David Banks is one of the founders of the highly acclaimed Eagle Academy for Young Men, an all boys public school started in the south Bronx in 2004 that quickly began achieving remarkable success leading these boys toward high academic performance. Using a mix of dedicated, caring teachers, passionate Black male mentors and extremely involved parents, Eagle Academy has demonstrated forcefully that Black boys from poor neighborhoods can find academic success. Eagle has now opened a half dozen schools across the New York area, taking all comers without any pre-screening. Banks recently published a book, Soar: How Boys Learn, Succeed, and Develop Character to try to spread some of the things he’s learned to the larger community. He spoke exclusively with Atlanta Black Star about how to transform the lives of Black boys. This piece is reprinted with ABS’ permission.
ABS: When we look across the landscape and consider the lives of Black boys and we look at all the wonderful work you guys have done at the Eagle Academies, what do you think are some of most surprising findings about how easy or not so easy it is to turn Black boys around? Is it as hopeless as so many people seem to think it is?
David Banks: It is absolutely not hopeless, not at all. In fact, it’s very fixable. Just requires the will for us to fix it. And therein lies the paradox. It’s very simple but complex at the same time. First of all, what I have long felt, having been the oldest of three boys my mom and dad raised in New York City, and all of us have our own measure of accomplishment, beyond that having raised four children of my own, including three sons, and every one of them are college graduates, is that if I can do it, my brothers and I can do it, my kids can do it, it’s entirely impossible for all of our children, our boys and girls.
Kids have got to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Ultimately the work we do at Eagle is to try to get the light to come on inside of them. When that light goes on inside of them, it helps them as they begin to see the lights and opportunities in front of them. What I mean by that is something as simple as, we say we want all of our young men to go to college. In this new century, the skills they will need, they will need a college degree even to get in the game, but for some many of our young males, they’ve never even set foot on a college campus.
“Speaking to boys in amorphous terms doesn’t work.”
You got to show them real practical things that they can wrap their arms and their minds around. When you wrap your mind around it in a real way, that’s what helps the light to come on. As an example, we take all our young men at Eagle across all our schools in the summer to visit two or three colleges before the official school year even begins. It’s one of the first things we do in the first two weeks during the summer bridge program. We all need to do that. Make sure your kids go and visit college. It doesn’t have to be some long trip. It could be something right there in the city. But they’ve not seen it. They haven’t walked the green of a college campus. Haven’t walked into somebody’s dorm room, or gone into the student center or saw a fraternity step out and do a step show. These are things a lot of us take for granted, but when you collectively ask these young men, I have over the years, when have you visited a college, it’s amazing to me how many have never even visited a college, yet we say we’re preparing them for college. A lot of girls are able to get some of this in their mind’s eye. You can talk to them about it, they can read about it, they can get excited about it. Boys have got to step foot on a campus. They’ve got to be able to walk around, speak to students, see students who look like them walking around the campus saying I came from the inner city. This is my experience and I was you a few years ago. Those types of things for boys are really important. I didn’t realize that quite so much when I first started doing this work. You have to demystify the process.
“Boys as a group are very tactile learners. They have to see it, smell it, touch it, feel it. That’s what makes it come alive.”
Number two is this notion of mentoring, having adult males, can vary in ages, males who can serve as mentors, big brothers, for these young brothers, helping them in their transition to adulthood is absolutely critical. When we first started Eagle, I thought that was something that would be a nice thing to do, a little extra. But what we found is it’s not an extra, it’s essential. In 1920, 90% of our children had a father at home; 40 years later in 1960 it was not much lower at 80%. Now it’s a little over 30%. Seven out of 10 of our children are growing up with a father not at home. If you want to point to one single factor contributing to much of the ridiculousness and craziness in our families; it particularly manifests in the lives of boys not having fathers help them transition to manhood. It’s that lack of dads being around. This is by design, it’s no accident. Fathers are being locked up for things they shouldn’t be locked up for. Removing the man from the home, from the community, from the neighborhood has made all the difference in the world in terms of that downward spiral. We’ve tried to find as many good men as we could. Not just Black men. They’re Black, white and Latino, good men who will stand in the gap for these guys. A young man was quoted in Newsweek magazine in our second year; he said a young man without a mentor is like an explorer without a map. That’s not a small thing. It’s a very significant thing.
I describe the hip hop generation as the fatherless generation. Hip hop stars, athletes coming up, when you hear their stories almost all of these guys have grown up without fathers. They have had to create their own definition of manhood in the absence of fathers to show them how to do it. That’s what we try to do. Even for those not at Eagle, it’s about finding men to stand in the gap for your young men. It’s critical to find men who will do that. I’ve heard it so many times, even when they’re married and have their own children, it’s a pain that never seems to go away. As they try to rationalize why my father was never involved in my life and they thank God for the football coach or the basketball coach or somebody who stood in the gap to play that role.
The young men themselves are so full of potential. Black boys have been studied and examined so much, you would think they were species from another planet.
“They have the same wants, needs, desires as everybody but they recognize, they’re not conscious in terms of recognizing it but they feel it in their soul, that they are under attack.”
They see it in the subliminal messages that are sent to them. They can’t always make sense of it, but they know it. That’s why they come to a place like we have, a place that wraps its arms around them and says, You can take the armor off. They are so deeply appreciative, because it’s an armor that’s heavy. It’s an armor they have to wear when they’re 10 and 12 years old and they have to be the man in their own house. Then they have teachers that don’t believe in them, and school is boring and teachers don’t cater to the energy that boys have. They get it. They can’t always articulate it, but they feel it and they don’t know how to get out of it. So they keep that armor on, to protect themselves. To protect themselves from the low expectations that people have of them. To protect themselves from all manner of evil that exists in the neighborhood and all around them. The armor is heavy, the armor will wear you down. You need it, man, to protect you, but when they come to a place like ours it helps them.
Even for those that don’t go to an Eagle Academy, if you’re just a regular parent, raising your kid, one of the things I talk about in the book is developing that mental map. Where are the resources in your community that you can tap into? All too often our communities are referred to in a deficit model, as though there’s nothing good happening in our communities, all we want to do is get our kids out of here. I don’t think there’s anything further from the truth.
“There are wonderful things happening in many of our communities and lots of resources people can tap into.”
I had a cousin that lived right across the street from the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanical Garden in Prospect Park. He literally lived right across the street. And I used to take my kids there on Saturday to visit all these places. And when I was done I would go visit him and his three kids and they had never visited the place. I’m like, It’s across the street! They got an exhibit on this and on that. But he wasn’t enlightened in his own mind. So he wasn’t seeing to it that his kids were enlightened. I always talk about as a parent it’s your responsibility not to roll over on a Saturday morning and let the television raise your kids. You are absolutely responsible for spending the time to give them what they need. There are things right there in the community to give them what they need. Can make all the difference in the world in terms of making that light go on inside a kid and make them realize what their potential can be. It’s up to adults to do that. Far too many adults try to take the lazy way out. We’ve got to continue to call people in the community out on that.
“You’ve got to be engaged. There are no shortcuts for that.”
There’s a classic line from the movie Hotel Rwanda when Don Cheadle looks up and tells the group, No one is coming to save us, we’ll have to save ourselves. I live by that. That one line really touched me.
“Nobody is coming to save us.”
Funders, foundations, others, people will help you. Maybe not to the extent that we’d like to get help. But there are good willed people of all colors and races who will help. But your blessings come while you are in motion. Your blessings aren’t coming while you’re sitting still or laying down. That’s not the way it work. You have to be putting one foot in front of the other in your movement, in your progression. That’s when the other blessings will come. That’s when you will see people drawn to your movement, who will want to help you. But you can’t be standing around thinking something is going to happen. It’ll never happen like that.
Check out the rest of “It’s Absolutely Not Hopeless: How to Transform the Lives of Black Boys” on AtlantaBlackStar.com.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.