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Local organization promotes youth leadership

Aimee Machado

Twice a month, a group of young black and brown men, all from different parts of Buffalo, come together to learn about themselves and each other.

The goal of the gatherings is to better serve their communities through curriculum-based activities and guest speakers they can relate to. Group members say they are working towards something bigger than their individual parts through the concept of changing narratives.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. The objective, through local and national policy initiatives, is to fill opportunity gaps faced by young men of color, especially those living in underserved communities. 

On the local level, The Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable and The Community Foundation developed the Boys and Men of Color Initiative, a local chapter of My Brother’s Keeper in 2017, to help create positive outcomes for young men in the city.

B.M.o.C Director Tommy McClam said working with national partners like non-violence group Cities United gave them a blueprint to move forward with.

“They came in and gave us some information on how to establish youth voice. They gave us a little strategy to start out,” he said. “And I’d like to say we put our little barbeque sauce on it. And what we did, we amped it up a little bit and that is how Breaking Barriers came out of that.” 

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Breaking Barriers is the youth leadership council which is a part of the initiative. Manager Daniel Robertson runs the group.

“Young men of color tend to be depicted negatively in the news, social media, newspapers, articles,” he said. “We’re trying to change that.”

Their curriculum includes learning about state and local policies, public speaking, gun violence, entrepreneurship and toxic masculinity.

McClam said he and Robertson rely upon the young men to help shape the curriculum.

“Instead of just saying, ‘this is the curriculum,’ we find a curriculum that fits the needs of young people,” McClam said. “And also looking at the racial equity climate of this community to make sure that what we are providing then is something that is going to give them power and voice in their community.”

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White
Dr. Christopher St. Vil

University at Buffalo Social Work Professor Dr. Christopher St. Vil was a recent guest speaker on the topic of toxic masculinity. McClam said it’s important to have relatable guest speakers.

“It’s good for these young men to hear that there is men who actually came from my community who figured it out and they’ve been doing great things,” he said.

As important as being relatable to the young men is, McClam said getting them to understand governmental processes is equally crucial.

In early July, a small group from Breaking Barriers took a trip down to Washington, D.C. to learn how government works on a national level.  For most of them it was their first time in our nation’s capitol.

Shawn and Tyler attend South Park and Bennett High Schools, respectively. For Shawn, it was an experience of a lifetime.

“We should be in politics as young black males,” he said. “Because we need a say in our communities.”

Shawn says his time in DC made him realize that others do not need to speak on behalf of his community and he can be a one day be a representative voice.

Tyler learned an equally valuable lesson when he ran into an older black man at the Smithsonian.

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White
Shawn and Tyler

“He said, ‘You guys, you look like you’re great young men,’” Tyler said. “’Never be able to be in these shackles because this is what they use for young black men in jail.’”

Tyler says the conversation gave him hope because older generations have misconceptions about young black men and the older man recognized these were bright young men and encouraged them, instead of demonizing them for what society has said they represent. They say they plan to have a hand in shaping their communities for years to come.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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