at Morehouse to replace fluorescent light bulbs with energy-efficient LED bulbs in some classrooms. They then developed a model for Fight for Light, a "SNCC for the Green Economy," as Bryant calls it.
Bryant and Jordan were concerned that the Green Economy movement wasn't engaging students in America's 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, in particular. So they started Fight for Light to begin educating them.
"As students, we'll have to put a lot of effort forth to work against darkness, and this mentality of not knowing about our community, with regards to our food and other environmental issues," Bryant says.
The two Black Male Achievement fellows plan initially to target HBCU students, offering classes on green living. Eventually, Bryant and Jordan want to extend Fight for Light's work to Latino and Native American communities to further "bolster the representation of young people of color in the emerging Green Economy."
Coaching for Change, Inc.
Few role models for young black men are more alluring than basketball stars, though the odds of becoming one are not in their favor. Marquis Taylor, a Los Angeles native, grew up with the same hoop dreams as some youths he mentors with Coaching for Change, Inc. A 6-foot-5 forward, Taylor was named athlete of the year at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., in 2006, the year he graduated.
"Sports had a huge impact on my life," Taylor says. "But I didn't have that many positive male role models growing up on a consistent basis. No one really stayed with me over time, and I never developed a valuable relationship outside of my sports and coaches."
After graduating, Taylor earned a master's degree in education at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. While studying there, he developed Coaching for Change. He had noticed a disconnect between expectations of varsity high school athletes he coached in Brockton, Mass., and endless career possibilities they weren't considering because they focused on becoming basketball legends.
"It's easy for kids to say, 'I want to be a doctor, a lawyer or an NBA player,' because that's all they see," Taylor says. Youths in urban communities are in dire need of pathways that employ them and help them develop leadership skills to rebuild their communities through sports, he says. "They lack exposure to the myriad of opportunities available to them," he says.
Coaching for Change inspires and empowers teens in urban communities to create change in their neighborhoods. The program trains high school students to coach youth sports before they are employed to create sporting events such as after-school programs, clinics, camps and tournaments for youths in grades one to six. The process exposes youths to marketing, financial literacy and other challenging aspects of life beyond the violence and drugs they frequently see in their communities.
The apprenticeship model also instructs them to work on developing relationships. "Instead of being a dream killer and telling them their dreams are statistically unrealistic, I can help them use those dreams as an avenue" to explore a number of career options, Taylor says.
Other Black Male Achievement fellows are also contributing to their communities. B. Cole runs the Brown Boi Project in Oakland, which helps to empower straight, gay and transgender black men under 35 to do work associated with gender justice.
Khalil Fuller, a student at Brown University, is creator and CEO of NBA Math Hoops, a game that harnesses the power and influence of National Basketball Association and Women's National Basketball Association stars to inspire students to be excited about building math skills.
Jessica Johnson runs the Scholarship Academy in Atlanta, which helps black high school students learn how to earn scholarships to fund their college educations.
"This first class of Black Male Achievement fellows is a truly remarkable group of pioneers who will now have the space and support they need to tackle the most complicated and entrenched problems facing the black community today," Dove says.
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