We are Not Helpless
by Lloyd Dennis
As a kid, we played marbles “for keeps”. Periodically there would be a new kid with a bunch of new shiny marbles to hit the park, backyard or empty lot where we played the game of skill. Invariably, the new kid with the shiny new marbles would end up losing them all, and he would begin to cry, feeling abused by those who won his marbles. But the crying never did anything but make the other boys laugh.
What makes us think that there is anything in human nature that will make people give up their advantages? We certainly never felt guilty about taking and keeping a kid’s marbles even if he couldn’t play or didn’t understand the game. It is this truth about human nature that inspired the Silverback Society—knowing that we cannot and should not expect others to look at the plight of young African-Americans and step in to make a real positive difference and recognizing that we have it within our power to do what needs to be done.
With cyclical poverty based on the culture created by welfare, of men not raising children, there is a need to educate a generation of boys to a different perspective. When there is a need in our community, we are not helpless. We can invest our time, money and political effort to solve most of what ails us and improve the futures for our children. And if we wait for those who have an advantage for themselves and their children to relinquish some and share with us, I submit that we will continue to wait and our collective conditions and power position will worsen. Yes we were stolen, abused and worked without capital gain, but I don’t see any significant will among even nice White people to make us whole.
Being free people means that, unlike slaves, we can choose how we invest our time, our money and our votes. It seems, however, that even though freedom was gained by group effort and struggle, many of us behave as though this new freedom was ours to “spend” without consideration. We believed certain laws meant we would live and be treated as individuals, that freedom had eliminated the need for group action. We assumed that racism existed because Whites never had a chance to get to know us. A harsher, sharper view, perhaps, is that racism is a means by which one group creates and maintains advantages over others.
It is also important to understand that our need to function as a group does not have to be based on any natural affinity or love for one another, but on the reality that because we are profiled and treated as a collective, we need to function as a mutually beneficial collective.
The Silverback Society was born over coffee in the fall of 2007 when the late Pastor Arthur Wardsworth of Second Good Hope Baptist Church in Algiers and I decided that we were tired of talking about problems and were going to invest time doing something to improve the outlook for young Black men in our community. No more waiting for Congress, state government, local politicians or the school system. After all, we were free men.
Both of us had varied experiences working with young people over the years. Wardsworth was a pastor and coach. I taught photography in public school, served as a coach and worked in many youth programs over the years. So we compared notes on those experiences and put on the table all the things we knew from working with young people. Pastor Wardsworth and I put our heads together and came up with the Silverback Society Pledge, a commitment to responsibility for generations and Six Silverback Society principals (now seven) to teach boys we would soon engage.
Soon after that meeting of minds, Murray Henderson Elementary School Principal Beverly Johnson reached out to us and requested help with the boys at her school. We agreed to come once a week and teach the boys in the seventh and eighth grades. After a couple of sessions Pastor and I recognized that mixing the two grades had been a mistake since social “pecking” orders were confused whenever the two grades were in the same space. That was when the decision was made to only work with the top grade on the campus and let the younger boys look forward to their turn at what was morphing into a rites of passage experience.
The basic curriculum and culture were formed that first year because as a classroom teacher for several years I knew the importance of being prepared before you walked into a classroom. So with input and advice from Pastor Wardsworth I created six weeks’ worth of lesson plans based on what we both agreed boys needed to know and understand about a man’s opportunities for success and happiness.
After almost two years of campus culture improvement attributed to our work with the upper grade boys and the resulting trickle-down effect on the attitudes and behavior of the younger boys at Murray Henderson, Pastor grew ill and passed away in December of 2009. I was shattered and wondered how I would be able to continue the work without my partner. Working together meant that we had never disappointed kids because even if one of us couldn’t make a session, the other showed up. This consistency and shared responsibility had become a central feature of the Silverback Society’s early success.
As the Almighty would have it, after Pastor’s funeral service, in the parking lot of the church, D’Juan Hernandez and Dr. Dwayne Steel offered themselves to help continue the work of the Silverback Society. Then other men came, Al Miller, Mtumishi St. Julien, Chris Williams, Jonas Nash and Keith Pittman. Then we were requested to implement our program at another school, Craig Elementary.
Then Blayne Bondy, Dr. Jerome Medley, Marcell McGee, Corey Smith and Cornell Manuel came. We were happy with ourselves and our effort as men making a difference in the community. Then, the visionary and investors came. If you do something and it works, others will join and help will come.
Jimmy Woods of Metro Disposal had always supported our work. He had me at breakfast and declared that the Silverback Society needed to be in every school. Because I was also busy running my photography business, I balked and challenged Woods, “So are you saying that if I jump in with both feet you are the brother that is going to make sure my wife still gets her vacations every year.” Without batting an eye Jimmie Woods committed. Later, Robert Reily, another admirer of the Silverback Society’s work, hearing that I was considering making the Silverback Society my life’s work, committed to do as much as Jimmie Woods.
Silverback Society was incorporated, and Roy J. Rodney, Jr, Sean Bruno, Bill Rousselle, Bob Reily, Jimmy Woods, D’Juan Hernandez, Dwayne Steele, and Dr. Keith Ferdinand came to the board. And we went from two schools to four schools. Soon, Stephen St. Martin, Vance Vaucresson, Charles Easterling, Terry Hardy, Donald Robinson, Tim Thompson, Darren Lombard, James Moffett Jr., Richard Cook, Royce Duplessis, John Gaines and David Durand committed to the work. And then people and institutions like Louella Givens-Harding, Charles Kennedy, Liberty Bank, NOLA for Life, Entergy New Orleans, Ronnie Burns, Silverback board members and others wrote checks. The RSD gave us a contract and one day the W.K. Kellogg Foundation called me at home, inviting me apply for support which amounted to $100,000 for three years to help the Silverback Society grow from four schools to Wood’s vision of a city-wide presence.
Today, the Silverback Society is a group of men that practice Black male responsibility and invest the time to teach it to a generation of boys. We know it was Jim Crow and mean spirited welfare laws that chased a generation of Black men away from their families so the women and children could get housing and government benefits. Unfortunately boys who grew up in those homes assumed and believed that men don’t raise or support children. That is the cycle that has to be broken, so the men of the Silverback Society teach, motivate and model the behavior.
Only we can create a safer more prosperous future for ourselves investing the freedoms of time, money and politics in places that benefit us and our children. By investing our time in children and community improvement, investing more of our money in supporting businesses we own and organizing our politics to maximize the flow of public dollars into our communities, where we live will become the places where we want to live and we will not have to expose our children to people who fear/hate/mistreat them just because they are Black.
In many ways, the resources of our own time, money and economically-focused politics provide the opportunity for a really bright future. The greatest challenge is teaching and supporting rather than judging and deserting one another because we must build on what we have to get to the next level, and it might take a while but if WE don’t start, it will never happen. So our progress or lack thereof will be a result of the countless choices you and I make as we express the freedoms that were won for us by the blood sweat and tears of previous generations.
We invite any Black man who is happy with his achievement in life to join the Silverback Society mentoring movement and invest some time with a group mentoring process helping boys see themselves responsible productive men. Contact me at LD@SilverbackSociety.com