Having a mentor provides a young person with a real life experience as inspiration.
That was critical for Mitchell Atkinson growing up in a challenging neighbourhood with distractions and negative influences. He latched on to Ainsworth Morgan, who is now a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) vice-principal and youth workers, Kevin Jeffers and Kenneth Slater, who offered him advice and hope.
Listening and learning, Atkinson graduated from high school and was in his first year at the University of Windsor pursuing psychology studies when Morgan and TDSB administrator Gary Crossdale launched the “Stand Up Young Men Conference” for Grade Seven and Eight boys in the city’s public school system.
Atkinson, who was raised in Regent Park, attended the inaugural event and was impressed with the program.
“Success is redefined when you come to this event,” he said. “You get to see judges, lawyers, doctors, high-ranking law enforcement officials and business owners who look like you and are doing many positive things outside their professional spheres to uplift the community.”
Now enrolled in the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Master’s program, Atkinson has been to every conference, including the fifth at George Brown College last week.
“Mentors played a huge role in my life and it’s important for me to give back and help those that may be seeking some guidance,” he said. “I have an older brother with a criminal record who protected me from some of the negative influences and I am very grateful for that, but it was the mentors who picked me up and showed me that I could be successful.”
The conference was launched after it emerged that the drop-out rate for Black students – mainly boys – was as high as 40 per cent a few years ago.
Black boys are also more likely to be suspended or expelled, placed in special education programs, under-represented among school personnel and missing from gifted and advanced placements.
“What was startling for us was that a disproportionate number of Black males were not finishing high school,” said Jamaican-born Morgan who was a wide receiver with the Toronto Argonauts and the University of Toledo, where he graduated with a criminology degree before attaining his Bachelor of Education and Master’s degrees from OISE. “We have brought in successful Black men to speak to not just Black boys because we believe what is beneficial for some is necessary for all. Everyone needs to hear the message, but it’s the Black boys in particular who need to have an opportunity to see people who look like them.”
Morgan grew up in Regent Park and attended Park Public School that was renamed Nelson Mandela Public School where he’s a vice principal.
“I was once one of these kids in the audience,” said Morgan. “I have had people who helped me along the way and I come from a family that understands the importance of giving back. That’s why I feel I have a duty and responsibility to give back.”
This year’s event was restricted to Grade Eight boys.
“We deliberately chose that grade because the data shows that the transition to high school is challenging for those students,” Morgan said. “If they don’t have 16 credits by age 16, the chances of them graduating high school diminish tremendously. This one-day conference is not going to change everything. But what it does is present the young boys with a look at what is possible.”
Presenters this year included provincial court judge Donald McLeod, Toronto Police deputy chief Mark Saunders, banking administrators Mark Beckles and Ellis Perryman, York University professor Dr. Carl James and hip hop artist/motivational speaker Shaun Boothe, who toured with Kardinal Offishall and has opened for award-winning American artists Lauryn Hill and Nas.
They shared their success stories and strategies for overcoming hurdles.
“The hope is that the students will leave here today with a feeling of empowerment, responsibility and a desire to be successful,” said Morgan.
Boothe told the youths he grew up facing some of the same challenges they now encounter in the school system.
“I was suspended five times before I reached Grade Five,” he said. “That was however before I realised what I was capable of.”
Boothe, whose Jamaican-born father, Xavier “Lucky” Boothe, is a City of Toronto community recreation supervisor and George Brown College men’s soccer head coach, was an honour student in high school.
“I did that even though there were no Black teachers, principals or guidance counsellors or text books that reflected my culture and upbringing,” said Shaun Boothe. “The reason I am here talking to you is because I believe there are two types of people – those that are always looking for excuses and those that are seeking solutions.
“I know how easy it is to find excuses. You will find many and some may be legitimate, but excuses, to me, are a way to become comfortable with your own failures. That’s not acceptable. Regardless of which neighbourhood we were born and raised in, we all come from a legacy of greatness.”
TD Bank, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation Ontario and the Urban Financial Services Coalition co-sponsored the event.