Former President Barack Obama’s face appeared on the largest JumboTron in the country, which is located in Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils. In the venue, more than 1,200 young men were offered haircuts, shoeshines, tie and blazer fittings and tailoring services for this year’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Pathways to Success: Boys and Young Men of Color Opportunity Summit on Tuesday.
And that’s not all. Nearly 300 boys and young men of color walked away with on-the-spot job offers or a direct pathway to employment as part of MBK Alliance’s participation in the Obama Foundation’s initiative in Newark. Since 2016, the MBK Alliance has hosted three Opportunity Summits in Oakland, California; Detroit; and Memphis, Tennessee, resulting in more than 1,000 job offers.
Nationally, nearly 7 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of school, and about 7,000 are in Newark alone. The opportunity summit is designed to “catalyze local youth employment efforts while fortifying youth with the tools they need to overcome barriers and place them on the pathway to success.”
Newark was one of the first cities to accept the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge. In partnership with Mayor Ras J. Baraka, Prudential Financial Inc. and the Prudential Center, the daylong summit provided 1,000 young men of color and other underserved youths between the ages of 16 and 29 with interviews with employers for on-the-spot hiring, immediate access to community resources and social services, connection to mentors, an opportunity to discuss solutions to youth violence, and a chance to participate in career preparation and leadership development training.
“We’re excited about the opportunity here in Newark,” said Michael D. Smith, director of MBK Alliance and Youth Opportunity Programs at the Obama Foundation. “The pathway to dissect opportunities from it is bringing all those resources into one place for our boys and young men of color and saying, ‘Here is the road to follow.’ We’re just making the path clear for our young people who too often are marginalized or left out or have trouble finding their way.”
The day kicked off with a morning session in which Baraka, community leaders and executives discussed leadership development and shared inspiring stories, all moderated by The Undefeated’s Clinton Yates. MBK was organized by Baraka in 2016 in response to a national call to action by Obama. The initiative furthers the mayor’s mission to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color in Newark.”
Smith identifies with the participants and with the boys and men in the Newark community.
“This work is deeply personal for me,” Smith said. “I was one of the kids that we are serving today. I grew up in western Massachusetts to a single mom. Both of my parents were 16 years old when I was born. We grew up in a poor community that was certainly under-resourced, and to a community that could be violent, and to a community where opportunity certainly wasn’t clear.
“And while my family loved me, and poured so much support into me and created pathways for me that allowed me to end up here where I am today, so many of my peers who I started up with didn’t end up in the same place. Too many of them ended up in jails, and too many of them ended up in the grave.”
Tragedy hit close to home for Smith when his half-brother Tory was killed in 2009 at 27 years old.
“We lived down the street from each other,” Smith said. “Spent weekends together. Vacations together. Playing together. And one misstep, he finds himself in a system he couldn’t get himself out of.
“So when I do this work, I see Tory. And I see millions of boys like Tory who are filled with potential and possibilities and filled with God’s love and light, who just need someone to put their arms around them and give them a hand up and protect them and be willing to set them the way when they make a mistake, to give them a second chance. And that’s why we do this work that we do. Because we need Tory. And we need the boys and young men of color like him if this nation is going to be successful and if our communities are going to thrive.”
Dennis Hickerson-Breedon was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, but his passion and work are in Newark. For the MBK Newark Fellow and Opportunity Summit participant, the event was energy-filled.
“I didn’t know what to expect at first,” he said. “It gave me a new sense of purpose, because it’s not about me. It’s not about my fellows. It’s not about the program in general. It’s about us as a collective and mobility.”
“I wasn’t a scholar in high school; I had a 1.9 GPA. Because of that, I wasn’t and did not have the criteria to be admitted into certain universities and colleges. I found and stumbled upon Benedict College from a family friend, and that’s where I chose to go. That’s where my career and my life has sprang since then.”
Hickerson-Breedon, 28, finished at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, and found his way back to Newark. He recently passed the New York bar and is waiting for admittance in New Jersey.
“I’ve been able to make relationships the last three years and throughout my time being in law school. I made contact with different attorneys, one attorney in particular named Kenyatta Stewart, who is now the corporation counsel for the law department in the city of Newark. He told me that there may be a position that he thinks that I could flourish in, and that was the chief of staff position in the law department for the city of Newark.”
There, Hickerson-Breedon began to cultivate different relationships, which led him to the My Brother’s Keeper Newark Initiative.
“I know that there are a lot of youth in this city that may be of similar circumstances that I was in: a 1.9 GPA or low GPA or single-parent household. No father. My father passed away when I was 10, so I didn’t have the luxury of learning the things that a young man would learn with his father present. That’s why being involved with My Brother’s Keeper was especially important to me. The summit was an opportunity for a lot of these young men to get an opportunity that they would not have been given under any other normal circumstance.”
Hickerson-Breedon hopes the MBK Alliance continues to encourage other young men who are on the rise.
“Not just young men who are, quote unquote, educated,” he said. “There’s a stigma that if you don’t go to college or school that you’re not able to prosper and you’re not educated. Any young, prominent young man in an urban community that has anything to offer to someone else needs to be involved with this initiative. Not only is it important to share the stories of triumph, but we need to show and restore the image of the young black male.”