Enabling vs. Empowering

I was born and raised in the inner city of Atlanta – a “Grady Baby”, which almost always means you were born Black and poor.

I found hope in five things:

• My School: Atlanta Public Schools (APS) which was led by leaders such as Dr. Benjamin E. Mays and Dr. Alonso Crim;

• My Role Models: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Atlanta’s first Black Mayor Maynard Jackson were APS alums like me;

• My Home: A city that was growing and successful. Atlanta is the home to CNN, the Atlanta Braves (the first pro sports team in the South), and the headquarters of Delta, thanks in part to the work of Mayor Maynard Jackson, who helped build Atlanta’s airport and make our city a gateway to the world;

• My Sport: Cascade Youth Organization, a part of Atlanta Parks and Recreation, gave me and hundreds of other kids a chance to play baseball. National leaders like Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy had relatives that played at the park as well, so it was common for me to see these giants at the park from time to time. My first baseball coach was Emmett Johnson who was Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education Chairman;

• My Church: I was born into Christianity and Elizabeth Baptist Church which was full of good people, many of them highly educated and bourgeois. Being bourgeois can be good or bad and it depends on your willingness to serve others.

Hope is a gift, but turning hope into reality is a journey. My journey began in school.

C.J. Stewart
Atlanta Public Schools today has three tiers of students. Tier 1 students are highly motivated and will graduate from high school regardless of their socioeconomic status. Tier 3’s lack motivation and will most likely drop out of high school and have a high probability of being incarcerated and/or living a life of poverty regardless of their socioeconomic status. It is the Tier 2 students – the ones between the highest and the lowest, the ones that could end up going either way – that are often the most challenging to teach, coach and/or mentor.

I was a Tier 2 student.

My parents didn’t want me to feel poor, so I was always dressed like rich kids. They made the sacrifices financially to make sure that we went on family vacations, wore nice clothes and attended social events like the Nutcracker.

As an elementary and middle school student within Atlanta Public Schools, I was wrestling with the constant desire to have sex. It was all over television. I was also getting good at using profanity to seem cool. I was willing to hang out with the “bad kids” in order to fit in. Everyone wants to belong and belonging to my church groups and the Boy Scouts just wasn’t cool enough to me.

At my young age, I noticed that there were three types of people that enabled me to lean towards Tier 3.

1. White women
2. Black women
3. Black men

It is a raw generalization, but you have to remember, this is how a kid like me – like lots of kids like me – saw the world. How did they enable me to be cool? I’ll tell you:

White women were the best for me because they would always cut me the most slack. I felt that White women were just inherently nicer than Black women based on my interactions with them in person and from what I saw of them on television.

Black women, in contrast, were always super strict and stern. The older women were a part of the Civil Rights Movement and felt the need to empower young Black males, but often they did more enabling than empowering. Although they were stern, they didn’t have it in their heart to let me fail, so I could always get my way even though I would get a tongue-lashing.

Black men were humble to a fault. They were often apologetic about their gifts and talents. They would give you a lot of “back in the day” talks that could last for hours. I would get away with being bad because they didn’t have a plan of action to hold me accountable.

By definition, there is a fine line between enabling and empowering, but a vast difference in the path that each can lead to – a journey that is as different as a Tier 3 student is from a Tier 1.

C.J. Stewart

I have been the Chief Empowerment Officer for L.E.A.D. for 10 years and we partner with Atlanta Public Schools to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform their city of Atlanta. LEAD Scouts The Counted Out. The over 300 student-athletes that we serve earn the opportunity to become empowered by LEAD with the ABC’S …

• Attendance
• Behavior
• Curriculum (grades)
• Service

The sea of life is rough and challenging, and there are many sources of help that can “enable” our young men to tread water and survive. But we want to do so much more than just survive.

LEAD is a boat in the sea of life, a means of navigating that sea and empowering our young men to take their journey toward leadership. Through Standards, Expectations and Accountability (the S.E.A.), our student-athletes rise above the waves and move forward.

As a consequential leader in Atlanta, it is my prayer that Black Males being raised in poverty find a boat like ours, get on board, and take this most important journey of their lives. By holding Atlanta’s future leaders accountable, we are building a battalion of LEAD’s own version of Navy SEALS, empowering them to take charge and turn their own hopes into reality.