Black Youth are Over Mentored and Under Sponsored

“But perhaps the most important difference of all and the one most dangerous to the American ideal of equal opportunity is in how we raise our kids. In the modern economy, human capital has become vital to success. The most educated and affluent parents got the memo. Upper middle class families have become green houses for cultivation of human capital. Children raised in them are on a different track than ordinary Americans right from the very beginning.”
Richard V. Reeves

Just like the minor leagues prepares professional baseball players for the Majors, so too must mentorship lead to sponsorship to prepare black youth for life.

My childhood dream was to become a rich Major League Baseball player for the Chicago Cubs. I wanted the cars and fame but lacked the character to make it a reality. I was selfish as a child and teen. My dreams did not include helping anyone but myself. I did get to play for the Cubs, though never made it to the Majors. After returning home, my wife Kelli and I founded a business, Diamond Directors, that provides top athletes with a blueprint of success. The selfishness is gone, which is why we also co-founded L.E.A.D., Inc. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct), where baseball is the blueprint to help inner-city, Atlanta Black males combat three curve balls they face in life – crime, poverty and racism.

Mentorship is guidance. Sponsorship is reliance. I believe that he who owns the definition owns the movement.

I’m currently reading Richard V. Reeves’ book Dream Hoarders: How The American Upper-Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is A Problem, and What to Do about It. Among many things, the book introduced me to the terms “market meritocracy” and “market merit.”

The Business Dictionary defines meritocracy as “governance by elites who deserve to wield power because they possess merit (defined as ‘intelligence plus effort’) instead of by those who merely possess wealth or belong to privileged classes.” Such a system, in theory, forms the basis of an ‘equal opportunity’ society. But, in practice, unrestricted meritocracy may result in a society without rules and concentrate power in only a few hands. The term was coined by the UK sociologist Michael Young in 1958 book, The Rise Of Meritocracy. Richard V. Reeves, adds the term “market merit” to the conversation to highlight the emphasis on skills and attributes that predict economic success. We know that it is harder for some in our city to gain those skills, keeping them out of the meritocracy that runs our city.

L.E.A.D. Ambassador Justin Riddle. Photo by SMAX Photography.

I was born and raised in poverty in the inner-city of Atlanta, and I’m ashamed that we have the largest wealth gap among major cities in the United States. According to the Atlanta Chamber, if you are born into poverty in our city, you only have a 4% chance of making it out. Most people agree that the first step in changing this is education. Atlanta Public Schools (APS) educates over 51,000 students in grades K-12 and over 80% of those students live at or below the poverty level. APS is doing great things for Atlanta under the leadership of Dr. Meria Carstarphen, however, even if every Black student graduates from high school, that won’t be enough. Students living at or below the poverty level may get the education they need, but they still don’t have access to the opportunities that provide them access to the market meritocracy. Until we address this disparity, children born in poverty in Atlanta will never catch up; will never be able to live their “best life.”

People in this city want to help. The issue is that they aren’t helping in the right way. Georgia has one non-profit organization for every 361 people. Volunteers and money for inner city Atlanta are plentiful; the question is why aren’t they more effective.

Unfortunately, for many black families living in poverty the only way their children can achieve merit is to leave their community to attend school. By restricting access to the levers of meritocracy to spaces outside the inner city, we perpetuate the “ghettoization” of our city. Those left behind fall further behind. Those who can, get out by attending charter or private schools, and stay out. What can we do to change this? We need to move from mentorship to sponsorship.

We need the volunteers and philanthropists who sit on boards to understand that our youth need access to the same opportunities that their White peers living five miles away have; otherwise their merit will never be enough to break into our city’s meritocracy. It is not enough to mentor them; they need to be sponsored for specific positions and opportunities.

What does that look like? This four-step process illustrates how we can sponsor Black youth that are living at or below the poverty level in Atlanta.

Ask yourself, “Why do I care about Black students escaping poverty so they can enjoy a life of prosperity like I have?” Vulnerability is better than pageantry.

Determine what resonates with you when you ask that question, and then share that with the student you are mentoring. This will create a connection between the two of you which will be critical for moving from mentorship to sponsorship.

Together, identify a specific career opportunity the young person wants to pursue and make a promise to him that you will personally help him navigate achieving it through your support and endorsement.

Work together to make sure that the student doesn’t just get the education he needs; but that he also has access to the opportunities that will make him marketable in our city’s meritocracy. This will require your time, money, and ongoing endorsement.

By sponsoring, and not just mentoring, our most vulnerable at-risk, Black youth, we can help make Atlanta a place where merit is rewarded regardless of the circumstance of birth. Only then will we live up to the promise of our meritocracy.