Covering my bases – Bankhead, Buckhead and Bartow

I was born and raised in Bankhead in the late 70’s. Bankhead was and still is a community for majority Black and poor people.

Around the age of seven, I remember leaving my Bankhead community to attend Northside High School located in Buckhead so that I could learn how to do gymnastics and engage in other academic enhancement activities.

I remember the houses in Buckhead being so large. The grass was so green and everything was so clean. The contrast with my community was stark.

At age eight, I began dreaming of playing professional baseball with the Chicago Cubs after watching hours of the Cubbies playing on WGN in the summer with my grandfather. After the games, I would practice in the backyard by hitting and throwingrocks at targets.

I was drafted at age 18 and 20 by Chicago Cubs and finally signed the second time. After my career ended, I began training youth baseball players in the East Cobb and Buckhead community.

I grew as a person and coach in those communities. I was able to help a lot of young men fulfill their life goals of becoming Major Leaguers, business owners and military officers, to name a few.

In 2007, Stan Conway, one of my for-profit clients fromBuckhead challenged me in a way that I will never forget. He asked me what I wanted to with the rest of my life in addition to coaching. No one had ever asked me a question like that – a question that forced me to expand my limited horizon beyond my current daily life and outward to “the rest of my life”. In baseball terms, he was asking me what I planned to do to “cover all my bases” – the present, the future and the larger world in which I exist.

Stan, a white man, told me that he was aware that there was a decline of African-Americans in baseball at the MLB level. I knew that to be a fact, but I also realized I wasn’t doing anything about it. I was planting seeds in a field in the suburbs and Buckhead – I was helping fill the coveted spots of Major League Baseball with more white men – and by doing so, I was working a field that wasn’t mine. My field – my farm, my “garden” – was Bankhead and I wasn’t planting anything there.

L.E.A.D. Ambassador Amari Jones
In fact, I was unconsciously avoiding black male youth in Atlanta because I didn’t know how to intentionally help them. Why did I do this? I think part of the answer lies in the fact thatI didn’t quite know the details of how I made it out. I was raised by two parents that worked hard. I had a stable church andhome, loving family members and some good coaches. But getting access to educational opportunities as a collegiate student-athlete requires more than hope and a prayer. It requires advocacy.

L.E.A.D., Inc. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) was established in 2007 and we’ve been tilling, planting, nurturing and harvesting ever since. L.E.A.D. offers advocacy and significance to inner city ATLANTA black males that are struggling with grades, attendance and/or behavior.

I am both privileged and challenged by the reality that we live in a bifurcated city – a city of two separate communities – and I have one foot in each of them. Consider something as simple as barbershops. Barbershops are institutions that are a microcosm of a still segregated ATLANTA. I have two barbers, one in Bankhead and one in Buckhead. A few years ago, I met former Georgia Governor, Joe Frank Harris at my Buckhead barbershop. I later met his son, Joe Frank Harris, Jr. The Harris family has resided in Bartow County for several decades.

Joe Jr. asked me if I would be willing to come to Bartow County to mentor students as I do in the inner city of Atlanta. I hosted Joe Jr. at one of our partner middle schools (Brown Middle School) so that he could see how and why L.E.A.D. exists. A few weeks later, he hosted me at Allatoona Elementary School in Bartow County. Like Bankhead, Bartow County suffers from extreme poverty which often leads to drug addiction and crime. The only major difference between the students that I serve in Bankhead and Bartow is their race.

C.J. Stewart at Allatoona Elementary School
I believe that race is a social construct that was created to justify slavery. The exploitation of this construct has since become a demonizing force that creates and perpetuates poverty, crime, health outcomes and housing to name a few. We are so often obsessed with the differences between our communities – the disparities between places like Bankhead, Buckhead and Bartow – that we rarely consider the similarities. The social construct of race is just another version of a wall – a psychological one in this case – with the sole purpose of separating us. But we are far more similar than we are different, and unless we consider those similarities when we ask ourselves, what do we want to do with our lives? – if we don’t confront the reality that we are all one community, we won’t be “covering our bases”.

I succeeded in escaping poverty and have reached a level of success that I leverage to serve others. Many years ago when Stan Conway asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my life, he challenged me to be significant – to do something that I could look back on and say without any regrets that what I did was meaningful. I have answered that question now for myself, but I will continue to do so for others. My answer is to serve others, by doing what I know I can do best. And that is not just an answer, that is my significance in this shared but segregated community of ours.