By Neil Armstrong
PRIDE Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario August 17, 2016 (PRIDE) — 100 Strong Foundation has reached a significant goal — one hundred black men committing to financially support the lives of young black boys – and as a result it is adding women as sustainers of the program.
The organization was created by a group of professional black men in 2012 to shift the current paradigm within the black community towards one of self-empowerment and success, with the ultimate aim of uniting young boys with supportive mentors.
Last Thursday, 100 Strong held a “Special Sustainers Event: The Next Chapter” which included graduates from Strong Academy 2016, sustainers of the program, as well as Canada’s black political leaders who were in Toronto for the 2nd annual Black Government Leaders Summit.
This year 25 boys — 12, 13 and 14-years-old — attended 100 Strong’s summer school program, Strong Academy, which was held at Ryerson University in partnership with The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education.
This is the first time that the summer school, usually held at George Brown College, was hosted at Ryerson.
Strong Academy is designed to mobilize young black boys to attend a summer program that provides them with the tools necessary to achieve their maximum potential, both in education as well as life skills.
The curriculum is built on empowering, valuing and appreciating the educational value that black boys bring to society.
Strong Academy aims to foster a love for learning and education in middle school aged boys, while pairing them with mentors in an effort to promote self-empowerment and success both in school and in their respective communities.
Each man gives at least $500; most give more on a yearly basis to fund the summer program.
“The ultimate goal is to create a black-owned and operated K-12 school for boys. Upon completion of their post-secondary education, these boys will pay their educational experience forward by returning to the Strong Academy as alumni mentors,” notes the website of 100 Strong.
Caleb McLeod, 13, valedictorian of the 2016 Strong Academy and Jalanni Sylvester-Hilaire, 14, loved what they learned at the summer school.
“In three weeks, I really felt like some people who I thought were strangers really became brothers. I felt like maybe at the end of it we are united. We definitely did have our share of arguments, our share of misunderstandings, but I felt like at the end of it we came out people who really were friends and were brothers and became better people at the end of it,” said Caleb, son of Justice Donald McLeod of the Ontario Court of Justice Central West Region.
Justice McLeod is one of the co-founders and co-chair of 100 Strong. In many ways having the Strong Academy at Ryerson was a moment of déjà vu for him because as a young man growing up in Regent Park, he attended a youth program, Head Start, at the university.
The boys of Strong Academy went on many tours and heard presentations from some of the men of 100 Strong on different topics.
Caleb said the University of Toronto tour stood out to him because it is one of the most elite universities in the world and he feels that it is a university that shows the excellence of Toronto.
“Whatever I do, I need to be successful at that and I think that this program definitely helped because it shows you that this is not something that you can get away with if you’re not. You have to be excellent without excuses. I feel like that really represents this program.”
“Excellence without excuses” is the pledge of the 100 Strong Foundation.
Jalanni said it was a pain to get on the train every morning from Downsview station to Dundas station and the return trip home during the first week, but after that he was looking forward to the second week.
“It was fun. I especially liked the food and the people there, and the teachers, Richard and Jason, they made it fun for us although we sometimes gave them a little bit of trouble.”
He said he liked dissecting a sheep’s eye, which was done to teach them life lessons. “I found it interesting to see what’s inside of an eyeball.”
“I feel like I learned a lot. I feel like I’m more matured now than when I entered, like learning how to be responsible, and that when I do something it doesn’t just affect me, it affects others around me,” said Jalanni.
In his presentation to last Thursday’s gathering, Caleb said all the boys have a talent in something and he thinks they will soon be something great.
“When we walk down the street I think we help tear down the stereotypes that surround us as black people.”
He noted that there are still many hills to climb, “many challenges left to face, and I have to tell you that we’re on the right path right now.”
“With these words in mind, with these boys helping us to get to this goal, I have to say we will reach it. We will build Strong Academy and we will make it a school for black men. We’re boys now but we’ll be men after it,” said Caleb.
Richard Babb, a teaching assistant in the life sciences department of the University of Toronto, Scarborough campus, and who also teaches high school math tutorials on the side, has been with Strong Academy since its inception in the summer of 2013 and loves it.
His job at the academy requires him to teach computer science, English, writing skills, art, presentations and public speaking skills in the three-week program.
“Every year we’ve been growing the program, we’ve been improving it so that’s my goal. My job is to keep elevating my aim, in terms of what I bring to the classroom, so each experience for the kids is better than the year before and we’ve done that. We just want to continue to do that.”
O’Neil Edwards, program director of Spanning the Gaps and Community Engagement at The Chang School and a board member of 100 Strong said the students of the Strong Academy felt that they were heard and that their possibilities quadrupled.
Meanwhile, Marie Bountrogianni, dean of The Chang School, said she was happy to have hosted the summer camp at Ryerson.
Emmanuel Dubourg, MP for Bourassa in Quebec told the boys that he remembered having no specific goals or specific dream but he thinks that it is important to have a dream to succeed in any kind of project.
Justice McLeod said up until now, the 100 Strong Foundation only accepted money from black men and this was done to demonstrate to the black boys that black men have a vested interest in their lives.
“We wanted black women to understand that there are times when, look, many of us have been growing up with black women. Many of us have had the opportunity to marry strong black women but that being said, these boys, starting out the way that they have, we wanted to make sure that they understood that we were going to be there for them irrespective of what happens,” he said.
Last Thursday’s event was also the first time that black women were invited to speak at a 100 Strong forum.
Mitzie Hunter, Ontario’s minister of education and the first black person in that position, said it was wonderful to know that “this community is here and that this community can link arms together as our boys just did and support such a wonderful cause.”
“And it’s a narrative that is not often said and I think that we can’t wait for that narrative. We really have to tell our own stories,” she said, commending 100 Strong on the work that it is doing “to strengthen our boys and to prepare them not only for education but for life.”
She said not all children have the support to achieve and it takes a community, noting that 100 Strong Foundation is stepping into that gap.
The education minister said while the province has an excellent education system in which 85 per cent of students are graduating in Ontario, “not all of our students are doing that.”
“Sixty-nine percent of black students graduate and when we look at the dropout rate, the rate is double white students, the number of black students who dropout – it’s at 20 per cent,” she said, mentioning that for boys it is twice that amount.
“I want you to understand that time is not healing this problem so when we look at first generation students the rates are bad but when we look at third generation students it’s worse. Fifty-eight per cent of third generation high school students who are black do not apply for post-secondary education. So, this is an urgent issue and it’s going to require all of us working together to solve it.”
Hunter said, as minister of education, she is committed to work with the team.
She introduced Denise Dwyer, assistant deputy minister in the ministry of education, who is responsible for one of its key priority areas of wellbeing – making sure that the whole school environment is one that is healthy and that all students feel a sense of belonging and inclusion.
She said the ministry has other strategies: closing the achievement gap, applying an equity lens and ensuring that we maintain public confidence.
“But to take us to the full way where all of our students, all of our children are succeeding we cannot do it alone. We need your help. We need you to link arm with us and take our young people the full way.”
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, said black boys deserve everyone’s attention.
Alluding to the incarceration levels being three times that of other groups and a 40 percent dropout rate, she said black boys “deserve our attention.”
“It’s not something that we would do in passing or maybe we’ll do that, this is a must. This is to whom much is given much is expected. You are expected to look after our sons – all of us.”
Caesar-Chavannes said 100 Strong has taught the boys that there are one hundred men in the black community that are going to “not only invest their time in you but their dollars in you.”
She said the organization could have taken the easy way and go to Corporate Canada for money but instead they decided to one up that by inviting black women – “the nurturers, the leaders, the ones who for generations upon generations look after our kids and then some – to make an investment in you, our sons.”
“Before they went out asking others, they put skin in the game. They’re teaching our children the value of investing in yourself and in your community and what that return on investment yields. There is no greater return on that investment, there is no greater thing to invest in than yourself and your community. It will pay dividends and that is what 100 Strong has done for the last four years and is starting a new chapter doing today.”
The mission statement of 100 Strong is: “To create an environment that fosters learning, embraces community and inspires excellence in every boy.”
“When I look at the crowd I realize that in many respects we have come a long way in a short time but we have so much more to go. So we’re now trying to have discussions with the government around even the national idea of 100 Strong, starting it in other areas but starting the same way how we started here,” said Justice McLeod in an interview with Pride News Magazine.
He said it may be a more difficult way of doing it but he thinks it’s a way that they have to pursue.
“But I’m happy, it’s lot of work; we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get things done but when you see people in this room active, engaged, wanting to forge forward the way that they have — it’s phenomenal.”
“There are some overtures that will be made to the federal government but I think that the idea, in and of itself, will also have us trying to now engage the community in another area, so maybe it’s Halifax, it’s Windsor, it’s areas like that that we engage in order for us to say there’s 100 Strong chapter here, 100 Strong Chapter here, keep moving it like that – that’s the plan.”
Commenting on the emphasis of 100 Strong on black boys vis-à-vis black girls, he said:
“We realize that black women or black girls also would like some help in this area but right now the house that’s burning is black boys. The house is burning for them; they’re not finishing high school, they’re being streamlined to applied and the issue is with them right now. So we need to make sure that we can engage them, get them on their way. The women, I’m not saying that they’re perfect but right now there’s a house that’s burning. Black boys are shooting black boys; black boys are in incredible numbers incarcerated in the federal and in the provincial system. It’s begging for us to be able to find a system that works for them. This is one that works for me so we’re trying to make sure that we can at least fix that problem first.”
There is a vision to have a Strong Academy school – “the idea will be that Strong Academy will be formed out of 100 Strong – that’s the goal,” said Justice McLeod.
He also co-chairs Stand-up, a mentorship program for Grades 7 and 8 boys.
More than 300 middle school boys from seven downtown Toronto District School Board (TDSB) schools participate in a special day of learning, sharing and growing together.
“The annual conference, “Stand Up: Redefining the Colour of Success,” offers an opportunity for boys to engage in workshops led by men of colour in a variety of fields, including business, medicine, sports, and entertainment. Successful local professionals from all walks of life share their personal stories of success and strategies for overcoming barriers and stress the importance of education to create a sense of empowerment for the participants,” states the website of 100 Strong.
Donations can be made to the 100 Strong Foundation through the Toronto Foundation which connects philanthropy with community needs.
“100 Strong chose the Toronto Foundation as a partner because of a shared passion for our community, and mutual goals that are aligned. Many of the challenges that are brought to light through Toronto’s Vital Signs Report, are the very circumstances that affect young black men in pockets of our city. An investment in 100 Strong is an investment in Toronto,” says the Toronto Foundation on its website.