Programs Put Role Models Within Reach of Youth
Classes, lunches, mentoring, and basketball all figure in Seattle effort
HIGH school gyms aren't usually open till 1 o'clock on Saturday nights, but the one at Garfield High is - by order of the mayor. Last Saturday as usual, rubber screeched on hardwood as older black professional men shot hoops with younger blacks. The goal? To provide the youths with more positive role models than the smooth drug operators, ever in wait outside. ``We keep 'em here late, get 'em all tired out, so they won't want to do anything else,'' says Clint Hooper, grinning.
Athletics are only the beginning. For a city with a small black population (9 percent), Seattle is reaching out in a variety of ways to help establish mentoring relationships between black men and youths. Mayor Norm Rice, who is black, authorized the opening of two gyms on Saturday nights after requests from the community.
Mr. Hooper started the basketball program in conjunction with Seattle University, which is also making its library and computer center available to youths. It is just one of several efforts to supply role models to at-risk youth.
Role Models Unlimited brings black professionals including scientists, chemists, and engineers from the Boeing Company, into three high schools to eat lunch and talk with young black males.
Black Achievers, a program run by the East Madison YMCA, brings black professionals in to talk with students. Since its start in January, the program has featured hands-on workshops with prominent local writers and TV reporters, a modeling class, and an acting class.
Young black men are often referred to these days as endangered. Drugs, violent death, and prison are taking a large toll.
``The need for role models is a critical issue,'' says Jacob Gordon, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas. ``All young people see is how to get rich quick on TV, there are no role models in public schools.''
The university's Center for Black Leadership Development and Research last month established the National Council of African-American Men Inc., the first comprehensive national organization to address the problems of the black male.
Sigma Pi Phi, a professional black male fraternity, at its recent biennial conference, called upon each of its 2,000 members nationwide to mentor at least one young at-risk man.
In Seattle, many middle-class black men are spending a lot of time helping young men. Hooper spends his Saturday nights playing basketball at the gym, and his Sunday afternoons playing ball with other kids. On this unusually hot Sunday, there are 10 playing basketball in his narrow driveway. Often they stay for dinner.
``We go to other people's homes, go fishing, help people move,'' says Verdayne Johnson, one of four youths sitting around the dining-room table drinking iced tea. ``Whenever there's a family gathering, Mr. Hooper contacts me.''
Within this small group, one boy's sister was shot and killed. Another said that his 14-year-old brother had just joined a gang and been kicked out of the house.
``Here there's someone to set an example,'' says 18-year-old Henry Bolar, referring to Hooper. ``Without that you fall into a lower category.'' He says Hooper found him at loose ends after graduation, got him into the basketball program, and got him a job.
Many of the programs overlap and participants assist each other. ``If I find a kid who needs a job,'' says Hooper, ``I'll call Tim Metcalf [another mentor who plays at the gym], who's an employment specialist with YMCA. There are a lot of people in this community who are willing to get involved.''
Role Models Unlimited was formed last year by a group of a dozen black men who originally organized to prevent an expected gang riot. Although the riot never materialized, the group stayed together and devoted itself to helping young black males.
``If there's no one there for them as there was for us, it's easy for them to be influenced by the wrong group,'' says president George Griffin III, media relations officer for the Port of Seattle. ``I think we're obligated to do this because it was done for us. And with all the bad press about black men deserting their families not doing enough for their community, we wanted to turn it around and say, `Here we are!' ''
The organization got off to a blazing start, with a gala banquet for prospective mentors in January that drew 1,000 black men and had to turn away 2,000 more. The group now has a core of 100 members. When Role Models gets rolling, says Mr. Griffin, they plan to open it up to young men and women of all colors.
Keven Davis, a corporate lawyer, has lunch at Garfield High every Wednesday. He and student Ricky Bell hit it off. Now, Ricky comes to see Mr. Davis's kids' games and they go to the library together. Ricky, an average student who ``didn't like to read,'' says Davis, has for the first time read an entire book.
Davis is learning a lot, too. ``The biggest thing is the ease with which they talk to us. I didn't think they'd be willing, but they're eager to talk.
``There are a lot of black kids who are OK, who don't have drug problems, belong to gangs, they come from good families,'' he adds. ``But they're wallowing in mediocrity. No one has challenged them.''