Young men, students and parents and local leaders came together Thursday night for a frank, wide ranging discussion on the challenges faced by young black men as part of a program organized by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority alumni of the Stone Mountain-Lithonia chapter.
The event, part of DST's "Empowering Males to Build Opportunities for Developing Independence" program, invited a panel of successful local black male leaders to talk about their backgrounds and how they achieved success. Most of the panelists described coming from single parent homes and working hard to overcome challenges.
"I tell my students, I didn't always wear a shirt and tie," said Newton High School Pirncipal Dr. Roderick Sams, who talked about growing up on a farm in a single parent household.
Many of the panelists spoke about the need for young men to be able to see beyond the circumstances in front of them and to back up their vision with discipline in order to achieve their dreams.
Rockdale County Commissioner Oz Nesbitt said one of the things that disturbed him was seeing parents "babying" their young boys. "They don't let them fall before they scoop them right up," he said. "I believe we have to push our young people and stop pampering, especially our boys."
Morehouse College professor Corey Stayton added that he understood the idea of not babying young men. "But there has to be a place where we start talking to them and asking them, ‘What are you thinking?' Talk to me, Tell me what is going on."
"A lot of times our African American men are not talking. What they do is go inside those headphones and they stay there and they are lost, they are gone, they are isolated. And they are left to fend for themselves in terms of defining their own masculinity."
Pastor Eric Lee of Springfield Baptist Church said his experience raising his three young sons made him realize "there's a cult of masculinity that has to be broken. The notion of black manhood has been defined way too often by celebrities, by athletes, by womanizers and misogynists. What we try to do here at Springfield is redefine what Christian manhood looks like."
Stayton also said too often the entrenched idea of masculinity prevented young men from asking questions in the classroom.
"It's felt that you're supposed to know. Most men don't want to ask questions. If I get lost, I'm going to find my way. I'm not going to ask you for directions. That comes back to how we define manhood," he said. "When boys can say, ‘I don't have the answers,' and feel comfortable in their own skin, then we've erased those ideas and they can actually learn."
During the question and answer portion, an audience member asked about young men who are not in trouble but also not receiving support.
Sams acknowledged that many adults were guilty of focusing on the worst cases to the neglect of other students that needed just a little bit of encouragement to excel. "We've got another crisis. We've got those students who are doing OK. In fact, they're doing well. But they still will settle for less than what they can possibly accomplish."
"We're still aiming for what we think rather than aspiring for what we can possibly get if we're willing to put the work in. We have to show them, these processes are possible."
Toni Johnson, president of the Stone Mountain Lithonia chapter of DST alumni, said that the panel topic came from a new initiative taken on by the national program, which already has programs for young women.
"Even though we are a sorority, for our young women to be successful, they're going to need the young man there," said Johnson. "We need to do what we can to help us all be successful."
Quintin Lee, a 16-year-old junior at Salem High, said that he attended the panel at his mom's urging. "I don't live with my dad. It was so I could get exposure to what other men do."
After listening to the discussion, he said "I took away that I really need to speak out and be heard more and get more involved with things. To do more community service and help everything I'm involved in."