What do you want out of life?
The question cuts to the core of the dilemma facing a vast majority of teenage Black boys preparing to walk down the aisle of "Pomp and Circumstance" into a society about which they know very little. A small percentage of the perplexed will buy more time to answer the question by furthering their academic studies at an institution of higher learning.
I once made a living off those boys who couldn't answer the question. I understood the problem they all faced. I knew they were lost -- in desperate need of leadership, mentoring, direction and discipline.
I was a recruiter for the U.S. Navy in the early 90s. Stationed in east rural Texas, I was the first Black Navy recruiter Hunstville had ever seen. During a period of four years, working out Huntsville and Conroe offices, I covered 25 high schools and more than 4,000 square miles of territory. I placed young men in the Navy across a broad spectrum of occupations, including air traffic controllers and nuclear engineers; and I received virtually every award the Navy had to offer in recruiting.
I was successful because I viewed the landscape of high school teens from a perch that no one else enjoyed within their circles of influence. Parents weren't at school and teachers didn't know their students much outside of the classroom. I saw test scores, and spoke with teachers, counselors, parents and friends. I saw home environments and after school activities. I watched students on campus and off. I caught glimpses of them during meal times at school and home, and took note of the social crowds to which they gravitated.
By the time I got a chance to sit teens in my office for interviews, I knew some things about them that any single authority figure in their lives may not have had the privilege of knowing. And I always started an official interview with the same question:
"What do you want out of life?"
It was a stunning question. In most interviews, the answer was predictable.
"I don't know."
That answer was typically followed by a pregnant pause with an expectation that I would tell him what he should want. I never did. Instead, I asked him to dream.
"If you could live anywhere and do anything, where would you live and what would you do?"
The question opened a whole new world of possibilities. It also opened up a young man's mind to venture forth and find his passion. Once discovered, I probed further, encouraging more details about the life in his vision. And before it was over, we would determine how much it cost to live the way he dreamed of living, which was often received as an epiphany. For many, it was the first time they had experienced such mental exercise. Most of my interviewees had little understanding of what it costs to live in a capitalist society. I injected a dose of reality into their dreams.
The overwhelming majority of my interviews were with White teenage boys. But I also studied their Black counterparts intensely and sought interviews with them constantly. I noticed that across the spectrum of high schools, whether it was a wealthy district or poor, Black students under-performed academically.
But when I asked them to dream, there was no disparity. Black boys wanted the same things White boys wanted.
I turned their dreams into goals by asking them to put a time frame on it. We then worked backward from their goal to present-day circumstances, and set milestones for them to achieve along the path toward their goal.
There was a feeling of mutual trust and respect in my interviews. For the moment, I was their mentor, exhibiting leadership and direction and instituting a disciplined process and path with a focus on helping them achieve what they wanted. I made many more friends than I did recruits. And I became a mentor to many more boys than I ever put in the Navy.
Saving America's Black Boys
Today, America's Black boys are graduating high school at an alarmingly low rate of less than 50 percent nationwide. That rate plummets to 35 percent for college graduation. All of these young men are entering a society wherein most high school grads and dropouts have little or no understanding of its economic processes and pathways to success. They have dreams, but no direction, discipline or leadership.
To save America's Black boys, and recover the lost talent and creativity they will contribute that can strengthen the nation's economic competitiveness, we must ensure they have competent mentors. For some, such mentoring will be found in the home, where committed dads are raising their sons into adulthood. For others, mentoring will be found elsewhere. But it will be found, for better or worse, because it is being sought.
There's no magic that happens when a 17-year-old turns 18. Yet, America's public schools conveyor belt consistently pushes teens out the doors of its institutions and into the realm of legal adulthood, ready or not. Teens are subsequently expected to find the right paths that lead toward their dreams and aspirations without a map of the landscape or clear understanding of its evolving job growth and wealth creating processes. Meanwhile, they must find a way to survive. And so they seek jobs to generate income. And their dreams, if they have any, are put on hold.
We're witnessing generations of America's Black boys who are lost, ill-prepared to compete in the economic games of the 21st century. Too many have spent 17 years of their lives lacking discipline, leadership and direction often derived from proper mentoring. Too many have been expected to figure out life on their own.
Black Boys Need Mentoring
I spent four years engaged in dialogue with America's White boys, many of whom had the benefit of intact families and good public schools. The vast majority of them still did not know what they wanted out of life. They were still lost. But many had the privilege of mentoring at home. They weren't expected to have it all figured out. They had resources to assist them along the way as they sought the paths best suited for them.
America's Black boys don't have that luxury. The clock is ticking. Most Black boys will grow up without a committed dad. Without a leader. Without a disciplined direction. Without a mentor. Without a dream. Without hope.
America cannot continue to compete without the contributions of its Black boys. The current flow of distress will derail our nation's desired direction. Ignorance of this pressing problem has placed our nation on a challenging path that requires our immediate focus.
In this 3-part series, I have laid out the opportunities:
Black boys need a new language and narrative that empowers them to communicate, engage and understand the economic processes of the 21st century innovation economy.
Black boys are intuitive innovators with talented, creative minds. We must invest in their creativity and bolster it with a solid STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) while nurturing their entrepreneurial spirit.
Black boys, like all boys, need mentors. They weren't born with knowledge of this society and how to succeed in it. Black boys, like all boys, require an investment of time and effort to help them understand themselves and society while guiding, teaching, disciplining and leading them to a place where they can become confident contributors to society ... and mentors to others.
The pathway to saving America's Black boys starts with two questions:
What do you want for their lives?
And do you care enough to invest your time and resources?
HuffPost Black Voices sends a daily dose of the best and most important news about black life, culture and excellence straight to your inbox. Learn more