Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Men’s group taps MLK legacy

By Michael Kooi
You’ve seen them ringing bells for the Salvation Army. Raising money to stop the genocide in Darfur. And maybe even introducing a llama to kids in a park.

They are young men of color, and thanks in part to the efforts of Duluth’s African-American Men’s Group, they are developing into the community’s next generation of leaders.
“These are creative and exciting young people,” says AAMG President Carl Crawford. “We need to create a support network for them. It’s our obligation as men to accept that challenge…and reclaim the roles we need to play in our community.”

For the members of the men’s group, this means acting as visible role models in the community, sharing experiences as mentors and demonstrating the value of making smart choices in life.
Since its inception in 1992, the AAMG has done this in a number of ways. To emphasize the value of education as a pathway out of poverty, the group has created a college scholarship in honor of Allen Butler, Duluth’s first African- American police officer. AAMG also provides gifts each year to minority high school graduates as part of a celebration that both recognizes their achievement in graduating but also encourages them to continue on to college or vocational schools.

As important as this financial support can be, the group’s most significant contribution may come through the personal time that members dedicate to mentoring teens and putting them in touch with the world beyond their neighborhoods. Each summer, for example, AAMG members take kids from Neighborhood Youth Services on a fishing trip in honor of Howard Taylor, a late member of the group.

“Some of these kids grew up next to Lake Superior, but they’ve never been on a boat,” marvels Samie McCurley, AAMG’s founder. “It’s just a joy for us to see the smiles on the kids’ faces when they catch a fish. That’s what lets me know I did the right thing in starting the group.”
According to Kelly Looby, program coordinator at NYS, this personal interaction with positive role models makes the kids feel like they “fit in and belong [in this community].” In fact, two former participants in the annual trip, Don Morris and Jamal Winters, have gone on to earn jobs at NYS.

It also helps to bridge the generation gap and form lasting connections for future success. “We have to interact with [these kids] and feed off of each other,” Crawford explains. He says it’s the only way that his generation can understand the challenges facing kids today.
Forming such connections is one of the primary goals of the African-American Student Alliance at Woodland Hills, which founder Cal Harris says was inspired by the AAMG. Harris, a senior youth treatment specialist at Woodland, brings his group to sit in on AAMG meetings periodically.

For AASA members Jesus, Edward and Danny (whose last names have been omitted to protect their privacy as minors), the African-American Men’s Group breaks down negative stereotypes. Interacting with AAMG members gives them the courage to be active in the community by raising money for charitable causes and sharing their experiences with young children. “It keeps us motivated,” says Edward.

A legacy of courage and caring
In their cultivation of tomorrow’s leaders of color, the members of the AAMG draw from the lessons and legacies provided by their own role models. Perhaps nowhere is this connection more explicit than in the group’s contributions to Duluth’s annual MLK Holiday Community Breakfast. The event brings the community together to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to work toward fulfilling his vision of building a just and interconnected society.
Each year, AAMG members participate by rolling up their sleeves to cook and serve the event’s namesake meal.

“They feed a significant amount of people on a low budget,” explained Doug Bowen-Bailey, one of the event’s organizers and owner of Digiterp Communications. “It’s a big benefit to the community.”

In addition to the free breakfast, the event also provides people from all walks of life with the opportunity to sit down with each other and discuss the issues they face, as well as those shared by the community.

This year’s MLK breakfast will take place on Jan. 19, 2009 at First United Methodist Church, located at 230 W. Skyline Pkwy in Duluth. Breakfast service begins at 7 a.m.