Black men in America typically face obstacles and challenges on a daily basis. In order to overcome these obstacles, it is imperative to have positive role models who can inspire and educate, encourage mental well being, and help us progress toward a better life.
To assist with this endeavor, Patrick Henry High School, located at 4320 Newton Avenue in North Minneapolis, hosted the event “100 Black Men Strong” in collaboration with other groups: The Black Male Achievement Team, 100 Strong Who Care, and Minneapolis Public Schools’ Black Male Student Achievement and Department of Career and College Readiness.
Chris Flemming of Black Male Achievement was the coordinator for the event. The goal and mission of the event was to introduce young Black students to successful Black men of different professions who have come from similar backgrounds and who have faced situations much like those the students currently face. Over 300 people were in attendance in addition to the 100 Black professionals present ranging from the military and law to education and political fields.
“It has been identified that our Black men are on the bottom…of every statistical data at Patrick Henry High School,” said Yusuf Abdullah, Patrick Henry’s principal. “For this reason, we wanted to make sure we have a position that focuses primarily on Black males.”
The initiative for 100 Strong is now in its third year. The event included discussion topics such as Black-on-Black crime, relationships, stereotypes of hip hop, Black families, the school-to-prison pipeline, Black education and community policing.
A fellowships portion followed the early morning sessions where Henry students held roundtable conversations with Black professionals. The men exchanged biographical information and job titles, and the students shared their future aspirations. During the discussion, students talked of wanting to become engineers, technicians, video producers and lawyers.
The event also featured two keynote speakers. Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education James Cole, Jr., originally from the South Side of Chicago, described the obstacles he overcame, from losing his mother at age 14 to his first girlfriend getting shot and killed. Years later he was robbed at gunpoint. Despite this, Cole still managed to graduate from law school and work on Wall Street before joining the Department of Education.
“When I think about all the challenges that these children face and the things we are trying to make better, it is because I lived through a lot of that,” said Cole. “It is important that we have role models and mentors for them. I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t have these people in my life. I encourage you to take advantage of the mentors and role models in your life.”
Cole stressed the importance of college. “Life is too expensive not to go to college. A lot of people are afraid to go because they think they cannot afford it. Ultimately, this is one of the few times the less money you have the better. Every year the Department of Education gives $150 billion in grants and loans. You need to get your piece. Do not let your income be a deterrent.”
Cole said his own goals changed over time: “I think about how different my dreams were growing up on the South Side of Chicago. At first my goal was just to take care of my family and graduate from high school. Later, I wanted to own a corner store, seeing that all the people with money owned liquor stores, car washes, and corner stores.
“I started to grow and wanted to graduate law school and work for a big company. I did that. You can continue to dream. The only thing that limits you is yourself.”
An alumnus of Patrick Henry, Malik Day, was the student speaker at the event. “It was difficult,” he said of his high school years. “My family was homeless. I got expelled from North and Edison for fighting all the time. Henry was my last resort. My freshman year, me and my friends made a bad decision that landed us in juvenile [detention] for two weeks.”
It was during this time that Day had a chance to reflect on the tradition he was carrying of both his grandfather and father of going to prison. “I started thinking to myself, why be in this cycle?” Day said his teachers and school counselor opened his mind to other options. But at that time he was behind in school because he was working to support his family.
“I would wake up every day at 4:30 [am] to do my homework before school. After school got out, I would work from 4 pm to 11 pm. It was the worst time of my life, but I still ended my high school career with a 3.6 GPA.
Day also worked as an intern on Wall Street and was one of the only Black men there during that time. He currently attends the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
Principle Abdullah said the event will definitely continue for years to come. “As a Black man, we know the struggles are present, or will appear later on. It is being able to appeal to different walks of life. If there is a story you can latch on to and be inspired by, that’s what we want. That is the main goal.”
Ivan Phifer welcomes readers’ response to firstname.lastname@example.org.