By Dwyane Bryant ’93
Growing up I was a bully.
My father was never around, and I spent my early years waiting for him to show. He would promise to come see me and my five siblings but I, the youngest son, was the only one who believed him. So I would wait, and wait, time after time. And when he didn’t arrive, the next day I went to school determined that, well, somebody was going to pay for my heartbreak.
I remember my mom saying she was tired of being called to school and told I needed placing in a classroom for the emotionally disturbed. “You cannot keep fighting with people,” she warned. “You have to do something with your anger or you’ll end up dead or in jail.”
Then in ninth grade, I met an amazing educator named Ms. Barbara Bey. She taught world history from an Afrocentric perspective. I learned about ancient Ghanaian civilization and the Ashanti Empire, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, the Kushite pharaohs who built pyramids. It was the first time in my life that I heard anything about black people outside of slavery, outside of Jim Crow, outside of something negative. So, when Ms. Bey said, “Young man, you are a descendant of kings,” I stopped fighting. I stopped walking around with my fists balled up. I started smiling. Ms. Bey had set me on a path of self-discovery.
Later, as a high school junior, I worked with fourth, fifth and sixth graders during a summer job at the local community center. That involved talking with boys, giving them advice about school and how to stay out of trouble. Even after leaving my home in Orlando to attend FIU, I returned to the center. I loved what I was doing that much.
At FIU, champions like John Wofford, then the assistant director of admissions, and Ozzie Ritchey, an administrator who worked in Student Affairs for more than two decades, encouraged this first-generation college student even when I doubted myself. With their support, I graduated and immediately went to work for Johnson & Johnson as a sales rep, soon earning six figures and promotions that had me moving to several cities in the Midwest over the next six years.
With no family nearby, I had time to give back, and I knew I could connect with youth. After speaking to students at a public high school in St. Louis, a young man named Sharone Hopkins said he expected me to be like everybody else who’d passed that way: Talk real pretty and never show up again. Soon after, I began mentoring him—speaking with him regularly, asking about school assignments and taking him out to the movies—and learned of his struggles with low grades and gang membership. Our relationship took a turn one day when I heard from counselors at the children’s home where Sharone lived. They told me of his remarkable academic and behavioral progress and asked if I would spend even more time with him. So I made Sharone my mission and saw him through high school and, eventually, college graduation and gainful professional employment. From then on, by the grace of God, I knew my calling.
Giving up my corporate salary and a company car was tough, but I was intent on launching Inner Vision International, dedicated to empowering young people by fostering belief in their self-worth and ability to contribute to society. That was in 1997, before most people had ever heard of mentoring as a profession. With no blueprints to guide me and living off savings and a cashed-out 401K to make ends meet, I met the chief education officer for Chicago public schools and began working with a high school known for its sad graduation rates. Within one year, our partnership led to a dramatic decline in dropouts and a ten-year high in graduations.
Today , having worked with more than 50 schools and dozens of school districts, I see the programming that I’ve developed result in evidence-based improvement on several measures, including a 70 percent reduction in suspensions, a 35 percent increase in standardized test scores and a 17 percent decrease in dropout rates.
Each of us can make a difference in the lives of young people, but first we must acknowledge that we are literally in a war for their hearts and minds and souls. I liken the stakes and immediacy to climate change: If we don’t do something drastic within the next few years, the negative impact may be irreversible. We must send kids a message that strengthens our communities. That means stressing a respect for self and others while prioritizing education.
I challenge my fellow alumni and anyone else who cares about our youth: Get involved in local programs, reach out to young people of all backgrounds, show by active example the way that each of us should treat one another. Be part of the solution. ♦