Part of a year-long series, presented by The American and the Brown School at Washington University, about changing the narratives and outcomes of young black males in St. Louis.
Frederick Douglas said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
For months I have been contemplating what I would write for this HomeGrown Black Males article. Over that time I have had just a few professional things going on, like changing jobs from my role as president and CEO of United Way to a completely different leadership position and industry as CEO of Midwest BankCentre. These changes have left me pondering Frederick Douglas' words and thinking about my journey as I oscillated on topics and felt overwhelming gratitude for the many people who have poured into my life .
To focus my thoughts, I sought the help of friends by asking, “What is needed for us to create the conditions for more black boys and men to be successful?” Across age, gender and race, the answers aligned along similar themes, from supporting two-parent stable families, to bestowing higher esteem and compensation on the best teachers to improve public education, to providing economic opportunities that allow men to be men so that they can take care of their families and build their wealth.
All of these are important and worthy goals, but I also find the need to stress the importance of communities that instill faith and values that can be the solid ground and guideposts for young boys and men when the world lashes out or emotions run high.
We are not in short supply of the world lashing out or emotions running high. We need only check the evening news for the latest shooting of an unarmed black man. Recently, I was reminded of the fragile and fleeting nature of life when my fraternity brother Demetrius Stewart, whom I have known and respected for more than 20 years, was senselessly gunned down at a bowling alley on the streets of St. Louis. Demetrius had a wife and two children whose lives have been forever changed.
The news aggravated scar tissue from my teenage years, as I reflected on the shooting of my younger brother, who was paralyzed from the neck down. While both are tragic, the circumstances of each shooting were different. My brother was in a gang and made choices that most would conclude would lead him to prison or an early grave. Demetrius was an innocent bystander, just dating his wife, like many successfully married men do.
Scripture says that all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord. Demetrius loved the Lord, his wife and his children. Because I know that things seen are temporal and things unseen are eternal, I stand on faith that his family will go to new heights on the shoulder of this extraordinary loss.
And the more I think about and pray for Demetrius’s family, the more I think about and pray for the shooter, asking, “What happened in his upbringing that led him to allow his emotions to go unchecked and settle a dispute with a gun? What happened in his life that led him to be seemingly void of hope and tethered to a nothing-to-lose attitude?"
We can’t bring Demetrius back, but we can build stronger children by giving them a foundation that affords them a better chance of navigating a broken world. We can pray and put our faith in action by mentoring one young brother – either intermittently or permanently – and speaking words of life and healing as so many have done to elevate me to the next level and to this point of reflection.
Orv Kimbrough, a product of the Saint Louis Public Schools and the State of Missouri foster care system, is chief executive officer of Midwest BankCentre and an adjunct professor at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.