Mentoring program responds to lack of structured activities for youth
By Jamal Denman
For many generations, people in the United States have been persistently fed a skewed view of the history of this country and the people who populate it. Stories intended to be accepted as accurate accounts of the past are commonly disseminated to the masses through the public and private educational systems, as well as various print, television, radio, and web media outlets.
A large number of these institutions, wittingly or otherwise, simultaneously project stereotypical images of various cultures when it comes to the depiction of non-Whites and cultures not considered “traditionally American.” Those images are often negative or unflattering at best.
Due in large part to the history of Black people’s experience in the United States, these practices can be detrimental to the psychological and social development of African American youth trying to figure out who they are and what their value is to the world as human beings. These are some key reasons why Thomas Berry decided to develop a youth program which gives young people opportunities to learn about history, culture, and develop a sense of pride in themselves.
The group is called S.W.I.M., an acronym that stands for Study and Work with Intentions of Motivation. Berry explains the meaning behind the name: “If you study and you work hard, you’ll be motivated to accomplish your dreams… Anything that you earn, you ain’t going to let nobody take away from you. Who we want them to motivate is the people that’s around them as well as themselves.”
Another key reason Berry, the program’s creator and leader, started S.W.I.M. was the overall lack of structured programs currently in existence that the youth actually benefit from. When he and his family made their home in North Minneapolis after moving from Indiana in 1990, Thomas Berry was 13 years old. It was back then when he began to notice both a quantitative and qualitative decline in the activities and programs being provided for the youth in the neighborhood.
He recalls an incident in 1990 at Farview Park (where S.W.I.M. meets), when a group of young people — which included Berry’s younger brother — were involved in an incident that prompted the park to put bars over the basketball rims, making it impossible to play on them.
“They did that for a year. So, everybody kept on wondering [when they were going to take the bars off, and they were asking each other:] ‘Ay man, we going to the park. Are we going to hoop today? What’s going on?’ They never took the bars off of the rim.”
That incident prompted him to start working with Youthline, a program that “had a dance group in here [Farview Park]. They gave us jobs. They used to talk to us about hygiene, how to cook, how to get ready for college… They did all these things with us.”
Yet Berry felt like there were a few major issues with the way Youthline did things. “The problem with that whole program was, nobody asked us — not one time — what did we wanted to do.” Berry felt their attitude was often, “We got these folks coming from downtown; come on in [and] make us look good!’” He believes that many of the people that worked for Farview and Youthline were simply out to benefit themselves.
“We were getting a lot of people paid.” He thinks the program is in even worse shape now than it was then. “It’s nothing now; these kids come up here [to the Youthline program at Fairview] to play basketball, or hang inside the computer lab. They’re not doing anything else.”
If programs do not interest the youth, they are not likely to actively participate. Lack of participation will give the bean counters reason to believe there is no need for youth-centered activities. Youth, in turn will start to complain about being bored and find other ways to occupy their time, yet another reason why a program like S.W.I.M. is so important.
“We created this program to give these children an opportunity. When we’re in here, we always ask them, ‘What do you want to be?’” Berry says. He invites professionals from the fields the youth are interested in to come speak with them, tell them about their profession, and build relationships.
Berry also believes that it is important to instill in young African Americans a sense of confidence and pride in their culture and history. In addition to teaching them facts about their culture and history, the professionals that Berry brings in to connect to the youth “look like them. We’re not bringing in no Joe Schmoe that’s White…who can’t tell them exactly what it’s like to go through the struggle of being Black and how you still have to be on your grind and on your P’s and Q’s.”
At the same time, he preaches to the youth to not make excuses, telling them that “it’s on them as individuals to make sure that they complete their journey.”
S.W.I.M. is looking for youth ages 13-18 (or even younger) to join their program. “We’re trying to build that bridge to the younger generation because [we know how it affected us when] nobody asked us about our dreams. We’re asking you about yours”.
Only in its first year, S.W.I.M. has already had an impact on young men like 15-year-old Samuel Galamue, who says the program is “great” and that he is “learning a lot.” Fifteen-year-old Ronde Berry says he is learning “great life lessons.” And 14-year-old Amier Smith says he is “learning a lot of stuff that I never thought about.”
Berry gets plenty of support from local professionals and caring adults.
Youth interested in S.W.I.M or adults looking to ways that they can contribute should contact Thomas Berry at 612-735-0568 or [email protected]
Jamal Denman welcomes reader response at [email protected]