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African American male students mentor teens in new leadership program

Posted: 07/29/2014
Roosevelt University’s St. Clair Drake Center for African and African-American Studies rolled out a new program over the summer that is helping black male high students in Chicago develop as leaders.

And five of Roosevelt’s African-American male undergraduates - education major Howard Brown (pictured above with several teens in a Wabash Building classroom), special education student Jason Curry, theatre major Jalen Eason, journalism student Josh Hicks and political science major Frank Pettis - are leading by example with advice about college as a means to success.

“We are focusing on positives, and that means giving young African-American males the support and tools they need to get ahead,” said Al Bennett, director of the St. Clair Drake Center, who came up with the concept for the program that the Drake Center could offer annually.

The Center’s Black Male Leadership Academy brought 19 teens to Roosevelt in July for a week of courses in leadership and African-American studies; cultural experiences, including visits to area museums; social experiences, including a fine dinner in Chicago’s Loop; and leadership and teambuilding exercises. The students lived in the Wabash Building, and also have been returning for additional training this fall on the second Saturday of every month.

“I feel like I’m gaining college experience and learning about the college environment and that’s really important to me,” said 17-year-old Westinghouse College Preparatory High School junior Kendall Relf, who plans to get a bachelor’s and advanced degrees in computer engineering so he can one day move to Silicon Valley, Calif., and work for Google, Microsoft or start his own company.

“It’s great getting exposure and experience in downtown Chicago. We’re doing things we don’t normally get to do and I think it’s opened my eyes,” added Demitri DeTrayon, 16, a junior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory School.

The program is made possible in part by the generosity of Rose and Robert Johnson, a 1958 Roosevelt graduate and honorary trustee on Roosevelt University’s Board of Trustees. Other donors include the Efroymson Family Foundation, Roosevelt alumni Tara Driver and Arlene Crandall, who are both members of the College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Council, the Chicago White Sox and Robin Steans and Lenny Gail.
 
“We have students in this program who have never left the city, never had a fine dining experience and have never been among black men of positive influence,” said Michael Ford, Roosevelt’s vice provost for academic support and retention and an academy organizer. “What makes this program unique is the opportunity that these students have to interact with black men who are in college and have a sense of direction and purpose in their lives,” said Ford.

“Each of us, as mentors, has a different approach to things, which is giving these young men exposure to a lot of different possibilities for their lives and careers,” said Pettis, an organizer with the Roosevelt student group, RISE. He plans after graduation to work on political campaigns and run for political office.

Another mentor, Hicks, is a Roosevelt junior and former Roosevelt Lakers basketball player who wants to become an ESPN sports broadcaster. “I was fortunate enough in life to have people to look up to and help me get ahead. It’s why I wanted to get involved and see that young black men have the kind of   opportunities I had.”

Two other Roosevelt mentors, including Eason, an acting major who grew up near Detroit, and Curry, a Joliet, Ill. native who wants to teach in the Chicago Public Schools, got involved with the program because they didn’t have mentors.

“I never have anyone growing up telling me the kinds of steps in life I needed to take to succeed and I wanted to give these teens the kind of help I had missed,” said Eason.
“I had some hardships growing up,” added Curry, one of nine kids raised by a single mother. “When I share my story with these young men I feel like we connect. I’m able to bring in personal experience and I also feel like I’m learning as much from them as they are learning from me.”

Brown, a Roosevelt student who is assistant director of the leadership academy, agrees that the experience has been rewarding. “It’s life changing to empower young black men to be the best they can be,” said Brown, who last year gave a speech in Chicago for Illinois Governor Pat Quinn on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. “Working with these teens is as great and important an experience as doing that speech for the governor,” he added.