What do fashion, mentorship and academia have in common? The answer is, "more than one might think." For one, there's Edmund Lewis, the 27-year-old founder of the mentorship non-profit Minority Males for Higher Education
(MMHE), owner of a public speaking and fashion consulting business called the Style Guy'D
and holder of a master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan.
The true connection between the aforementioned trio goes beyond the fact that they are notches on Lewis' resume. What makes them a trifecta is how Lewis uses all three to push toward the same goal: to see more African American males attending and succeeding in college.
"When I was getting my master's degree, philanthropic organizations were not talking about this issue in Detroit," Lewis says. "It was all about green economy and social entrepreneurship. But this is one of the things that is so important to the growth of the city. Statistics have proven that they're falling behind and need more help."
As it turns out, Lewis was uniquely qualified to offer such help. He was just beginning his undergraduate work at North Carolina Central University when he began his first initiative to help more young, African American males do the same.
"I noticed there weren't a large number of young men from my hometown at my school," says Lewis, who then began a mentorship program called Going Home. "I identified some kids who were interested in going to college and helped them learn how to get there."
It was this work that eventually brought the North Carolinian to Michigan. Impressed with his self-motivated social work, the University of Michigan invited him to apply to their program. By 2009, Lewis was graduating from a school right near a community that could benefit most from his passions.
MMHE brings Lewis and his team of volunteers into Detroit area schools year-round to provide mentorship to African American teenage males and their families.
"We try to establish a relationship with the student, as well as the parents," says Lewis. "We have a dialogue about the success of the child, and from there we try to mentor them at least twice a week and have bi-weekly phone calls with the parents. We try to improve their grades, and simultaneously work on their behavior."
Because he spent years juggling grad school and working in the world of Detroit-area charities, Lewis quickly became connected to a network of philanthropic organizations aimed at combating some of the issues faced by African American teenagers. MMHE connect their students and families to these resources, amplifying the organization's mentorship activities with support services.
Though the program just began in 2011, it's already having a big impact, reaching about 140 students during the year and 220 currently involved in the program in one way or another.
So what does all that have to do with fashion? Lewis found out in college, when he and some friends decided to take it upon themselves to set a personal dress code for class.
"My friends and I liked to dress up to go to class, and that led to a lot of opportunities," he says. "I got invited to a lot of meetings and outings just by dressing the part.
The idea grew into one Lewis and his Style Guy'D co-founder and photographer George Mitchell wanted to share with their peers. Through the business, Lewis speaks to teenage males about the importance of dressing for the success they'd like to achieve. That includes learning how to tie a tie and giving away free suits.
"I want to change the culture of dress for young men," Lewis says. "We always tell them, if you're trying to be successful, sometimes there's no such thing as casual Friday."
Though the new business is for-profit, one of its goals, unsurprisingly, is to help fund MMHE.
Lewis' academic brain recognizes the big picture as well. While teaching kids to tie a fashionable knot, he's also thinking about data points, using geographic studies to guide his work.
"Data is part of our long term goal for sustainability," he says. "If I want to present some of this to the White House or the Legislature, they're going to want to see data. I want to use my work in academia to support that."
MMHE is currently looking for a permanent location, and while Lewis intends to be located in the Detroit area, he also has an eye on positioning a satellite office in Ann Arbor to maintain the organization's connection to academia.
It's not every day that a sitting president gives a speech that shines a light on a small non-profit, but ever since President Obama spoke in the aftermath of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial, Lewis has experienced a notable jump in interest in his work. And while he appreciates both the speech and the attention to his cause, he's also careful to make the point that there's nothing new-found or trendy about the challenges faced by African American teenagers.
"It wasn't sexy at the time we started this," Lewis says. "I'm excited to see it get attention, but this has been part of roundtable discussions in the confines of our sessions for a long time, and the conversations just weren't going anywhere. It wasn't until the President made that speech that people started talking about it. It added confirmation, but we've been saying that."
No matter which way the political winds blow, Lewis intends to continue saying it for the foreseeable future. Though he hopes MMHE will grow and expand throughout the country, he's in no rush to lose his focus on the Detroit area.
"I want to build my work here," he says. "I'm not personally ready to expand. These kids still need our work here in Detroit."
Natalie Burg is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and Concentrate's Development News Editor. And she's got a book coming out in September. More on that soon.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography