My father passed away at an early age from prostate cancer. Thankfully, we had a substantive relationship that was fueled by many conversations. I learned a lot in the moment when I heard he had died. I was 20. My Mother, by default, leaned on me to become the lead navigator of our family, even though I was not the oldest (number two on the chain of four). In the face of tragedy, we learn about our own resilience, emotional fortitude and what matters most.
While most of what I had learned at 20 came as a result of nurturing my relationship with God and my parents, I learned then (as I know now at age 56) that my storyline includes a number of fathers; lifelong men who helped me along the way.
These community fathers helped shape me and played a substantive role in throwing me life a preserver when I needed one. Often allowing me to save myself, rarely judging in any moment, they loved me unconditionally, asked tough questions and embraced me with love and dignity.
These fathers gave me just enough grace and honor to emulate what I needed, yet just enough of each so I could make it my own. In many ways, I owe these men my life, because they played the important role of what the Leading on Opportunity report calls “life navigators.”
When we define success in life, it is usually filled with these life navigators, many who are the resource we need that leads to good decisions making. Every child or adolescent needs men like these. Sometimes they’re needed to help a young person get back on track, to expand how we might process an opportunity and make good decisions.
A Defining Moment
I am reminded of an incident that helped define me, where a set of my community fathers, or Griots for me, (a West African term often used as fathers pass down storytelling through performance), helped guide at the age of 16, while standing outside a fast food restaurant with an eclectic group of friends in Evanston, IL. We were approached by a police officer who asked us to go home. Being a self-confident young male (as many of us are at that age), I told the officer we would not move as we had a right to the sidewalk. I was quickly arrested, taken to jail and booked. Thankfully, I had a good relationship with a few officers. One in particular, Lt. Michael Gresham, came and got me out. Public Defender Rob Roy took my case. Since I was a first-time defender, I got probation, and because I was in a state that expunged that record, my future employment was not put in peril by that one mistake.
I did not learn until much later that while the record was expunged at the state level, it was not expunged at the Federal level. I learned this from a TSA agent when I received my TSA pre-check status just six years ago. I had the honor of being active in the passing of the North Carolina’s Raise the Age legislation last year. It was personal to me.
Fast forward to today. We are in era where, if we believe the narrative, boys who look like me and come from my socio-economic background are in trouble. Whether it the Harvard economic mobility study, the NAEP 4th grade reading scores, the CMS Equity report or nationwide police encounters, the data does not look good for our survival or longevity. So what’s my point?
My mother and father used to say, you can’t change anything you are not talking about and nothing changes without focus and intention. Can Charlotte and Mecklenburg County acknowledge with fundamental grace that this is a problem that needs fixing? Or are we okay with the countless data points that signal the economic and educational decline of black males?
A Call to Action
It’s time to be much more intentional, much more honest, about where we are today and what we need to do to lift up and support our black and brown children. The only way Charlotte will rise from being 50th out of 50 cities in its ability to lift people out of poverty is to call out and calling attention to black boys. If the data were an EKG, black boys would be dead or dying. And while all people will help and should help (yes, that includes black women who have been the backbone of our incredible significance in our black community), I and other black men must stand and be counted on to lean in even more to say this is a clear, substantive opportunity to serve.
Need for Collective Action
We have some substantial, extremely intelligent and wonderfully gifted black men in this town. City Council members James Mitchell and Braxton Winston recently raised the importance of working more intentionally with the My Brother’s Keeper national initiative, and the Y is honored to play a role in helping to coordinate this effort and help decide how the city and county will hold us accountable in getting better results together. Again, while I would honor all support, I am specifically challenging African-American men to step up first. This is our inflection point to make an exponential difference. Let’s step in and honor those who are doing good work, recognize those areas where we clearly have gaps and build community fathers to strengthen and share stories of how we bridged out and became who we are today.
I am a father of two incredible young men who, like me, have had incredible access. They have been given real opportunities and even second chances to exceed their God-given potential. Can we give that access, opportunity and high expectations to others? Can we stand in the gap to refine and adjust policies that have created barriers for others? Can we mobilize our black Greek system, faith based organizations and others to create positive change for our young sons and brothers?
Today marks the 108th year since the first known Father’s Day celebration, held in Spokane, Washington. Alongside the organization I work for, Sonora Louise Dodd started the annual celebration at a YMCA to honor her father, William Jackson Smart, because he stepped in when her mother died in childbirth when Sonora was 16.
On June 16, 2019, I commit to focusing my charitable vessel to help improve the data outlined in our Leading on Opportunity, Read Charlotte, CMS Equity report. I hope we can, as a community, make a promise, even pinky swear, that we won’t let this data define our community, that we wont bury ourselves in conversation and discussion, that we will become that community that rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. As we lean in, lets not try to be perfect, let us aim for presence…Can we count on this community to rally?
Michael DeVaul is a father of two sons Cole and Beau and the Chief Social Responsibility Officer for the YMCA of Greater Charlotte.