CJ, why do you feel you are qualified to speak on behalf of the black male population of Atlanta, GA?

I am qualified to speak on behalf of the black male population of Atlanta because of who I am. I am a black male born and raised in one of the most dangerous areas in Atlanta. It wasn’t easy for me or my family. I could have been a negative statistic, but for the grace of God, my family, and amazing relationships with several good people in Atlanta of varying race and gender, I made it out. I know where I’ve been and I know where I am now. I know a better life is possible, I know how it can be done, and I am committed to empowering others to do the same.

I was born and raised on Hollywood Road in one of the most dangerous parts of the inner city of Atlanta. My parents, Mr. Willie Stewart and Mrs. Gail Stewart, were very hard working people. I was educated in the Atlanta Pubic Schools and Fulton County Schools systems where black students were in the majority. Resources at home and at school were scarce.

As a child, I dreamed of playing professional baseball for the Chicago Cubs after being introduced to the game by my grandfather. It is through baseball, a loving family, caring friends of varying race and gender, and my Christian faith that I found a way out of the hard life I would have otherwise known living in the harsh inner city of Atlanta. There were failures along the way. I attended college at Georgia State University on a baseball scholarship, as well as Georgia Perimeter College and Kennesaw State University. I academically failed out of Georgia State and Georgia Perimeter after one year each. I ended up playing professional baseball in the Chicago Cubs organization but was cut early on.

I made it out of financial and emotional poverty because I chose to accept certain opportunities that came my way. The experiences I had from those opportunities gave me perspective, which brought me to an understanding that poverty brings about shame and struggle, and living a life of shame and constant struggle can be debilitating to a person’s self-esteem and self-respect. I chose to surround myself with experiences that strengthened my self-esteem and self-respect. I attribute much of who I am today to my strong relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ, and my earthly spiritual leader, Dr. Craig L. Oliver, Senior Pastor of Elizabeth Baptist Church.

My life today, as a 39 year old Atlantan who is also a black man, is based on the decisions I’ve made along the way. Personally, I am the loving husband of Kelli Stewart and the proud father of our two daughters Kourtni Mackenzi Stewart (age 14) and Kelly Mackenna Stewart (age 8). I have a strong bond with my two sisters, Nicole and Erica, and I am an uncle to six nieces and one nephew. Professionally, I have developed some of Major League Baseball’s top young talent through my for profit business Diamond Directors. Spiritually, I am committed to service to God, my family, and a new generation of leaders whose values are based on love, understanding, and respect for other human beings.

As an adult black male who works within Atlanta’s inner city environment, what are your thoughts about the future of Atlanta’s black youth, and what is your commitment to them, CJ?

The future of black youth in metro Atlanta is in their hands and the hands of its citizens, regardless of color or economic status. I love Atlanta and I believe that my city will never truly become a world class city until hundreds of thousands of black males are living a sustainable life of significance. Empowering Atlanta’s young black males to choose opportunities and experiences that promote self-esteem and self-respect is my commitment and my focus. I realize that I cannot do this alone, however, and encourage you to find a way to participate in changing the way our government and society thinks about Atlanta inner city black youth, and how each responds to their needs.

My wife, Kelli, and I are both co-founders of L.E.A.D. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) which is a Pathway2Empowerment organization. L.E.A.D. is an acronym for:

· Launching student athletes towards educational opportunities after converting raw talent into the skills required for entry into college athletic programs.

· Exposing teens to service and local enrichment activities in order to instill a sense of responsibility, belonging and investment; key requirements for building a civically engaged individual.

· Advising players, coaches and parents on the process of effectively supporting dreams of playing baseball on the college level.

· Directing young men towards their promise by using the historical journey of past African American legends as the road map.

We created L.E.A.D. as a vehicle to carry out our commitment to black youth who live in the inner city of Atlanta to empower them with opportunities to gain the knowledge and skill that they need to lead and transform their city of Atlanta.

What do you see as the biggest problems facing the black community in Atlanta today, CJ?

Perception is a major problem facing the black community in Atlanta – how blacks perceive themselves and how others outside the black community perceive them. This is such a complicated subject and I could write much on the topic, but, for now, our perceptions are formed in large part through media and education. It is what we see on TV and at the movies. It is what we read in newspapers, magazines and books. It is what we see and read through social media. It is also what we learn in school, at home, and in our places of worship. It is our responsibility to assess our perceptions.

Assessment is tricky, because sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. We continue to think the way we do because “we don’t know any other way”. I challenge you that when it comes to defining yourself, or someone else, based on skin color, you need to ask yourself “Is there another way to think about this? Can I think about this differently?” Challenge yourself to find an opportunity that will offer you a new experience, something outside your comfort zone.

On Sunday, July 12th, the Bell family joined my family at Elizabeth Baptist Church. Left to right: Allen Bell, Sherry Bell, Kelli Stewart, Mackenzi Stewart, Mackenna Stewart, CJ Stewart, Russell Bell and William Bell.

Sunday worship is a good place to start. I see an unofficial, unenforced segregation of church goers. It is most apparent if you look at our churches on Sundays during our spiritual worship times. At least in Atlanta, my experience is that whites and blacks attend their own churches. I am sure we worship where we feel most comfortable, but because of this we are missing opportunities to get to know each other during one of the most important aspects of our lives – celebrating God and all of his children. During Sunday worship we get to know each other on a level that we cannot experience elsewhere. It is through that experience that we are most likely to join together and work side by side to solve problems that may otherwise arise through misperceptions. I challenge you if you are white, attend a black church, and if you are black attend a white church. If you’ve never had the experience, it may feel awkward at first because you are experiencing something new, but take a deep breath, settle in, and you will learn much.

What do you need to do, CJ?

It is my duty as a blessed son of Atlanta to serve my city with all of my resources and relationships to truly make it the world class city that it should be.

I need to lead a paradigm shift within the black community that will raise poor black families up from poverty to prosperity which in turn will provide them with the opportunities necessary to live a sustainable life that has significant meaning for them, a life that they can be proud of.

To do this, I need to raise awareness among the black community that to achieve a sense of honor and pride in their lives they need to live their lives based upon a morally and ethically sound foundation. I created, and maintain, my own moral and ethical foundation through a strong relationship with Jesus Christ, and it has provided me with opportunities and experiences that I would never have imagined growing up.

What do you need to know in order to do what you need to do CJ?

I need to know as much as possible about the history of slavery in America, about the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and the current War on Drugs. Knowledge is power and the more I learn the better able I am to use that knowledge to successfully empower black families within the inner city of Atlanta. Ignorance and lack of confidence among blacks in Atlanta makes it difficult to break free from generational financial and emotional poverty. My hope is to bring about change by leading with a relatable understanding of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we can be as a people.

It is unfortunate, but I also need to understand and accept that racism is still alive and pervasive in Atlanta.

By acknowledging that racism is still a problem, I can objectively assess my own thoughts and perceptions about what it is to be black in Atlanta, and decide whether or not I need to change the direction of my own thoughts to become the best leader I can be for those I am committed to serve. I can also work systemically to eradicate racism if I have a better understanding of its existence in our community.

Further, by acknowledging that racism exists, I must accept that despite the progress our society has made with regard to racism, there are still many white people who harbor racially charged thoughts and motives. As wrong as these people and their motives are, it is ironic that they continue to be above the laws that govern all American citizens.

Additionally, I must understand that some white Americans are racially naïve. These people are the most challenging. They aren’t aware that their thoughts have negative consequences and perpetuate racism. Challenging as it might be, I have thoughts on how to handle this. It has to do with Newton’s First Law of Motion, part of which says: “an object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” All objects resist change in their state of motion. My intention is to be that “unbalanced force” and encourage change.

Conversely, I know that there are white people who have no place for racism in their lives. They make education and a better way of life a priority for all without regard to color. That said, sadly, some may not be aware that Georgia ranks near the bottom in America in education while it ranks number one in America in incarceration. As Georgians, they are working hard for positive change for all people of Georgia – change that will foster love. In my life, love always win and I love people that love people, but for change to be most effective one must have a sense of what they are working toward, a direction, a goal. Doing good just to do good is great, but it is more effective if done with purpose.

How do you do what you need to do CJ?

In order to be a successful leader in the black community and help effect change in the inner city of Atlanta to elevate it to world class status, I must have resolute and unshakeable faith in God and pray with intention and purpose. I must also collaborate strategically with those individuals and/or organizations that want the same things for Atlanta that I do, and that is for Atlanta to truly become a world class city by empowering hundreds of thousands of black men to live a sustainable life of significance.