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

From My Brother’s Keeper to various local community endeavors across the nation, black boys and men have become the focus of an increasing number of cultural initiatives to combat the violence and stereotypes that often lead to a painful fate—either lengthy prison time or a premature death.

A recent study from the University of Chicago shows that high incarceration rates and few employment opportunities have caused the status of black males in the United States to remain fairly stagnant over the last 50 years. Projects aiming to invest in black males and ensure their achievement need a support system and resources, and that is something the global nonprofit Echoing Green hopes to provide through its Black Male Achievement Fellowship. The fellowship, made possible by a partnership with Open Society Foundations, seeks to assist entrepreneurs who are building organizations that help improve the life outcomes of black males. The first class of BMA fellows was named in 2012.


“It’s interesting when you look at the field of social entrepreneurship; funders all approach [it] differently. Some focus on the quality of the leader. Some focus more heavily on the innovative nature of the idea, and others focus more on organization design. … Echoing Green is really squarely focusing on the transformative potential … of the leaders,” Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey told The Root.

“We look at their transformative potential as next-generation social movers. … To invest in these [leaders], we think their contribution will pay dividends to society for the next 20 or 30 years. They must have extraordinary levels of resilience. It’s incredibly difficult work. Most new enterprises fail, and you’re surely going to encounter many obstacles along the way. But [for Echoing Green] it’s not that you will hit an obstacle but how you will get back up after it’s knocked you down.”

Alexandria Lee, founder and president of the Anew School, and Donnie Smith, executive director of Donda’s House Inc., are two such leaders, according to Echoing Green, which has welcomed both of them into this year’s class of BMA fellows. Fellows receive $70,000, among other stipends, along with extensive networking and leadership-development resources and other support. The impact on their organizations is huge.


Nurturing Global Leaders in Ghana

“This fellowship means everything to me. It was my third time applying, and when I got the news that I got the fellowship, I screamed. They said it was the craziest reaction they ever had,” Lee told The Root. “This fellowship was literally made for me, and it means a connection to a cohort of fellows who are amazing and innovative, and [who have the] best ideas to attack our world’s problems.”

A massive undertaking, the Anew School is still a work in progress but is envisioned as a five-year program covering middle to high school that would include a two-year international boarding school program in Ghana for seventh- and eighth-graders. Students would also have a home charter school in a yet-to-be-determined location in the U.S. Plans are to launch the charter school as a school for boys, with a school for girls to follow.


The goal? To turn youngsters from underperforming schools into top students. During the years in Ghana, students would focus on connecting to their roots, as well as learning from the community around them. When they return, they would be expected to be problem solvers with a new understanding of themselves and the world around them. Lee describes it as an all-out “immersive leadership experience.”

“We provide a life-changing experience so that our kids can become game changers. We’re not just trying to give a run-of-the-mill study abroad. That’s been done. We’re not trying to do something like an add-on or an after-school program,” Lee says. “We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about making a major impact on communities that are in severe crisis. We’re talking about taking kids who are the worst-performing students and bringing them back literally [as] community leaders.”

Lee knows firsthand why her proposed model is so very important and effective. She was one of those kids, failing in school. She was put on a special education track and told that she would never graduate. Her father was also absent. It was her time studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, that saved her.


“[We will take] kids who have a father that’s on heroin, as I did, and have major problems going on at home and bring them back serious, serious community leaders who are going to make an impact that goes forward and forward and forward.

I want to take black boys over to Ghana to a place where they will get to see the Door of No Return … but [they’ll] also have a chance to go to modern-day kingdoms to see that they didn’t come from slave chains.

“One of the things that I always say to people [is that] this isn’t an issue that happened overnight,” Lee says of the challenges that underprivileged children face. “And it’s not going to take a little, light solution. This is a problem that deals with institutional racism and … all these problems we have in our communities. It’s going to take an actual radical change, and this is that kind of change and innovation, and that’s why I want to do it.


“When I think about what Ghana means, it’s more than just school where you sit down and learn your ABCs,” she adds. “For our black boys, we’re talking about socio-emotional intelligence and learning as well, which includes an identity piece: ‘Who am I?’ And learning that you aren’t the son of a slave. That’s the thing that black boys in this country always learn. They learn that they’re … from slave chains, that’s their legacy, and so it makes a lot of sense that they therefore see the legacy of prison.

“I want to take black boys over to Ghana to a place where they will get to see the Door of No Return and go to castles where their ancestors launched from West Africa over to the Americas,” she continues. “But [they’ll] also have a chance to go to modern-day kingdoms to see that they didn’t come from slave chains, and to see people who are thriving, and to see the culture and the confidence that I think make us really great—that has gone all the way through us and never skipped a beat.”


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.