How African American men are defying stereotypes at schools across the country

Black men suit up across the US to inspire students going back to school.

Mark Bugnaski/Kalamazoo Gazette via AP
Students at Kalamazoo's Edison Environmental Science Academy were greeted by dozens of male mentors on the first day of school, Tuesday, September 8. The event was organized by Mothers of Hope, a neighborhood organization inspired by similar gatherings in Atlanta and Hartford.

When seniors at Atlanta’s all-male B.E.S.T. Academy showed up for their last-ever first day of school, they were surprised to see a familiar crowd waiting outside.

As they shuffled up to the front door, grinning in spite of themselves, each boy got a fist bump and words of encouragement from The Emerging 100 of Atlanta, a young professionals group for black men.

The E 100, as they’re known, offer one-on-one mentoring at B.E.S.T. throughout the year, a program credited with pushing school graduation rates over 90 percent. The nationwide average for black men, in contrast, stands at just 59 percent, compared to 80% for their white classmates. The E 100 are themselves beneficiaries of the pass-it-on approach, mentored by 100 Black Men of Atlanta.

Although the men have big dreams for their students, they hardly guessed that their power for good could extend beyond Atlanta. But as a quick video of their first-day greeting spread online, it turned into the gift that keeps on giving, inspiring similar events in Hartford, Connecticut, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, with the potential for more lasting change.

When Connecticut Pastor A.J. Johnson heard about E 100’s back-to-school surprise, he saw an opportunity to create role models for children without them. Too often, he believes, the media project a negative stereotype of black men: images and stories with tragic real-life consequences.

“The way the media portrays us is that we’re thugs,” Johnson explained to A Plus Media. “I wanted to prove everyone wrong.”

Dispelling these deeply-held biases starts early, so Pastor Johnson and DeVaughn Ward resolved to greet students at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School with cheers, handshakes, and high-fives from as many men as possible: men, that is, dressed to the nines. Their “Calling All Brothers” social media campaign drew 100 volunteers, each one sporting his professional outfit, from business suits to police uniforms.

Many of MLK’s students are children of color, and single-parent households are common. For young boys, growing up black in a world where only 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs look like them, Johnson and DeVaughn believe that having a 100-strong cheering squad of professional black men sends a strong message to dispel dangerous stereotypes. Not just for children: “For this image to get out of well-dressed men coming together, it’s what the country needs at the moment,” Johnson added.

The morning’s extravaganza was such a blast, for kids and grown-ups alike, that the men headed off to another school once the elementary students had settled inside, and Ward hopes they can return to talk about their careers. 

But Hartford was not the last stop for the now-contagious idea.

Mothers of Hope, a neighborhood organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan, got wind of the Atlanta and Hartford events and decided to replicate it as part of a long-term effort to increase men’s participation in the school district. Engaging men as role models can “help reduce the violence in these communities,” said Mothers of Hope leader Stephanie Moore, whose 140 volunteers wound up visiting three schools. 

The men-in-suits greeting line has traveled 1,800 miles, and organizers hope similar efforts will spread even farther, chipping away at cliches and empowering young boys in particular. But its central message remains unchanged: get involved. “These are our children,” one Mothers of Hope board member emphasized. “We own them and we own their outcomes.” 

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