When we encourage young people to drop their dreams to pursue something
we deem more “realistic,” we often are “blocking the blessing.”
By: Brandon Nicholson, Ph.D., Blavity News
Date: Wednesday, August 11, 2021
Black male youth do not represent a problem to solve, but rather a solution to elevate.
Often when I discuss my work as the leader of an intensive mentoring program for Black male youth, people assume that I am doing charity or working to “save” otherwise hapless young people. I would say it is quite the opposite. As the Executive Director of The Hidden Genius Project, every day I have given to this work constitutes an investment in a better future for society at large.
One key investment in the future prosperity of our economy is a thriving and empowered Black male youth population. There are myriad paths to get there, but through my work I have learned that belief is imperative. Accordingly, I offer three major lessons from my personal and professional journey to illustrate the power of belief in our Black boys and young men.
1. Believe In The Powerful Brilliance Of Our Black Boys
Our Black male youth are brilliant, resilient, and oozing with limitless leadership potential. We often fall into the trap of crafting and adopting narratives about the “gaps” that plague them, but even the most discouraging statistics suggest that the majority of Black boys we encounter are destined to be high school graduates, loving fathers, fantastic life partners and valued professionals. If we continually ignore the data and lament what our young people are not, it hampers our ability to elevate what could be.
I am continually impressed by the ingenuity of the young people we work with at The Hidden Genius Project, which trains and mentors Black male youth in technology creation, entrepreneurship and leadership skills to transform their lives and communities. We refer to our participants as “Geniuses,” irrespective of their GPA at the time or the quality of their work portfolios. This is because their capacity can seldom be measured accurately as a measure of their institutional indicators and accomplishments.
Some of our most brilliant alumni were once middling students, missing assignments, the source of innumerable classroom distractions and mandated to summer school. They were all navigating various challenges as they sought to figure out who they were, who they wanted to be and how they might navigate the obstacles they encountered along the way. To know this does not mean that we do not hold them accountable, but it does mean that we do not give up on their growth as they resiliently overcome so many factors outside of their control.
2. Believe In Our Black Boys’ Right To Dream
With only the most noble of intentions, we frequently dampen the dreams of our young people for fear that they are unattainable. However, how many of the jobs tied to technology platforms and products we could not have imagined would have existed even 15 years ago? For all the hand-wringing about interest in sports and entertainment, does that mean we would have blocked all the emerging coaches and front office personnel that are emerging into pro sports careers? What of those who ventured to eschew more conventional learning pathways and subsequently leveraged new technology platforms to develop innovative and viral music phenomena?
For the past six years, The Hidden Genius Project has partnered with a fantastic nonprofit, TEAM, Inc., to expose young people to opportunities at the intersection of sports and technology. When I first met TEAM’s Co-Founder, Anwar McQueen, we quickly coalesced around a belief that too many well-meaning adults commit a critical mistake: We dampen our young people’s dreams by (inaccurately) telling them that professional sports careers are unattainable, so they should pursue a more “stable” career pathway. The whole time we are snuffing out our youth’s passions, the fastest-growing opportunities in sports are not on the field of play, but rather tied to any number of technological applications tied to functions such as scouting, data visualization, entertainment media, social media, marketing, athletic performance training and many more.
Through our partnership, we have been able to mentor numerous young people of color to secure opportunities to pay for their higher education and earn wages by leveraging technology to support basketball strategy for college, professional and international teams. When we encourage young people to drop their dreams to pursue something we deem more “realistic,” we often are “blocking the blessing,” not just because they miss the myriad pathways that are already viable, but also because it stifles the passion and creativity to invent new ones. To empower Black boys and young men, we must harness their interests and passions such that they are inspired to pursue excellence while exploring what else there might be.
3. Believe In Our Black Boys’ Potential To Develop The Answers
It is important to battle the urge to talk about our Black boys and young men as hapless charity cases. When we do that, we tacitly suggest that we are doing this segment of our society a favor, in hopes of effecting a better world. With that said, we have the opportunity to elevate the agency of our Black boys in addressing the gamut of our society’s challenges. These are thinkers, builders, creators and mentors in their own right. Investing in them is investing in a better future that they play a hand in designing and bringing to fruition.
I feel great pride every time I witness The Hidden Genius Project’s Alumni Youth Educators in action. We train young alumni of our 15-month Intensive Immersion Program to facilitate programming for other youth in our communities, which allows them to earn a solid wage while we expand our reach and serve young people from an even broader array of backgrounds. This component of our work continually reminds me that the young men we work with are not merely receptacles for the lessons and wisdom we believe ourselves to be passing down to them; they are dynamic problem solvers who can simultaneously learn new things while teaching others and developing their own unique solutions to community challenges.
For example, six years ago one of our Geniuses needed a lot of holistic support from us, even as he possessed great talent and promise. We understood that we would have to do many things for him and his family, and pour into him so that he might one day realize his potential. That Genius not only went on to complete high school and enroll in college to study computer science, he developed into a fantastic person and now works full-time as one of The Hidden Genius Project’s educators. He brings a fresh perspective, new ideas and first-hand knowledge of just how impactful his work can be. As he teaches and mentors young people, he does apply some of the skills we taught him, but frequently it is now him who is teaching us creative methods to reach younger generations effectively.
When we first began supporting him six years ago, we were not merely doing magnanimous deeds; we were investing in one of our most valuable growth solutions. We see this with so many of our Geniuses who mentor their peers, engage in community advocacy and leadership, and innovate as the protagonists of our better future.
If it seems that these lessons could apply to young people across backgrounds and identities, that is because they absolutely can and should. Nevertheless, it is critical that we believe they apply to our Black male youth; if we do not, we must do the work to come to terms with why that is.
We each have an opportunity to make good on that belief in our daily lives. We may lend an attentive ear, offer a word of compassionate advice, make helpful connections within our networks (and/or help strategize on how to find one) or, of course, support the organizations in our communities (such as The Hidden Genius Project). If nothing else, we can simply carry the belief in our young people’s capacity to create limitless value in this world. I am a witness to its power; it is worth our investment as our Black boys will continue to deliver the returns.