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Mentoring Young Black Men in Charlottesville

Last month, a Charlottesville organization to mentor young men of color beat out more than one hundred other groups across the country to get the 100 Black Men of America’s chapter of the year award for mentoring.  WMRA’s Jordy Yager talked with some of the young men who have excelled in the program, and their mentors.

Belonging to the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia is no cake walk. It’s the largest African-American mentoring program in the area for more than 200 middle and high school students. And the kids fall under some pretty tight scrutiny.

BERNARD HAIRSTON: We track things such as their daily attendance in school, their discipline referrals, their grades.

Dr. Bernard Hairston is the president of the Charlottesville-based group, which began seven years ago.  Adult mentors in the organization take the young mentees under their wings. They push them to excel in and out of school, and expose them to new opportunities. And Hairston says, something interesting has happened along the way.

HAIRSTON: And most recently, I was impressed to see how many of our young men who have gone through our mentoring program, and they have emerged as student leaders.

Presidents and vice presidents of their class, English Honors Society, National Mentee of the Year, Hairston says everywhere he looked, the group’s young men were striving towards this year’s theme of “leadership impact.”

HAIRSTON: Leadership is an attitude, and as long as our young men see individuals with the attitude and the belief that they are in need of being a leader, they will step up.

On a recent Monday evening at Burley Middle School, where Hairston served as principal for nearly a decade, he brought together five of these student leaders to share their experiences with the up and coming generation. 

HAIRSTON: And so the whole idea of having this program is “what they see is what they’ll be.” When they see young men who are leaders in their schools, the younger ones will aspire, set realistic goals. And we’re going to see it emerge, we’re going to see this thing grow. Our mission is about eliminating achievement gaps, and when we present positive images of our young men, we’re just going to see this growth mindset change this whole community, just from growing up and growing out.

The five students sat as panelists behind a long table in the school’s cafeteria and addressed the audience of more than 50 younger kids and their parents.

ANDREW MARTIN: Alright, so my name is Andrew Martin, I’m in the 8th grade at Sutherland Middle School, and I’m also the president of the school, so yeah, I’m the president of the school.

Martin’s mentor is Wes Bellamy, the only African-American member of Charlottesville’s City Council and the city’s vice-mayor. Bellamy’s also a high school teacher and a member of the Virginia Board of Education. He’s characteristic of many of the mentors, who hold leadership roles themselves, setting examples for the kids.

MARTIN: A lot of people helped me out. If they didn’t help me out, I wouldn’t be at the point I am today, so they’ve had a really big impact on my life. And, the way I’d describe a leader is: A person who, when there’s bad times, he rises to the occasion, he doesn’t fall to the occasion. Exact quotes from Wes Bellamy.

Mentors don’t take the place of parents necessarily, but rather, they add to the family experience, working together to connect them with a broader community outside the home. Parents in the audience asked the panel of students a wide range of questions, from what advice they would offer younger kids to how they would respond to negative feedback as leaders.

Ny-Jhee Jones has been in the 100 Black Men since he was in 6th grade. In the fall, he’s headed to George Mason University. Jones recently went to the prestigious Governor’s School for Fine Arts program and he tells the crowd that he’s been the only African-American lead all four years in theater productions at Monticello High School.

NY-JHEE JONES: I guess you could say I started that movement of starting the diversity in the theater department of Monticello, so I’m pretty proud of that. Are there other questions?

MIKE TERRY: Yeah, let me ask you, you said you’re the first African-American to be on the drama club.

JONES: Right.

TERRY: If you didn’t see anyone there looking like you, what prompted you to want to be a part of it?

JONES: They’re a lot of girls in theater.  [laughter]

But in all seriousness, Jones tells the younger kids in the audience to follow their passions—pursue activities that truly interest them, even if their friends aren’t doing them.

Afterwards, I wanted to see what impact their advice had on the younger members of the crowd.  And so, with Dr. Hairston by his side, I caught up with 12-year old TJ Brooks. He’s been in the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia for about 4 years, and is entering 8th grade at Henley Middle School this fall.

JORDY YAGER: And what did you think of tonight?

BROOKS: Well, It showed a lot of us that we’re not the only ones striving to be, we can stand out as a person, but that we all could be leaders, we all could show other people how leaders act…my personal belief of leadership is like, having someone to look up to, like a role model or having someone that you could strive to be when you get older.

YAGER: Do you have a role model that you look up to?

BROOKS: Dr. Hairston.

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.