My Brother's Keeper: Middle Georgia responds to Obama's call to aid young black, Hispanic men

Telegraph staffMarch 16, 2014 


Stone Academy director Tony Lowden, left, asks questions of Roderick Rutherford center during reading time at the after-school program. Rutherford, who was reading a biography of Michael Jordan, answered all Lowden's questions perfectly.


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One morning earlier this month, an hour or so before sunup, Fred Green got out of jail.

When he answered the door later that day at his grandparents’ house on Oglesby Place, he knew nothing of the president’s plan to help young black men like him.

He and some guys he knows had been at a Macon Wal-Mart the night before. One of them, Green said, unbeknownst to him, tried to steal a $2 pair of boxer shorts.

Even so, all of them were locked up for shoplifting.

Green, 18, a basketball standout who helped lead Wilkinson County High to a state title last year, has taken classes at Middle Georgia State College. He is considering enrolling at another school to play hoops.

Green, soft spoken and slender with chiseled biceps, was for the most part raised by his mother and grandparents. He said they always provided.

“But a lot of young men gotta get it on their own,” he said. “They gotta find a way to get money … to buy their own clothes. … I done seen people I went to middle school with, now they’re crack heads. … I done seen a boy that I knew get killed. I done seen boys that I know get sent down that road for a long time.”

In his State of the Union address in January, President Barack Obama said he would reach out to Americans willing to help young men of color.

Last month, in announcing a private-sector pledge of hundreds of millions of dollars to expand opportunities for young black and Hispanic men, he spoke of the need to show them that their country has their backs.

The initiative is called “My Brother’s Keeper.”

Ten institutions have pledged to spend $200 million over the next five years on top of $150 million already awarded for the cause. Over the next several months, these institutions will decided how to invest the money.

In outlining the problems facing young black and Hispanic boys, Obama spoke from personal experience, admitting to his own antisocial behavior as a youth, behavior fueled in part by anger at his absent father.

He explained how a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words during the first three years of life than a child born into a well-off family, and how poor children are six times less likely than their peers to graduate high school.

“We know that Latino kids are almost twice as likely as white kids to be suspended from school,” Obama said. “Black kids are nearly four times as likely.”

He also said students of color were more likely than their white peers to get in trouble with law enforcement.

'Stay out the streets'

Fred Green, sitting on the couch in his grandparents’ living room, thought for a moment about what it takes for a young man to avoid trouble.

“Stay out the streets,” he said.

Fred Green was on a state championship basketball team in high school. Grant Blankenship/The Telegraph

But even then, Green doubts there is much anyone can do to save some people.

“Some of the people I went to middle and high school with, they’re successful. They’re in college. They go to Georgia and stuff like that,” he said. “But the ones that turned into crack heads, I don’t see no hope in them.”

Green sensed early on that they were going nowhere.

“I knew they wasn’t gonna be nothing, but I didn’t know they was gonna be crack heads,” he said. “They didn’t take school serious at all. … They didn’t have sports to push them to do better.”

A father figure might help, he said. Though he and his dad, a military man, lived apart, Green said his father was a part of his life.

“If you only have one parent, that one parent can’t be around you all the time,” he said. “You got too much free time. You can be in these streets doing whatever while your mother (is) gone.”

Poverty, race and incarceration

A single program is not going to correct the plight of black and Hispanic boys.

So says Chester Fontenot Jr., Mercer University’s director of Africana studies.

Stone Academy after school program participants read texts from school or a generous offering of fiction and nonfiction at the Booker T. Washington Recreation Center where director Tony Lowden does his best to demonstrate a higher level of expectations. His goal is to make the children college-ready. Beau Cabell/The Telegraph

Still, Fontenot commends Obama for taking a stand on the issue.

In Macon, males of color tend to run afoul of the law at an early age, Fontenot said. They face high unemployment, low levels of literacy and parenting issues, not to mention drug and gang activities in their neighborhoods.

One week earlier this month, 65 percent of the Bibb County jail’s 870 inmates were black men. At the Houston County jail, 209 of the 428 people in custody were black men.

Several factors contribute to the high levels of incarceration, Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said.

“Typically, younger black males who are in trouble with the law come from economically depressed households. They don’t feel they can get jobs or schooling,” he said.

Another issue is education, Davis said.

A recent study of the jail population found that nearly 60 percent of inmates had dropped out of school.

'A house with roaches'

The Tindall Heights housing project on Plant Street in Macon sits just south of Little Richard Penniman Boulevard, across from the Mercer University campus.

About 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon earlier this month, the sun was shining. People were out.

A repair crew had dug up a road to fix a cracked sewer line.

Gajuan Lawton says he came up hungry but strong off of Houston Avenue in Macon. Video by Grant Blankenship

Down the way, a young mother with a baby boy on her hip ducked into her apartment toting three bags of food from Burger King.

Nearby, a man sat drinking, a 40-ounce Icehouse at his feet. He hadn’t heard about Obama’s program to help young black men. He asked if it came with beer.

Over in front of Building 35, Gajuan Lawton, 18, was visiting his sister. A toddler peeked out from a second-floor window.

Lawton, trim and quiet, said he’d attended a military school for troubled youths. He said he is studying electronics at a local tech school.

Asked to share some of his hardships as a child, Lawton mentioned a place where he lived off Houston Avenue.

“A house with roaches, rats,” he said. “You just had to be strong. … Roaches on the walls, rats coming out the mouse holes, biting bread -- a loaf of bread.”

Did he have enough to eat?

“Not really,” Lawton said, “but I got fed.”

He didn’t share more.

“Growing up, it was hard,” he said, “but … I really can’t explain it.”

He said young men need discipline.

“Motivate them,” he said, “to get their education.”

'You don't give up'

There are several local groups in Middle Georgia working to change the lives of at-risk young people.

A Stone Academy student picks a book for reading time. Beau Cabell/The Telegraph

In Houston County, the median household income from 2008-2012 was almost $20,000 higher than in Bibb County, according to U.S. Census data, but that doesn’t mean the community is free of inequality issues.

“Without a doubt” there are areas in Houston that suffer from it, said Ernest Harvey, an educator.

Harvey is in his eighth year helping to run the “Man-to-Man” mentorship program at Warner Robins Middle School, which focuses on intervening in the lives of eighth-grade boys through mentoring and self-esteem building.

He grew up in the Sunset Homes housing project in Cordele, one of five children raised by a single mother. There, he experienced the economic and educational disparity Obama has talked about, he said.

Harvey said he is proud of Obama for recognizing the need to help black and Hispanic young men.

“They are not finished products,” Harvey said. “It’s up to us to mold them into model, decent citizens. You know that saying ‘It takes a village’? I live by that.”

Harvey said he would like to see mentoring programs like his in all schools.

“I agree with him,” said Robin Hines, Houston County schools superintendent. “It doesn’t do any good if any child falls behind and fails.”

Hines’ staff has examined student achievement data for Houston schools and determined that economic background is a stronger indicator of success than race, he said.

For that reason his teachers receive training on understanding poverty. He also is a strong supporter of mentoring programs like the Big Brothers and Big Sisters, with which his system partners.

In Bibb County, the Upward Bound program at Mercer University targets children from families where neither parent holds a college degree.

Sam Hart, former Bibb commission chairman and the director of the Center for Academic Excellence in Macon, worked with the program for 30 years. While he was there, 80 percent of the young people involved in the program went to college, he said.

Hart noted, however, that only a small percentage of area low-income students received help.

About 250 young people attend an after-school program at Stone Academy, located at the Booker T. Washington Center in Macon.

College banners decorate the halls, along with Langston Hughes poems and photos of influential blacks.

Director Tony Lowden said many youths are referred to the program by the child welfare system and face many challenges. That doesn’t mean expectations should be lower for them, he said.

Lowden addressed 100 or so young people inside Stone Academy’s auditorium earlier this month, asking them to speak in Japanese, then in Spanish, before asking them to recite facts about Georgia.

He singled out an 11-year-old boy named Roderick Rutherford and asked him to stand and tell his peers about a book he was reading. It’s an exercise Lowden uses to get children accustomed to public speaking.

Rutherford, whose father is largely absent, stood on a chair and told the group what he’d learned from his book. The book was about Michael Jordan.

Lowden recognized a teachable moment and explained to those in the auditorium how Jordan lost his father to violence.

“When something bad happens in your life, you don’t give up,” Lowden said.

Later, he offered 20-year-old Deion Howard as an example.

Howard and his older brothers frequented the Campus Clubs program in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood where Lowden served as director about six years ago.

“I grew up in poverty,” Howard said later by phone. “One day I came home and found a gun laying down.”

Howard, then 15, accidentally shot and killed his little brother. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served two years probation.

“They kicked me out of school,” he recalled, “said that I wouldn’t ever make it.”

Two years later, his mother died of cancer.

Lowden and a group called Campus Clubs helped Howard, and he eventually graduated from Howard High School.

“We’re talking about a kid that really beat the odds,” Lowden said.

Howard has his own place and works as a tire technician at Sam’s Club.

He’s trying to save money to go to college.

“Just because you find a problem,” Howard said, “it doesn’t mean you give up.”

'They don't have mothers'

Back in Tindall Heights the other day, on a stoop amid a vineyard of clotheslines, Amber Fitzpatrick tended to her year-old son Izaiah.

The boy was having a ball mauling an Oreo cookie. Some made it into his mouth.

Amber Fitzpatrick, 19, hopes for the best for her son Izaiah, 1. Video by Grant Blankenship

He and his mother recently moved into an apartment there with his father’s mom. They were evicted from their last place, a house on nearby Elkton Place. They get by on $347 a month in food stamps.

Fitzpatrick, 19, grew up around Jeffersonville, but she moved a lot. “I went to school everywhere.”

Atlanta. Macon. Twiggs County. She and her mother argued. The police got involved. Fitzpatrick was deemed unruly and sent to a youth detention center.

After living in a string of group homes, she dropped out of Northeast High in 10th grade. She was pregnant.

Now she is taking online classes to earn her high school diploma. She wants better for her son. She doesn’t want him ending up aimless, adrift.

“Some men, they just feel like they have to get out here and hustle for money the best way they can,” Fitzpatrick said. “Some men, they don’t have mothers. When they go ahead and get to fighting and get in jail the first time, in prison sometimes, their mother don’t want nothing to do with them anymore. … So they just have to make it on their own.”

Her hope for Izaiah is a life with structure, to come up in a house with a mother and father, under their own roof – not grandma’s.

“I’m teaching him differently. … Trying to keep him out of trouble. … Try to keep him in school. … Since his father in his life … his daddy can really get on him about staying in school and doing the right thing,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Every parent hopes for the best for their son. … I hope that he does stay in school, get in college. … Some parents wish that, ‘OK, I wish my son would be a doctor or a lawyer.’ Whatever he chooses to be in life, that’s what I’m fine with.”

'That would change Macon'

Many children at Macon’s Methodist Home don’t have families, said Jeffrey Lawrence, vice president of programs.

The home is a residential lifeline for children ages 6 to 18, most of them in the custody of the state through the Division of Family and Children Services. Many also are involved in the juvenile justice system. The Macon campus serves 78 children. About 75 percent of them are black.

The main hallway at Stone Academy is lined with college banners and posters introducing kids to careers. Beau Cabell/The Telegraph

“They’ve been displaced from their families,” Lawrence said. “Many come two years behind in school.”

Lawrence has seen the disparity between the number of black students and the number of white students sent home from school for discipline problems.

He said school systems don’t understand the challenges facing young men of color. In the absence of proactive parents, Lawrence said, they need advocates to work with schools to see that they are treated the same as their white peers.

The best use of resources in “My Brother’s Keeper” or any program targeting young black and Hispanic men should involve early intervention, Lawrence said.

“Mentoring programs for our youngest boys from elementary school to middle school ... would be essential,” he said.

Lowden, the director of the after-school program at Stone Academy, said locals needn’t wait for “My Brother’s Keeper” funds to make their way to Middle Georgia.

Instead, he said, they should answer the president’s call and replicate the effort here.

“We gotta find a way to serve more kids,” Lowden said.

He said resources could be pooled and that local governments should provide incentives for big businesses to invest in neighborhoods where at-risk children live.

“That,” Lowden said, “would change Macon.”

'I seen the bullet go in'

As a boy, Fred Green had NBA dreams.

He wanted to be a pro basketball player like Chris Paul or LeBron James.

Fred Green won a state basketball championship in high school. He also saw a friend get shot and killed in the 11th grade. Video by Grant Blankenship

“I just knew I was gonna be 6-f00t-6,” Green said.

But he never reached 6 feet.

“Nothing but 5-10,” he said.

That recent afternoon, sitting on his grandparents’ sofa, Green mentioned that his college major is pre-physical therapy. He could become a therapist and still be connected to sports.

Still, he wondered if he might have the skills to play in a basketball league overseas.

He thought back to a day in the summer of 2011. He was 16 then, a student at Rutland High. He was shooting hoops at Memorial Gym.

A buddy walked up and asked if he was going to a party that night over by the old Kroger on Eisenhower Parkway. Green said he was.

Later, outside the party, there was a commotion, bullets. Green’s friend was shot and killed.

“I seen the bullet go in his head, … and I seen him fall to the ground. And I seen him spit blood out of his mouth. … He tried to get back up, and he would lay back down, and he kept trying to do it until the ambulance came,” Green said.

“It made me get my life together.”

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