As the father of a black male, the status and well-being of this population is never far from my consciousness or concern. This is so because of the challenges that black males from all educational and socio-economic backgrounds face on the one hand, and the career path that our son, Rashad, has chosen to pursue on the other. Employed by the United Nations World Food Program, WFP, for the past nine years, currently as director of the Corporate Ambassadors Program and Special Assistant to WFP's Executive Director, Rashad has had the opportunity to live and work with people from all walks of life. Whether in Rome, Geneva, Zapata, Islamabad, New York City, New Delhi, Sudan or other far-away places that I cannot recall, clearly he has embraced his calling and is using his education and passion, in collaboration with his colleagues, to reduce incidences of hunger and malnutrition around the world.
From an early age, Rashad exhibited an interest in people, perspectives and places beyond the boundaries of the Western world. We encouraged and nurtured his interest by investing in his first trip abroad, to the former Soviet Union, when he was just nine years old, and to Egypt when he was 15. Of course, in the years since he has traveled to more places than he can remember. As a participant in the Model United Nations Program while in high school, Rashad developed an intense interest in humanitarian affairs, international development and economic equality at home and abroad. To compensate for the newspaper subscriptions and books that we didn't have growing up in the Arkansas Delta, my spouse and I made weekly trips to area bookstores with Rashad, and we placed no limit on the number of books he could buy. Books were included in every birthday or holiday gift bag. Through books, it seemed that Rashad was on a never-ending journey around the world.
If we had a dollar for every pair of tennis shoes or tennis lesson, every bassoon or piano lesson, model airplane or soccer lesson, or for every summer or after school program in which he participated, we could afford a summer cottage in a cool climate. If we throw in the cost of SAT and LSAT prep sessions, undergraduate and law school tuition and monthly allowances, we could own a second cottage in a warm climate! But neither of these cottages would bring the joy that we have experienced from watching our son grow into an intelligent, culturally competent, passionate and compassionate black man who has internalized the importance of doing well and good, and who understands that it is not a matter of doing one and not the other.
Although my parents did not have the financial resources to underwrite the interests of my 10 siblings and me, as my spouse and I did for our son, they understood better than many parents that the primary role of parents is to nurture the dreams of their children. Equipped with an abundant reservoir of love, faith, resolve, and optimism, they had the audacity to tell us we could become anything we wanted to be. Because of the mustard seed faith instilled in them by their parents, they never doubted what they told us. I never recall my parents insisting that we bring home any particular grades. Rather, they admonished us to do our best.
As a community activist and mentor my entire adult life, I know from experience that countless numbers of black boys do not have adults in their lives to simply encourage them, let alone underwrite learning opportunities for them. If we truly want to change the life trajectory of black boys, black men must be willing to commit our most important resource to their well-being, our time. Hardly a week passes without me talking, in person, via phone or email, with young professionals who aspire to pursue a leadership career in higher education administration. The vast majority of these are black males who have heard me speak, read something I wrote, or who spoke with someone who knew of my work. I am never too busy to respond because that is what others did for me at different stages of my career.
The writing of this narrative was interrupted by a Skype conversation with our son just hours before his departure for New Delhi. While we discussed a range of topics, Rashad took time to thank us, as he often does, for having nurtured his dreams through travel, reading and parental modeling and mentoring. He even thanked us for insisting that he practice speaking Standard English grammar and develop proficiency in a foreign language. He concluded by thanking us for always emphasizing what he could do rather than what he couldn't, and for allowing him make his own decisions.
As a university executive, I wanted the same thing for every student enrolled at the university as I wanted for my son: an exemplary collegiate experience that culminated with the receipt of a degree with value in the global marketplace. Recognizing the challenges North Carolina Central University faced in graduating black males; in 2009 the university launched the Centennial Scholars Program with a cohort of 59 students. We told each student that a scholar resided in them and our job was to nurture their intellectual and personal development. Today the program serves over 550 black men who are doing well academically and who exhibit a level of self-confidence that would be less likely was it not for a nurturing program staff.
As I conclude this narrative, a week after my first draft, Rashad is a few hours away from boarding a flight to Ethiopia with the UN World Food Program. World hunger is a really big issue, and there will always be more to do than any committed work group can accomplish. Thanks to nurturing from his parents, teachers, mentors and supervisors, a once black boy, now a culturally-competent and compassionate black man is doing his part to reduce world hunger.