Contributing Writer

Gathering for encouragement and a reality check

CHICAGO ( – Hip hop Artist Lupe Fiasco provided straight talk to young, Black men who recently graduated from area high schools gathered to be honored for their achievement.

Participants included Black male elementary school students, parents, pastors, guardians, and teachers.


“This mass Black Male graduation ceremony represented a beacon of hope and sets a new direction for young Black men in Chicago and in America,” said Black Star Project executive director Phillip Jackson, who organized the event to acknowledge, celebrate, inspire and launch young Black males into positive futures.

Family, friends and community gathered at Chicago State University to celebrate and acknowledge over 150 young, Black male high school graduates. Photos: Na’eema Muhammad

Lupe, who keynoted the event, offered a “wake up” message: “Congratulations, you have graduated from one of the most terrible, substandard school systems in the entire world. You have just spent the last 12 years receiving one of the worst educations on earth. You are at least 4, 5 steps behind people in other countries that are younger than you.”

In Chicago, only 39 percent of Black males graduate from public high schools; only 3 out of 100 young Black men who attend public schools attain a 4-year college degree by age 25; and 52 percent of non-institutionalized Black men are unemployed, and Black men who don’t graduate from high school are more likely to end up in the Illinois prison system.  

Across the nation Black young men are graduating from high school at alarmingly low rates, and even fewer are ready for a college education, say advocates. They say Black men and the community must step up to not only call for finishing school but for creating a future.

Lupe Fiasco

Lupe encouraged the young men to not so much focus on graduation and the ceremony, but on the transition to manhood. “That’s more important than the graduation,” said Lupe who gave every graduate $100 and urged them to avoid drugs and violence.

For decades, Mr. Jackson, who created the Million Father March, has been an advocate for Black youth. He encouraged elders to stay connected with and serve the graduates they pledged to mentor. These young men need the benefit of your experiences and networks, said Mr. Jackson. The elders and youth applauded the Black Star Project leader for his constant efforts to promote the best interests of Black children and organize their parents.

“It was important for me to be there to honor them,” said Wallace “Gator” Bradley of United in Peace, former street organization enforcer and confidante to Larry Hoover who, from behind prison walls has promoted moving the Gangster Disciple street organization to Growth and Development, a movement for ending violence and pushing education and progress. “Phillip Jackson should be applauded and supported for his efforts,” Mr. Bradley added. Mr. Jackson unapologetically said he works with anyone who can help Black children move forward–and it doesn’t matter what they call themselves.

Ronald Holt, who lost his son Blair Holt to gun violence in 2007, saw great value in the late June gathering at Chicago State University. “It puts young African American males out in the forefront, it’s great to see the elders commiserate these young men and pass the baton. The entire African American community, nationwide needs to see this. So many are involved in the culture of gangs, guns and violence and it does not have to be that way,” said Mr. Holt, who is commander of the Chicago Police Department Special Activities Division. “This is a great connection. We need positive male images.”

The young men who attended appreciated the recognition. “It was a really good program,” said 19-year-old Jeremy Muhammad who recently graduated from a high school in North Carolina and now lives in Chicago. “Having the elders present showed that they are behind us and willing to support and mentor us. I hope those that attended got something out of it and that the graduates go to college and do something with their lives. I know I am.”

The ceremony, which also included a powerful message from civil rights Attorney Thomas N. Todd, and the presence of dozens of influential Black male elders, was more than just a one-day event.  

Attorney Todd started off his talk with a quote from historian and author Carter G. Woodson’s book “Mis-Education of the Negro”  before congratulating the graduates and encouraging them to continue their education and to use it as a tool for success. “This is your day 2013 graduates because you didn’t give up, you didn’t give out, and you didn’t give in; you persevered … . This is your commencement, not your conclusion, your beginning, not your end.”

It’s time to work towards creating a better world, stressed Attorney Todd. “I don’t care how smart your smartphone is, I don’t care how great your technology is, I don’t care what you have; you still cannot download freedom! You must work to be free! Education has always made the difference for us.”

“We should do this all over the country to help save the next generation. This is what we did in the old days. This kind of program transmits values from one generation to the next. This is very important. Passing the torch and letting them know what life is about. It’s about responsibility for self and community,” said Luster Jackson of the 5th City Reformulation Corporation. The event offered voter registration, connections with colleges and registration and some opportunities for employment and discussion of possible careers.

“Everything that we do, in order to build up the self-esteem of young Black men is good and more importantly, in my opinion, it’s strategic to teach young Black men who they are so they will love and respect who they are and thus they will treat each other with respect,” said Attorney James D. Montgomery, managing partner in the Law Offices of Cochran, Cherry, Givens, Smith & Montgomery, L.L.C. “To the extent that we as elders can share some of life’s experiences, the better we are.”

“Whatever we can do that reinforces that we have an ancestral position that can be passed on to guide our young men, we need to do it to confront this monster that we all have to deal with. We have the unique ability to give them that information because many of us have managed to survive,” said Salem Muwaukil, journalist and talk show radio host on WVON-AM.

The 150 young men dressed in varied color caps and gowns were drawn from across the city as part of a mass celebration and rites of passage.

A similar event took place in the San Francisco Bay Area June 19.  The event was part of the Mitchell Kapor Foundation’s College Bound Brotherhood, a college readiness program that aims to expand the number of young  Black  men in the San Francisco Bay Area who are prepared for college. Youth participating in the event were eligible for a $100 stipend to defray the cost of college books.

“African American young men are assets that we can’t afford to lose and, when they earn college degrees, the economic and social benefits impact all of us,” said Cedric Brown, CEO of the Kapor Foundation. “All too often, these young men and their accomplishments are overlooked and dismissed. The Kapor Foundation is proud to celebrate young  Black  men who are on their way toward creating change for themselves, their families and our communities.”

In 2009, for every 100 graduating Bay Area seniors, only 4 were Black males, and only 1  was eligible to attend a California State or University of California institution. Since the launch of the College Bound Brotherhood in 2008, the Kapor Foundation has distributed more than $1 million in grants to organizations that support young  Black  men through college readiness workshops, college tours, academic coaching, mentoring and more.

“Black  males are underemployed, undereducated and undervalued,” said Monique August, executive director of the Choose College Educational Foundation, a Kapor Foundation grant partner. “By investing in these youth, we are not only uplifting the lives of the young males, but enhancing the livelihood of our entire society. The graduation  celebration combats stereotypes and statistics of  Black  male  achievement, and is a catalyst of hope and pride in our communities.”

In addition to strategic grant making, the foundation is building a college-bound culture for young  Black  men through, a public database of college-readiness programs; the Brotherhood Leadership Advisory Council; and the annual “Black  & Proud to be College Bound” conference.

In addition to mass graduation ceremonies nationwide, organizations have been providing mentorship and manhood training programs to provide guidance and support.

Khalid Samad, a Cleveland-based national organizer for the 2013 International Summit for Urban Peace, Justice & Empowerment Summit, runs one such program.

In the early 1990s, Omar Ali-Bey and Mr. Samad formed Peace in the Hood and began walking the streets at night, challenging drug dealers. In 1993 they helped launch the first national gang peace summit. The current program institutionalized those efforts, focusing on eradicating the core issues that lead to drugs, guns and youth violence.

Mr. Samad’s program includes a combination of a healthy focus on the personal self, social cultural self and spiritual self-knowledge.  “The Rites of Passage program is a process to move young men into manhood. A major challenge we face are young men suffering from identity crisis,” he explained. “All of our leaders and ancestors tell us that we have to know who we are thus we have that as part of our program along with showing them who they are. Also, we focus on, not the post traumatic slave syndrome, but the current and ongoing one because it has never stopped,” he added.