On a brisk Thursday morning, inside the halls of Washington High School of Information Technology (a central landmark in the heart of the Sherman Park neighborhood), defining moments are happening. In fact, these defining moments have found a comfortable convening space at First Thursday’s, a reoccurring mentorship luncheon organized by the Black & Latino Male Achievement Program at Milwaukee Public Schools. Organizers of the Black & Latino Male Achievement Program say that this will have a profound impact on MPS students. Thursday’s discussions are all about self-esteem and identity. These luncheons were initially meant to be a one-time event as part of their launch week that happened back in October. The event was received so well by both students and stakeholders that they now take place on the first Thursday of each month at Washington and Bradley Tech High-School, two learning institutions within the Milwaukee Public School district.
Through First Thursday’s, the Black & Latino Male Achievement Group creates a safe space that connects young boys with positive examples of men of color who have excelled and succeeded in a multitude of arenas — ranging from business, entrepreneurship, non-profits, political office, education, technology, etc. The luncheon is designed to seat 3-4 young men at a table that is ‘hosted’ by a mentor; this host is responsible for facilitating an activity or discussion around a specific topic. Young men are tasked with a writing prompt that encouraged them to champion their story as a way to document their history to combat misunderstandings of what it means to be a man of color. Students spend roughly 15 minutes diving deep on one question before rotating to a new table for fellowship with a new mentor and a repeat process. This builds consistency. To be able to receive valuable lessons from non-traditional educators, community men who have an extreme buy-in to the success of young boys of color who understand the obstacles and can provide hope, guidance, and mentorship on how to navigate in the skin that they’re in.
What I was able to witness on the second floor of that library was nothing short of magic. There were roughly a dozen men of color, taking pride in restoring value in the next generation of black and brown males. Staring back at them were just over 30 young soon to be men, varying in grades, each of them dedicated to re-defining the narrative that follows them. The narrative, one so familiar that we’re almost numb to the statistical data that sees the achievement gap amongst Black & Latino male students remain bottom feeders, the same narrative that finds Black & Brown males incarcerated at alarming higher rates. Negative stereotypes and broken systems allow poverty and systems of oppression to accept Black & Brown men with open arms like loving mothers.
I found comfort in finding out what was important to this group of men; there was a respect for the floor that called for individuals young and old to stand when speaking full group. It couldn’t be stressed enough that these engagements were not a space for judgement and that the learning was two-fold; that the mentors are in a position to learn just as much as the mentees.
In between bites of pizza, I had the opportunity to share at great length what it means in my eyes to be a leader. I challenged students to look deeply and find the leader within themselves as opposed to traits they identify with as leadership. I witnessed camaraderie. I felt respect. I laughed. I was put in a position to reflect on my own core values. I learned. I saw a portal into the next generation. Most importantly, I left for the day confident the needle is moving in the right direction.
“For every man who has lived there should be a document authored from his own perspective, for the purpose of his own wellness. And if he so chooses, those volumes with his insight, knowledge, intellectual property, financial developments, and travels should be passed down and archived within his family or community.”
– Ayesha Gallion