Improving the lives of black boys

  • Dawn Turner Trice [right]
  • Dawn Turner Trice

When Bryan Echols was at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in the early 1990s, his father would drive him to and from school. Once, during one of their many road trips, Echols made a confession to his dad.

“I told him that I didn’t really like him much growing up because he was so strict,” said Echols, the youngest of his parents’ eight children. “He said, ‘You weren’t supposed to like me. I wasn’t your friend. I was your father. I had one goal and that was to bring you into manhood and get you to college — and here you are.'”

Now Echols, 39, is the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Group for Igniting Civilization, a nonprofit youth empowerment agency based in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. MAGIC, along with several other Chicago agencies, has signed onto the national 2025 Campaign for Black Men and Boys.

In a way, the campaign has one goal — albeit a humongous and multifaceted one — and that is to improve the lives of black boys, ushering them into manhood. The Harlem-based Twenty-First Century Foundation, one of the oldest black philanthropic foundations in America, started the campaign in 2007. The mission is to boost the quality of life for black boys born in 2007 so that by the year 2025, when they turn 18, they’re heading to college and no longer the poster children for so many of society’s ills.

“We want to tell our own stories beyond the drive-bys and mug shots,” Echols told me as we sat in his office on the University of Chicago campus. “The campaign focuses on the family, education, economic development, health care and the criminal justice system. A generation is how long the campaign believes it will take to turn all the ‘isms’ around, the statistics.”

One tragic statistic is that, in the Chicago Public Schools system, only 40 percent of African-American males graduate high school.

To some, turning around the lot of young black men may sound ambitious. To others, it sounds impossible. But not to Echols, who on Tuesday will participate in a symposium, “Reaching Black Boys,” hosted by the Golden Apple Foundation, Catalyst Chicago, National-Louis University, Urban Prep Academies for Young Men and MAGIC.

The symposium is an opportunity for people who work with black boys to share what works best in reaching them. (Urban Prep Academies for Young Men has been exceptional in this regard. In March, the school announced that all 107 young men in its first graduating class have been accepted to a four-year college. Only four percent of these students were reading at grade level as incoming high school freshmen.)

Echols said that MAGIC signed onto the 2025 campaign and the symposium because his award-winning organization — which has helped form tenant organizations, create social services networks, build youth jobs initiatives and host health and wellness fairs — has successfully changed the lives of hundreds of young men growing up without fathers and direction.

Echols joined MAGIC in 2003, a year after it began, and has seen the devastation from the front line. He knows that a turnaround is neither easy nor without its ups and downs.

He tells the story of one young man who had three mentors at MAGIC, including Echols.

“And he still chose his own path and got caught up in gang life and went to jail,” Echols said. “When he got out, I had money to pay for a youth organizer and he’s been here in the mix ever since. He’s in his second year of college, and he’s created a program called Dovetail, geared toward teaching young fathers — such as himself — how to become better fathers.”

Among MAGIC’s programs are “Hip-Hope,” a mentorship program for men recovering from violently acquired spinal cord injuries; and “Fatherhood to Further Hood,” whose goal is to get black fathers to reclaim their neighborhood.

“We’re hoping to offer ourselves as a model for how to improve the lives of black men and boys in Illinois,” said Echols. He added that the state has a task force whose goal is to improve the condition of black boys in Illinois and is similar to the 2025 campaign.

Echols said he does this type of work in part because he understands the importance of productive men being in the lives of boys.

“My parents just celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary last fall,” Echols said. “My father’s impact on me was tremendous.

“I want my young men to participate in all that’s good in America. They have a right to it. I want them to be husbands and fathers and happy and whole — to not fear the unknown, and go outside their four blocks to see how great Chicago, the world is. I’m utopian in my thoughts, and I firmly believe that if I can think it, it can be.”

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