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Becoming a man -- with a future; Daunting challenges for young black males addressed through education, inspiration

On Saturday afternoons in a school in the Kensington-Bailey area, it's "back to the future" as African-American boys learn old-time survival skills to navigate a 21st century that hasn't changed as much as their elders might have hoped.

These are kids who, if one believes George Zimmerman and those who back him, are probably up to no good.

Instead, these boys are in Westminster Community Charter School on their day off learning to live with that stereotype while simultaneously being educated and inspired to shatter such preconceptions.

But first they have to survive.

With the Trayvon Martin case providing context, James Payne relates the advice his grandmother -- and most black grandmothers -- gave young blacks of another generation.

"You can't do the same thing everyone else does and expect the same results," said Payne, president of the local chapter of 100 Black Men of America, which sponsors the Saturday sessions.

The lesson this day is about how to deal with police, the school principal or any other authority figure who hassles you for no legitimate reason: Don't start a confrontation, do as they say, and tell your parents when you get home so adults can handle it.

"We're about the business of surviving in order to fight another day. You've got to be smart because people are going to misinterpret what you say and what you do solely on the basis of your skin color," Payne tells the nearly two dozen youngsters, most of them between 7 and 11 years old.

It's a lesson that older blacks routinely learned. But too many younger ones, seduced by civil rights gains and misled by in-your-face rap videos, court trouble simply because they have the right to. These kids won't make that mistake.

But given the undeniable social progress, it's just as important that they also won't make the mistake of thinking anything is off-limits to them. The two-hour sessions include a heavy dose of aiming high -- being the businessman who hires, not just the worker; being the team owner, not just the athlete. And there's an emphasis on the academics, character and comportment that it will take to get there and meet their responsibility to their community.

College is a constant theme, even -- or especially -- at this young age. The chapter holds education fairs featuring officials from local as well as historically black colleges and universities, and is planning its first tour of HBCUs next spring.

"We're trying to fill the gap in a lot of areas [and] expose the community to other things," said Richard Williams, the chapter's education chairman.

It's a community in which the kids face threats from within -- such as last weekend's senseless shootings in Martin Luther King Park and on Minnesota Avenue -- and from outsiders who will try to pigeonhole them as thugs-in-waiting.

The mentoring program provides a critical compass to navigate between those threats as the boys see black men doing positive things and learn to model that behavior. Charles Bostick, who drops in despite working two jobs, already has seen his 10-year-old son, Jalil, become "self-motivated" and start setting goals for himself.

More important, the boys see the value themselves. Lawren Goins has picked up the entrepreneurial spirit, launching a grass-cutting business in which he plans to employ other youth.

"This program helps a lot," said Lawren, 11. "It shows me what I need to do to reach the places where I need to be. And it tells me about the world before I even walk into it."

The two-year-old program has changed the boys' attitudes.

"I've gotten maturity out of it," says Dion Johnson, 11, who has given up "playing around" and is now part of the after-school chess, choir and African drumming programs at Westminster. He's learning to see the big picture and think things through.

"Sometimes I, like, have my problems," he says, "but usually I can figure it out and solve them myself instead of asking Mr. Payne or Mr. Williams."

That's what the program is all about, because "problems" are everywhere.

It would be nice if the stereotype of these boys was such that a cop or store clerk looked at them and automatically saw a potential college student instead of adding to their problems.

But we have to prepare black boys to cope with the world as it is, even as we prepare them to create the world that should be.

Programs such as this do both, and answer all of those who wonder why black men aren't stepping up.

email: rwatson@buffnews.com