There’s an old saying that goes, A boy is born, a man is trained.
In the hodge-podge of races, cultures, ethnicities, and all their companion traditions that is America, there’s no formalized, hard-and-fast entrée into manhood. Sans a singular rite of passage, it just kind of happens from family to family, community to community. Getting a driver’s license, losing one’s virginity, graduating from high school or college and joining the workforce, turning 18 or 21 (depending on whom you ask) — all have been pointed to as touchstones in the shaping of masculinity. Fathering a child is perhaps the most significant of all, but the consensus view holds that, the mechanics of biology aside, the ability to procreate does not make a male a father — nor make him a man.
The absence of active dads in black and Latino communities has been well-documented as the by-product of systemic social factors and poor personal decisions. Whatever the reasons, the result is boys growing up without real-life role models and male figures unable or unwilling to offer their time, wisdom, and emotional maturity to boys looking for the way forward. Mentorship doesn’t necessarily substitute for the absence of a biological parent, but it often does provide boys and young men with support and encouragement from older guys who can relate to them because, not too long ago, they were them.
There’s another old saying, this one originating somewhere on the continent of Africa, that goes, It takes a village to raise a child. Growing Kings is part of that village for the families of black and Latino boys in Birmingham, Alabama.
Showing, Not Telling
To see the Growing Kings staff in action is to watch the organization’s mission come to life. In partnership with six schools in the city, Growing Kings’ programming today reaches elementary, middle, and high school-aged boys of color categorized as “at-risk” — of dropping out and giving up on their education, of being dragged into the maw of the juvenile justice system, of settling for less than they deserve and are capable of.
At Hayes K–8 School, fifteen brown boys form a single-file line that chugs clumsily through the doorway of the school library. They’re an animated bunch, stifling the urge to kick and jump and unleash all the other aerial gymnastics young men their age perform on impulse. In time, they’ll learn to walk into a room in a way that commands attention, not hijacks it, especially when some of them figure out that a genteel swagger is a much better way to impress girls.
For now, it’s endearing to watch them try to conform to the behavioral expectations not only of library staff — one senses those rules are more easily disregarded — but to those of the men who lead Growing Kings’ outreach. The gentlemen who hold weekly court at Prince Charming, a program that promotes literacy, math, and critical thinking for fourth- and fifth-graders, are among the only positive male figures in many of the boys’ lives, and their respect for them is almost palpable. Boys may giggle and goof off, but they’re watching these men closely and modeling themselves accordingly.
Program manager Justin Williams motions to one student to join him in front of the group, which is seated at two long wooden tables reminiscent of the ones at just about everybody’s elementary school just about everywhere. It’s only a week into the new academic year and Williams, who hasn’t had an opportunity to master the boys’ names, asks the young man to introduce himself.
Hands shoved in his pockets, the boy balks at being the center of attention and twists at the waist nervously, propeller-style. “My name is Terrence McNeal.”
Williams puts a hand on his shoulder to calm the boy’s jittery nerves and gently corrects him. “Mister.”
The boy starts again, hands still deep in his pockets but his body steady and head higher. “My name is Mister Terrence McNeal,” he says, a smidge louder and with more assertiveness than the first time around. And so begins the process of growing a king.
The Mission to Inspire Change
Justin Sims, a Growing Kings program manager who operated his own nonprofit for boys prior to joining the organization, believes that developing early leadership skills is one of its distinctive offerings. “We set expectations and affirmations for them. We explain what goals are, help them set them, and watch their growth throughout the year,” he says. “We challenge them on leadership, character, and morale to become the best students they can be, no matter what’s going on at home or in the neighborhood.”
Before Growing Kings became a movement, it was the brainchild of Marcus Carson, then a 24-year-old Birmingham native who was living in Charlotte, working as a financial analyst, and wanting to do something more for his adopted community than watch important issues get pushed to the fore, then fall back into limbo. “I felt like there was more that I needed to do,” he says. “I wanted to do something that addressed black and brown male youth in a way that would be effective.”
The universe responded by handing him a pink slip. Typically, that’s not a great thing. In Carson’s case, it proved to be all the impetus he needed. He’d been praying for a chance to effect change, and now he had been given one. He didn’t get a substantial severance package like some of his colleagues, the kind that makes it easier to take a risk such as starting a nonprofit organization when you’ve never even volunteered for one. “I walked away with about two weeks’ salary,” he says, laughing, “so I was like, okay, now it’s for real.”
Using his finance background and his MBA training from Florida A&M University, Carson crafted a business plan and, in 2009, launched Growing Kings in Birmingham, even though he was still living in Charlotte. His original plan was to shape the organization’s development from his adopted city, but buy-in from educators in Birmingham City Schools was enthusiastic and he soon changed his plan. Those partnerships also afforded him on-the-job training that shaped the Growing Kings’ curriculum.
“What I originally proposed wasn’t as appropriate as I thought, because I would encounter sixth-grade students who were twelve and thirteen years old who couldn’t read,” says Carson.
As a result of experiences like that, he and his team decided to focus on literacy, with a special focus on elementary students in the Prince Charming program, using magazines like Sports Illustrated for Kids to sharpen their reading skills and entertain them at the same time. Boys were asked to read aloud, something a lot of boys are hesitant to do in the presence of their peers, creating a link between public speaking skills and leadership. Carson and his team also decided to work on bolstering their young charges’ interest and skills in math.
When those kids are promoted to middle school, they advance to Measures of a Man, a program that focuses on personal responsibility and character, and in high school they transition to Scholars and Gentlemen, which gives them a real-time platform to discuss issues such as sex, relationships, and social pressures around things like drugs and alcohol. An additional focus on careers and entrepreneurship affords them a chance to shadow professionals, come up with business ideas in whatever field they may be considering, and refine their goals for the next chapter of their lives.
Virtually every street in Birmingham has a story to tell, often one involving a juxtaposition of the valiant struggles fought decades ago in the name of civil rights and more immediate challenges. The city’s history is a reminder of how far we’ve come, but the latest statistics make clear how much remains to be done. For example, one out of every 15 African-American men and one of every 36 Hispanic men in Birmingham are incarcerated, compared to 1 in every 106 whites. Similarly, African-American and Hispanic youth make up two-fifths and one-fifth, respectively, of the city’s incarcerated population.
The Growing Kings curriculum reinforces the power each and every boy has to make thoughtful decisions and stay out of the juvenile justice system in the first place. Most of the men from the community who volunteer to teach and mentor kids are Birmingham natives who have experienced both the joys and frustrations that come with growing up in the area.
Charlton Holt, a childhood friend of Carson’s, has been a mentor since the organization started and embraces the impact he can have as an accomplished adult who is not a relative. “Every kid wants to show their best face to their parents, because your parents judge you, buy your clothes, give you an allowance. But your mentor doesn’t do any of that,” he explains. “We’re like big brothers. It’s not, ‘I have authority over you’. I just want to see you succeed.”
Most of the men in Growing Kings had a strong male figure in their own lives, so they appreciate the immeasurable benefits of being such a presence for someone else. A young man in his mid-20s became William Spells’ mentor back when Spells was in high school and, Spells says it changed the course of his life in three lasting ways: 1) he got his act together; 2) he was introduced to his career path; and 3) he eventually became a mentor himself, joining Growing Kings two years ago to work with middle school students.
His mentor’s candor was exactly what he needed at the time. “He pulled me to the side and was like ‘Hey, you need to slow down’. He built a personal relationship with me, and I started taking his advice more seriously. He got me involved in the business program,” says Spells, who’s built a career in real estate. “What he taught me and the things I learned from him had a big impact on my life.”
Building Up Brotherhood
The hallways at Malachi Wilkerson Middle School on Birmingham’s west side are alive with encouragement to dream big, bold dreams. Pennants representing colleges from all over the country are pinned to bulletin boards and hang from the ceilings. Artwork splashed on the walls encourages students to work hard and stay focused. Most of those students have the potential to do everything and anything those affirmations urge them to do, but distractions outside of school too often pose an irresistible lure. The decision to stay on track is easier when boys find others who have committed to do the same thing.
Raquez Jackson, a seventh-grader at the school, admits he wasn’t at all enthusiastic about joining Growing Kings when his principal initially approached him about the program. “I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to be in that’,” he says, smiling. After his first day, though, he was sold. “I was like, ‘I love this group. I want to be in here to help be better in my life.’ I want to be successful and achieve my goals and not go to jail.” An aspiring architect or maybe a professional football player — he’s currently a cornerback on his neighborhood team — Jackson is at the age when aspiration, any aspiration, should feel, sound, and be completely possible, for boys of color, as for any other kid.
He’s also benefiting from the example set by the Growing Kings team members who meet with him every week. The lessons they offer about brotherhood are subtle and understated, but powerful nonetheless. He and his friend, Jordan Thomas, established a camaraderie through the program. “We met in Growing Kings one day when we were having class. I asked him what his name was, and he asked me what my name was, and after that we started talking and being friends.” It was that simple. It should always be that simple.
Now they are “like brothers,” Jackson says, which is a big deal for two boys who might have ended up pitted against each other because of the misdirected machismo that prevails in so many communities of color. The spirit of brotherhood modeled by the Growing Kings team isn’t expressly warm and fuzzy, or packaged in a we-are-the-world sentimentality; instead, it reveals itself in the relationships that develop among the older mentors and the boys who would be men. For all the myths and stereotypes propagated about black and Latino males, Growing Kings is proof that the truth is what you make it.