Conference challenged young men of color to free their minds

Young men attending the conference (Ivan B. Phifer/MSR News)


One may often hear adults say how young people are out of control, violent, or sometimes even considered a lost cause. This can leave the adult and the youth frustrated: One is frustrated from a lack of appreciation while the other feels abandoned.

The Minneapolis Health Department in partnership with Voices of Effective Change Inc., hosted the “Bridges to Manhood” conference at Minneapolis Community Technical College on April 6 from 9 am to 2:30 pm. The purpose of the conference was to provide networking opportunities across generations and cultural communities for young Black men and other youth of color.

Reis Romero (also known as DJ Romero) coordinated the event. He also moderated a workshop, “Hip Hop Violence Prevention,” with Jah Akeem, North Minneapolis hip hop artist Truth Maze, Tall Paul and Shay “Glorious Marvin.”

Romero encouraged students in the audience to be successful. “These people standing here today have a testimony,” he continued, “and they should be a learning tool for you not to repeat the same mistakes.”

The event kicked off with motivational speakers who either were incarcerated or had overcome the odds of growing up in extreme poverty. “I had to become the man of the house at a young age,” said Miguel Ramos, director of diversity marketing for the Minnesota Twins.

Ramos is a native of the San Jose barrio, an impoverished community in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is also the first and only Puerto Rican to become director of diversity marketing in Major League Baseball.

“The neighborhood I grew up in was plagued with drugs, crime and easy get-rich-quick schemes,” said Ramos. He recalled being bullied for taking a different route and for not following the lifestyle of neighborhood kids.

In addition, he had to overcome the challenge of learning English since his relocation to Minnesota 22 years ago. Despite these challenges, Ramos would continue pursuing his goals. Before his current position, Ramos was a guest writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He also served on the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee; the United Way of the Twin Cities; and Casa De Esperanza, an organization dedicated to raising the awareness of Spanish culture; and he was a liaison between Spanish and Latin Americans living in Minnesota.

Following Ramos’ inspiring story, a bit of truth to power and critical words of wisdom were provided by other guest speakers, including activist and community educator Spike Moss.

“You young men have to understand something. You don’t realize how serious this is until you’re walking through that hallway and these bars close behind you,” Moss stated sternly. “When you walk through that hallway or that facility and you think it’s cool for your pants to hang down, you’re telling everybody in that facility you are available!”

To put Moss’ plea into perspective, Elizer Davis spoke about his incarceration. Davis was 15 years old, a convicted murderer, and sentenced to life in prison. “I’m looking at men who came in as teenagers and are old men now. I’m looking at them seeing my future. I’m going to die in here [in prison]!” Davis said.

Davis was emotional as he described the little things he took for granted that soon became the things he longed for. “If I make it out of [prison], I’m going to listen to the elders and read those books.”

He recalled prison mattresses that were so thin prisoners often used books beneath the mattresses to support themselves. He asked the audience, “Who’s free?”

As the crowd of young men raised their hands hastily, Davis continued. “The science is this: You can be free out here and be locked up in [your mind]. You can make a decision in 30 seconds that can cost you 30 years.”

There also is the stigma of mental illness that comes with being a prisoner. Davis recalled a friend who was also 15 years old and sentenced to life. “He committed suicide, because he couldn’t take being a juvenile with life. I ate together daily with him. That was my brother. He made sure not to let me know that’s what he was going to do.”

After the speakers, lunch was provided along with a demonstration on how to knot a tie with the free tie students received before lunch.

After lunch there were workshops for students: “Know Your Rights” with Joshua Williams Esq.; “Entrepreneur Giants” with Keith Gill, Paul Jones and Marques Armstrong; “From the Streets to Success” with Jason Sole; “Overcoming Barriers to Higher Education” with Dr. Rodriguez and Paul Kong; “People Overcoming Trauma” with Farji Shaheer, Ferome Brown and Carlos Gonzalez; and “Bridges to Manhood” with Spike Moss, Tyrone Terrill and Clyde Bellecourt.

Davis posed a question in closing that left students with something to think about. “What does it mean to be free? There is a war for our minds. I am here today because I’m trying to get us free.”


Ivan B. Phifer welcomes reader responses to