They came from near and far, a migration of young male leadership from Cornell, Purdue, Kentucky, Georgetown, Arkansas, SMU, two HBCUs, (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and many others. In all sixty-nine African American males came to Campaign, Illinois for a weeklong Leadership Conference, with the goal of nurturing their own leadership skills and “to save the world.”

I was honored to be among them.

It was a Leadership Summit for African American college males, the vision of my good friend Dr. Ainsley Carry, Vice Provost for Student Affairs at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Dr. Carry’s vision was to gather African American males in a weeklong session to discuss leadership, visions, personal goals and aspirations. My alma mater sent three young men. I was asked to facilitate one of the sessions.

It was historic, enlightening and exciting!

The organization, Leadershape, conducts these workshops around the country, generally with student leaders from the same college or university.

This would be different.

I arrived at the rural airport in Campaign, Illinois. My well-meaning escort to the hotel gushed about how polite and positive the young men were. While making chitchat, she revealed it was a genuine but pleasant surprise to her. I wondered, what she had expected? After all, their colleges, and universities had selected these young men. I realized that she expected what she had been exposed to, the media stereotype. I started to say these young men were the “normal” ones. But I didn’t. She meant well. Young men like these as a rule don’t exist in her world, not in numbers. They do in mine. These young men were the African American males I’d known most of my life, responsible, diligent, accountable, wanting to make a difference. They had been selected by their universities and colleges, communities and families to represent them. I chuckled, “Sixty-nine, African American young men in rural Illinois, for a week, and they didn’t even make the news cycle.”

Now that is a story.

As a cluster facilitator, I had a group of about twenty young men for an hour-long discussion on any subject the young men wanted to talk about. After some preliminary discussion about my background, acting, writing, consulting and my current role as Chair of the Auburn Foundation Board, we dug into a full-throated discussion on business and social issues. They were bright, giving, respectful of other views, and different depending on their own     individual background and goals.

They summarized that there were two aspects of the session they could never duplicate in their everyday lives. One was to share time with so many other accomplished males like themselves, hear their dreams and aspirations, share time, laugh and hope for a better world. The other was participating in a forum where they could be heard. Where they could say things they wanted to say and not fear reprisal, where they could say things to me that did not shock me but instead they found an understanding ear; an ear of experience, an ear that had lived their experience. That was a highlight for me.

One young man asked me. “Where do you see your life now?”

“Great question,” I shot back, “but an easy one, I’ve paved the road for you guys. Soon I will move over, hand off the baton and watch you guys run with it into your future.”

Several young men wrote me personal letters of thanks. They gave them to me before I left.

…I hope you enjoyed your time experiencing and exploring these enlightened young men at Leadershape.

…It has been so empowering.

…Thank you for coming to Leadershape and offering your knowledge and wisdom. Your contribution elevated my experience to an entirely new level.

When we again gathered as a full group I shared with them an experience from a previous Leadershape session for student leaders on the Auburn University campus. It was, and remains, a memorable experience. Dr. Carry challenged that group to envision that one day a President of the United States would emerge from among them. One young man has taken that challenge to heart.

I laid that challenge on the African American males. Someone in their group would aspire to one-day hold the highest office in the land. Eyes lit up. I watched the idea settle into their young brains. I saw the thought pass through the mental barriers society had placed there and come to rest within their heads, I can do that, I, can be President of the United States.

It was quite an experience.

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