Jacqueline Mines watched the change from when the young men walked in until the moment they stood on the stage before her.
They came to her in T-shirts and tattered jeans, withdrawn and with the serious faces that reflect the trials of young men growing up in this city. They left wearing crisp dress shirts and ties, exuding a new air of confidence and optimism for their futures.
“You can see the change in their personalities,” said Mines, president of Helping Families and Children of America, of the young men at this weekend’s Boys to Men conference. “They came in with no smiles. Then they put those dress shirts on and you saw that change them.”
The conference was the first of what organizers hope will become an annual event to empower young men living in the city. The young men spent their morning on Saturday participating in workshops on topics including education, the influence of hip-hop culture and living without a father.
With support from the Buffalo School District, organizers recruited the young men by reaching out to schools to identify boys at risk for academic failure. Those included students who have issues with attendance and behavior, both indicators that they would benefit from a male mentor.
The call yielded about 50 young men, and the group also worked to recruit mentors who will work with them through the rest of the school year.
“Mentoring is the answer to so many things going on in the community, from crime and violence to fatherlessness,” said Tommy McClam, a trainer with YouthBuild USA, who worked with the mentors who attended the conference.
Both community leaders and the students themselves hope the mentoring initiative will help reverse statistics that paint a dire outlook for young men of color living in urban areas.
Any litany of education data points to glaring gaps between the performance of black male students and their white peers. Nationwide, 52 percent of young black men graduate from high school, reports the Schott Foundation for Public Education, compared with 78 percent of their white, male peers.
In Buffalo, the percentage of young black men finishing high school has been as low as 25 percent, although it increased to 45 percent this past year. That still lags behind their white, male counterparts, who post a graduation rate of 61 percent.
The reasons for the gap are many and multifaceted, and most start well before young men of color enter a classroom.
At a young age, many of them learn to deal with gangs and violence at school and in their neighborhoods.
“In my neighborhood, it’s a lot of that,” said Marquel Rose, a 14-year-old who participated in the conference. “I want to go to college and get my education and get my family and sisters out of here. I’m not saying I want to turn on my city. I want to get out of the bad parts.”
Some feel pressured by peers to emulate the image of black men portrayed in rap music and the media. Others never knew their fathers.
All too many see more of a future for themselves on the street corner than in the classroom.
Meanwhile, the cost of academic failure is high for young men of color – and their communities – with statistics showing that black and Hispanic men who do not finish high school fuel a pipeline to the unemployment office and prison.
The Brookings Institute reports that there is a nearly 70 percent chance a black man who drops out of high school will be imprisoned by his mid-30s. That is more than triple the risk for white men who don’t finish high school.
“We as an African-American people don’t really know about how much we have done,” said Jordan Jeffries, a 16-year-old at the conference. “We’ve just got to know that there are no limitations on what we can do.”
At the end of the conference, the young men and their mentors gathered on the stage at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts so that the adults could give the students a dress shirt and tie, a symbolic representation of that limitless future that lies before them.
“You have a choice,” L. Nathan Hare, executive director of the Community Action Organization of Erie County, told the young men. “You have to make that choice now. If you blow it, you blow it for life.”
Some of the students came to the conference shy and withdrawn, but by the end were acting as mentors themselves, coaching and encouraging their fellow students.
One even showed his peers how to tie their ties.
“I’m really not proud of myself for doing some things that I now regret,” Jeffries told his fellow students. “But whether you’ve been fatherless, or have a dark past, every single one of us has a future.”