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.
Growing up the 14th of 16 children in Homestown (Wardell), Missouri, in Pemiscot County, was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. However, both my father and mother were strict disciplinarians and gave me rigid boundaries that would eventually lead to my success.
They reared me in the Church of God In Christ (COGIC), which meant I was at church most of the time for Bible study classes, youth training classes, choir rehearsal, vacation Bible school, and revivals. When the church was not open for services, they made me care for the church property (cleaning, painting, cutting the grass) and/or the church members (visiting the sick and shut-in, cleaning their homes, cooking food and feeding them). From the latter grew my inspiration and motivation to help sick people and later pursue a career in medicine.
Not everyone believed in me and my aspiration to become a physician as much as I believed in myself, especially after they learned my mother and father had only completed the 6th and 8th grades respectively. My parents both were forced to quit school in order to raise their siblings. However, my high school counselor did go out of her way to transport me across the county to meet the first African-American physician at a neighboring high school career fair.
Later, and without my knowledge, I learned she had recommended me for several scholarships that would help me to afford attending college at Howard University in Washington, D.C. While others advised me to stay home close to family and friends, I stepped out on faith and attended Howard University on a National Competitive Scholarship and four years later obtained my Bachelor of Science degree in Physician Assistant.
Then, I worked as a physician assistant and took pre-requisite classes for medical school at night, in order to continue the pursuit of my dream of becoming a physician. After applying to medical school, I received multiple admission letters and decided to attend the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore with full scholarship support from the U.S. Army Medical Department. On May 15, 1998, with my parents in attendance on the front row, I proudly graduated with a Doctorate in Medicine.
After completing my graduate medical training, it took me another 13 years to return home to Missouri to practice medicine as a board-certified Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease specialist. Within one year of re-locating to St. Louis, I prayed to God about clarifying my purpose for being here. After a lot of soul-searching, I believe I found my purpose for being in St. Louis, which resulted in me creating a non-profit organization, Brother 2 Brother St. Louis. The mission of this non-profit is to provide a healthcare prevention model that changes the lives of young urban males regarding better decision-making and taking responsibility for their health.
I currently partner with my brothers from the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Epsilon Lambda Chapter, to mentor male students at Roosevelt High School (Brother 2 Brother/Project Alpha) and Carr Lane Visual Performing Arts Middle School. Thus far, we have conducted eight conferences with greater than 600 male attendees. Through these conferences, we work hard to educate these at-risk male youth regarding HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Recently, I have partnered with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and added sessions on human sex-trafficking and urban youth violence.
After attending our conferences, these youth report a better understanding of HIV/AIDS and STDs and how to protect themselves and prevent transmission of these infections. They verbalize a desire to “change the narrative” of the perception of young black males in St. Louis. We have received reports from the schools of increased school attendance and better school conduct and in-class behavior for those students who attended our conferences.
My future plans include working with even more community partners on projects that educate our urban male youth on making better decisions regarding their health and wellness, choosing to be in healthy relationships, and overcoming the odds of living daily in stressful environments. Within the next five years, I plan to seek additional funding in order to enhance our mentoring program by including additional schools in the metropolitan region and providing each attendee with an individual mentor from the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Epsilon Lambda Chapter and other male mentoring organizations, such as the 100 Black Men of Metropolitan St. Louis.
I am a black man in a white coat – called to encourage, support and motivate.
Otha Myles, M.D., is board-certified physician in internal medicine and infectious disease at Medical Specialists of St. Luke’s.
“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.