Helping Black Boys Become Great Men

The nonprofit organization Echoing Green celebrates its third class of Black Male Achievement fellows and their organizations that seek to bring light to the lives of black boys and men. 

Alexandria Lee, founder of the Anew School
Alexandria Lee, founder of the Anew School Courtesy of Echoing Green   

Learning Life Lessons Through Art in Chicago

While the Anew School will focus on helping youths learn to interact on a global level, Donda’s House Inc., founded in Chicago in 2013, focuses on reconnecting young people to the arts—not only to heal them but also to develop them as leaders in their communities. Open to all applicants, Donda’s House reaches out in particular to black males ages 14 up to 24. In the process, students also learn conflict mediation, goal setting, and other career and life skills. The project was inspired by Smith’s own experiences growing up.

“I came from a pretty rough background. I had a mother who was addicted to drugs, [and] I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” explains Smith, who was raised in Kansas City, Mo. “At that time my one saving grace was writing poetry. … That was kind of my way of addressing the trauma in my life at that time, and I told myself that if I ever have the opportunity to give back, I would do it. 

“Young people [need] that support and that space to express themselves, at least to be able to overcome great challenges. And so my husband [Donda’s House co-founder Che “Rhymefest” Smith] and I both had that experience of art really impacting our lives and decided that we should probably do something about actually giving that opportunity to youth. When we started digging in, we realized that 75 percent of black and Latino youth did not have access to arts instruction, and art is usually the first casualty … when schools face budget crises, so Donda’s House was born,” said the former teacher, who sponsored clubs and after-school programs even before Donda’s House was launched.

The organization was named in honor of Kanye West’s mother, but for Smith it is really about the woman who revolutionized education and not so much her son. “We spent … a little over a year interviewing … her former students and colleagues, just to really get an idea of the impact that she had on people, including my husband. We just decided that … naming it after a woman who was so progressive as an educator and as a community leader would make the most sense,” Smith said. “The way we explain it is that Kanye just so happens to be the son of Dr. Donda West, who … in the Chicago community and in the academic community [was] a trailblazer.”

Like Lee, Smith is excited about the opportunities the fellowship opens up for networking and building her idea and brand until it reaches every “low-income city in the world.”

“I was inspired by the possibility of having mentors, of being with other individuals who also came up with these kind of revolutionary ideas,” she said. “I’m just excited about what we’ll be able to accomplish now that I have this network.”

The 12-week program at Donda’s House was also developed to change lives through holistic learning. Right now the program offers only music instruction, but Smith hopes to build on that to eventually include all forms of art, from the visual arts to theater.

The goal, Smith says, is to make students “more employable” and focus on developing career and interpersonal skills, whether their motivation is to learn more about art in hopes of going into it full time or just to learn more about themselves in the process.

[Students are] walking away more reflective, more committed to becoming agents in their community and better able to articulate their goals.

“They’re walking away more reflective, more committed to becoming agents in their community and better able to articulate their goals,” Smith says.

For Smith, the results—the changes she sees in some of the young men—make all the effort worthwhile. She talked about one of her students, a 15-year-old gangbanger, who was so much at risk of being targeted that when he was accepted into the program, the organization had to find “creative” methods of getting him to his classes—riding public transportation in his home city would have been too dangerous.

That boy is now heading toward bigger things.

“He actually decided to go away to military school. [It will be the] first time he [is] outside of the city of Chicago, and I think his deciding to go away to school was … based on his support from not only the instructors and the staff but his peers who told him he should get out,” Smith says.

This is the kind of outcome for which she lives.

“For me, I’ve had lots of tears of joy in this last year because I literally see people who come into our program not being able to make eye contact in the beginning, who are so talented,” she says. “To see them going through that transformation in 12 weeks … those small victories just create an overwhelming sense of joy.”

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.