Shamar Herron knows what it's like to be misunderstood as a young man of color.
"I was 6 feet, 7 inches tall in sixth grade," Herron says. "I had a lot of obstacles to overcome."
Herron recalls being mistaken for being much older when he was just goofing off with his friends and being harassed by the police. On the other hand, he notes that young men of color today face a whole new set of challenges in the bullying and harassment that can arise on social media.
Sharing that sense of empathy with younger men of color is one reason Herron stepped up to be on the steering and planning committees for Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper (WMBK).
My Brother's Keeper (MBK) was an Obama-era White House initiative that challenged adult communities of color to mentor their youth, focusing on school readiness and success, preparation for college and career, and giving second chances to youth who have had run-ins with law enforcement.
Washtenaw was the first county in the nation to sign the MBK pledge and start a local chapter. That local chapter has gone through a few changes since it kicked off in 2016, and Herron says it "lacked consistency early on."
But WMBK has recently gained new momentum thanks to the hiring of a part-time staff member and the assembly of a community coalition of funding partners including Washtenaw County government, the county sheriff's department, Ypsilanti Community Schools, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, and Eastern Michigan University. The organization is now working to uplift local young men of color by providing a safe space, encouraging positive role models, influencing policy, and boosting the signal for similar community groups.
"Some of these young men might seem huge and tall, but they're still young people, and most have really good hearts," Herron says.
Building intergenerational relationships
Building relationships between young men of color and their elders is at the core of MBK's mission.
Marcus Johnson, another WMBK steering committee member, interacts with youth through his position as an administrator at the county's juvenile detention program.
He says he got involved in WMBK in February of 2018 because he was "interested in trying to promote different resources in the community for young men of color" and help point these young men in the right direction. Johnson says he appreciates the group's emphasis on building intergenerational relationships.
WMBK is building those relationships through a variety of events, including several local action summits. The local chapter has also recently added monthly "50 Strong" breakfasts at the former Willow Run Middle School in Ypsilanti Township, attracting a range of participants from grade-school children to grandfathers.
The breakfasts are meant to build a core group of roughly 50 men who can be called upon for support, whether that means tutoring, showing up to support young men at an athletic competition, or supporting a young man's artistic ambitions.
"When Ypsi and Lincoln schools had a rivalry game, several of us wore our 50 Strong shirts to show who we are, that we support the community, and to just be a positive male influence," says Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department and WMBK steering committee member.
Jackson says he hopes the 50 Strong will do more mentoring in the future and "connect with families that need a positive role model and guide in their early years."
Focusing on assets, not deficits
Though Obama's original MBK challenge focused on deficits that young men of color face, from struggles to read at grade level to staying in school through graduation, WMBK is putting an emphasis on the assets and gifts that young men of color bring to their community.
In October 2018, WMBK hosted its third local action summit, featuring Trabian Shorters, founder of BMe, an organization that puts an emphasis on "asset framing."
The theme of the summit was "challenging our community to think about our assumptions about young men and boys of color," says Tabitha Bentley, who was recently hired as director of strategy for WMBK.
"We're always approaching these issues with the lens of seeing problems, challenges, and issues," she says. "This is really a call to view boys and young men of color in terms of aspirations, the contributions they're making and want to make, and to check our biased views around them."
Jackson cites the example of black children being held up as "the face of poverty" because young black children disproportionately grow up in poverty.
"Why aren't they the face of patriotism for the same reason?" Jackson asks. "Men of color have a much higher likelihood of going into the military. And why aren't we the face of philanthropy? Per capita, we give more of our money to nonprofits."
Jackson says he'd also like to bust the stereotype that black men aren't involved in their children's lives.
"I used to walk my daughter to the bus stop in West Willow, and on our corner there were five or six other black fathers that did the same," he says. "We hear all these negatives about black fathers not being involved, but in my neighborhood, we see more fathers than mothers walking their kids to the bus stop."
Boosting the signal
Another big part of WMBK's ongoing mission is to fortify and boost the work others are already doing around empowering youth and communities of color. Both Herron and Jackson agree there is no need to "reinvent the wheel" when it comes to mentoring and promoting school success.
"We have so many local nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Mentor 2 Youth, and Black Men Read that have these great programs and initiatives," Jackson says. "What we can help to do is create a call to action, bringing men together and letting them know there are resources out here and we can provide an army of boots on the ground when community groups or initiatives need us."
Jackson says he'd also like to see the 50 Strong breakfasts become a place where men of color can discuss and learn more about government and school policies so they can advocate for changes that will help young men of color.
He says "there's policy work to be done" around housing, home ownership, criminal justice reform, influencing local school systems' decisions around hiring administrators, and other topics that impact communities of color.
Perhaps WMBK's most important mission, however, is simply "holding space for young men of color," as Bentley describes the intent of the monthly breakfast.
She says she can empathize with the desire to enjoy spaces with a sense of intergenerational camaraderie and comfort as a woman of color.
"Those spaces are important, not just personally, but from a self-identity standpoint," she says. "It's a place that validates you and says, 'I support you. I see you. I want you to succeed.' Those spaces were so important to me as a black girl. I can only imagine what the men and young men must be feeling in sharing that space."
All men and boys of color in Washtenaw County are invited to the 50 Strong breakfasts the second Saturday morning of each month at the former Willow Run Middle School, 235 Spencer Lane in Ypsi Township.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.