By Eddie B. Allen Jr.
I’d never heard him so excited.
A 13-year-old friend I’ll call Kurt called me as I rode down Mack Avenue recently.
“I did soooo good on my report card!” he said, his grin practically bulging through the phone.
Kurt went on to list the grades he’d earned in each subject, one at a time, comparing them to what he’d earned the previous semester. It was as if he deliberately built the anticipation as I waited to hear the single letter that would cost me 25 big ones.
“English last semester was an F…” he said.
“And what is it now?” I asked.
“It’s an A.”
I was thrilled for the lanky kid with the huge grin who’d unofficially adopted me as a mentor. He is a witty young guy, bordering on natural brilliance, and I knew his failing English grade had been due only to lack of motivation. Within weeks, he not only answered my $25 challenge, but pulled his overall GPA up to 3.4.
The Skillman Foundation and Campaign for Black Male Achievement have issued a challenge of their own. In an initiative unique to Detroit, the partners are offering up $500,000 to social innovators proposing programs to help youth like my friend Kurt advance through life. Part of President Barack Obama’s national call for communities to support young men of color, the My Brother’s Keeper Detroit Innovation Challenge will award $5,000 to 20 applicants and another $50,000 to six applicants who conceive efforts to support youth.
“We’re really excited because it’s a different way to get ideas and movement going,” says Skillman communications officer Natalie Fotias. “For us, this is a way to invest in the next generation of leaders, and give young boys an opportunity to see themselves in the role.”
Teams of applicants must include, at least, two black or Hispanic males, ages 14-24, describing the vision for their program through online submissions at www.MBKDetroit.org by March 18.
The effort solicits projects designed to improve literacy, reduce school suspensions, expulsions and absences, create cultural competence among educators, and reduce violent crime, among other goals detailed at the website.
With the City of Detroit as a My Brother’s Keeper partner and support from more than 100 participants from the community, Skillman and Campaign for Black Male Achievement are hopeful the challenge appeals to those eager to see positive growth among statistically disadvantaged black and Hispanic young men.
Leading up to the Innovation Challenge “a broad swath of people” have expressed willingness to get involved in My Brother’s Keeper Detroit, says Fotias, including Detroit Medical Center physician Tolulope Sonuyi.
“He sees youth come in all the time as victims of violent attacks,” Fotias adds. “He put together a program that brings in social workers to interact directly with the kids as they’re in the emergency room, for different strategies to deal with anger and violence, and try and get them to take up lifestyle changes right then and there.”
While money, like the minor prize I offered Kurt, should never be the primary motivation for us to pursue the best in ourselves and help cultivate it in others, the Innovation Challenge can be seen as a literal investment in the future of a city with so many young men of color, who will influence it. Our best efforts can help the good influence outweigh the bad.
Even with a half-million dollars, there’s much more at stake.