This was an idea started for our youth in this city more than anything else. For those that do not know, outside of my “career” I have been mentoring and teaching young people through the blessings of the 100 Black Men of Western Pennsylvania for the last seven years. I have changed jobs a few times, I have gone back to school and graduated, I have gotten married. But one thing (if any, aside from family) has remained static, and that was my commitment to being at CCAC every Saturday during the school year to work with my kids. Over the years, I have seen some kids who were seniors when I first started and now see them and they still tell me of the life lessons we spoke about over the years and of the young, shy middle schoolers who are now juniors and seniors in high school who I cannot get to stop talking. However proud I am of them and their growth in both knowledge of real world applications, such as financial acumen and how to dress for an interview and self-confidence, I was also so alarmed by a statement that one of my young women made that it completely inspired this book.
Following one of our Saturday sessions as I was shutting down the computer, I felt the gaze of one particular young lady who I have known since she was in 7th grade. I asked her as I often do, “OK…what did I do this time?” assuming fully that nothing can be done up to the standards of a high school girl. She laughed my question off and asked a serious one to me, “Brian, you know every week you come here and tell us your story and your friends come in and tell us theirs, but are there others of you that look like us that are doing things here or is it just you and your friends?” I paused, thinking more carefully about my answer because I could tell by the look on her face that this individual’s question was much deeper than she made it out to be. “Of course, it’s just that we are here and there are lots of programs all over the city and we are spread out. Why do you ask?” Of course in my own head, I thought my response to her question was the right one and really insightful as well. She then asked, “Then why don’t we see you or them on the news but only stories of us as black people doing wrong?” In my head I am completely rethinking my strategy now, saying, “Well, unfortunately local news outlets get more viewership by running bad stories than good ones and therefore the news coverage shows more of those stories than the good ones.” Her personality — normally witty and vivacious — then got almost sad, which I haven’t seen her in that place in years, as she said, “The only people that we see that look like us outside of here are on the news where we’re criminals and not doing anything right. At our age, that’s tough to see. I talk to my friends and it really sounds like we’re all losing hope.”
That right there, that conversation, that statement, that word, was the reason this movement and book came to be. The deterioration of hope is what I believe to be one of the most powerful emotions possible. In my humble opinion, a lack or deterioration of hope is why we have issues we’ve had in our communities. A lack of hope doesn’t leave you thinking about your future; you worry about life from a day by day perspective. You can’t worry about what you want to be when you grow up because you spend all of your time focusing on how you will get through today. This perspective is what we are fighting, collectively. On top of that, if you have grown up in an environment where everyone you know is living with the same day by day survival mentality, the uphill fight can seem daunting.
After growing up through the Pittsburgh Public School system, I can say with all confidence given my experience that I have met most types of “us.” The amazing, beautiful thing about “us” is most times, because of our culture, you cannot assume you know the soul of “us” strictly based off of the look. This illustrated picture book will prove that through telling the stories of 125 of us that either still reside in this city, or those from the city that have positions that have taken them outside of the city.
The goal of this book is to show the next generation that they aren’t alone and to show them proof. To show them proof with over 110 entries that our ambassadors, all of which are not much older than them, care about them more than they know. Through explaining their paths and the “how” to their success stories, along with writing hand-written, open letters to them, we know that this project can not only positively affect this generation, but future generations after this. Although this may not be a simple answer to the question I was asked years ago by that precocious young lady, I hope that this shows one person that it is possible. This life that they may feel so distant from is closer than they know. If we can achieve that even just one time, then this book and everything that comes after it will be well worth the effort.