Summit on Black Male Youth helps students build a better future

Throngs of black male middle and high school students filled the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Student Union Wednesday and Thursday for the fifth annual Summit on Black Male Youth. The event, titled “Black Boys Thriving: Re-imagining the Narrative,” was expected to draw about 2,000 students.

The summit’s workshops examine issues facing young black men and offer approaches that can help the students in their professional and personal success.

Several students raise their hands during a discussion.
Parrieon Warren leads a session called “Real Talk,” which aims to help improve communication skills and interpersonal relationships. Owney, a first-year UWM student, attended previous summits. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

“This program gives them more information about their responsibilities to the community and beyond,” said Shebaniah Muhammad, principal of Grant Elementary in the Kenosha Unified School District and coordinator of the young black male initiative in that district.  This is the third year that district students have participated, he said. “We started with 40 the first year, and now have 100.”

“What I’ve learned here is stay positive and never lose track of what you are supposed to do, and keep up your grades,” said D’uAndre Drain-Majors, an eighth-grader at Kenosha School of Technology West, who was attending the summit for the third time.

Workshops ranged from entrepreneurship to trauma, from financial literacy to dealing with police, from replacing a negative self-image to social media and branding.

Hundreds of students sit in chairs listening to a speaker.
About 2,000 students were expected to attend the Summit on Black Male Youth over two days. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

The interactive sessions gave the young men a chance to ask questions and learn from experts and leaders. For example, Alex Hart-Upendo, an 11-year-old entrepreneur from Racine, told the students how he started his own business, called Build-a-Bow, making bow ties.

The program has been going long enough now that some past participants are involved in leading workshops. Torrin Owney, now a first-year student at UWM who plans to major in secondary education, attended previous summits and this year served on the planning committee for the event. He led a session called Real Talk, to help the young men improve their communication skills and relations with their friends and family.

The future these young men need to build can be challenging. At the opening ceremony, Kwabena Nixon, spoken word artist and activist, asked the students to raise their hands if they knew someone who’d lost a family member to violence. Almost every hand in the room went up.

A boy stands at a podium on a stage addressing a large audience.
Alex Hart-Upendo, an 11-year-old entrepreneur from Racine, talks about how he started his own bow-tie business, Build-a-Bow, after being isolated and bullied. He’s also written a book, “Bullies, Bowties and Brilliant Alex.” (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

The goal of the summits is to show these young men what is possible and get them started on building their own, better futures, said Gary Williams, director of UWM’s Black Cultural Center, who started the summit in 2012.

“We need to expose these kids to opportunities and talk with them about their own development and role in the community,” he said. “We want to talk to them about opportunities beyond high school and middle school, have them looking at the next steps.”

It’s an idea many of the young students are already taking to heart. Said Kasim Alexander of Milwaukee College Prep-Lloyd Street: “I want to know more about all this. I want to learn how to make a better life as a young black male in Milwaukee.”

Sponsors of this year’s summit included Northwestern Mutual, Wells Fargo Bank, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Social Development Commission, Wisconsin Community Services, the Milwaukee County Office on African American Affairs, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Cousin’s Subs, MPS’ Black and Latino Male Achievement, United Way, the City of Milwaukee’s Office on Violence Prevention and the city’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.

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