Program helps at-risk black men get through college

By Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

DETROIT (AP) - Bryant George grew up in a neighborhood plagued by shootings, drug deals, vacant homes and widespread poverty.

It wasn't until he was a senior at Northwestern High School in Detroit that George met a professional African-American man for the first time.

That man, Sid Taylor, offered him a chance to have a different life with a college scholarship, a computer and a mentor. Taylor encouraged him, and even scared him by telling him that black men have a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison.

George took Taylor, owner of an auto supply company, up on his offer. He graduated from college and has since devoted himself to helping young black men like him by replicating the program that changed his life while he was at Madonna University.

"College allowed me to grow spiritually, intellectually and personally," said George, now 27 and working on his master's degree at Madonna. "I had a chance to find myself, a real relationship with God and a chance to realize what I wanted to do with my life: to go back into my community and present myself as someone that a lot of young men, especially of color, don't get a chance to see in the inner city of Detroit."

George is among hundreds of young men who have benefited from the Real Life 101 Scholarship Fund - an organization that provides college scholarships of $1,000 annually, a laptop computer and personal mentors to inner-city African-American males.

Now in its 16th year, the program has invested $1.2 million in more than 500 scholarships and 2,000 computers to help young men get through college. So far, 65 have made it and graduated from places such as the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Howard University.

Though it started in Detroit, the program is now in 11 states and the District of Columbia and aspires to expand this year to every state in the nation.

The goal: to help young black men get an education, make a better life for themselves and avoid prison.

"These are lives we are saving," said Taylor, 66, the owner of SET Enterprises Inc. in Warren. "Black men have a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison. That is phenomenal. We are building prisons and populating disproportionately with black males. How do we get around that? Invest in them up front."

The program had its genesis when Taylor was 19 and a Marine serving in the Vietnam War. He and 18 fellow Marines were called in to rescue a helicopter that had been shot down, but were ambushed by the North Vietnamese Army.

Taylor prayed and promised God he would do something for society if he got out alive. Only he and seven others made it out.

Years passed. Taylor started his career at General Motors and did community service work in his free time. While serving on the board of Prison Fellowship Ministries in Detroit, he began visiting prisons to pray with inmates and was struck by how many young men were serving sentences of 15 years or more.

As he talked with them and asked about their stories, he heard similar themes. That's when the light bulb went off, giving him the idea that became Real Life 101.

"We're investing in these young men on the front end, instead of the back end," Taylor told The Detroit News.

He started the program in 2000 at Detroit's Kettering High School, where his wife, Donna, attended. It has since grown to 18 schools in Detroit, and one each in Pontiac, Flint and Saginaw, plus the other states.

Among the graduates this year is Larry Harris Jr., who grew up on the south side of Chicago. He will earn a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and will continue his education, thanks to a fellowship with the U.S. State Department that will pay for his master's degree at Cornell University, an Ivy League school in upstate New York.

Real Life 101 asks applicants to write an essay about how they are going to change the image of African-American men in America. While in college, Harris has been trying to do that through activities such as voter outreach on campus.

"To show them that we aren't these stereotyped notions - one of the biggest one is black men are somehow inherently dangerous. . . that we don't aspire to go to school, that we don't care about our communities," Harris said. "Those stereotypes are not true. . . Black men are also American men. We bring a valuable piece to the table."

Taylor retired from his company this year to work full-time on helping his board raise $1.5 million and expand the program by June 2017.

"The target population of young men in Detroit for Real Life 101 are those who do well in school but are not the top scholars and normally would not compete well for other scholarships," said Carol Goss, former president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation and a recent fellow at Harvard University's Advanced Leadership Initiative.

"They are the young men who live in poor neighborhoods and have very loose and complicated family systems of support," she said. "Education is important, but there are many barriers for them. ... Real Life 101 is one of those programs that I believe is really making a difference in the lives of African-American young men."

One of the problems for young men of color in college is that they may be accepted and enroll, but not sustain their studies and graduate, Goss added.

"I have met several of these young men," she said, "and when they tell their stories, it is clear they may not have been successful in college without the program."

The program has 265 mentors, each paired with a scholarship recipient. They keep in touch with the students regularly and help them navigate whatever is thrown their way in college. Often, these mentors take the young men out for lunch, invite them over for holiday dinner and even take on the role of a surrogate parent.

Vanessa Stovall has been a mentor with the program since it began and mentored five students. She calls them regularly and sees how she can help.

"I often ask them, 'What are your next steps, what are your goals?'" said Stovall, a Southfield resident. "I try to connect them with the right people if they need help."

In June, the program's annual gala will celebrate the men who have graduated. They will get a green business jacket to welcome them into the fraternity of Real Life 101, and be surrounded by program alumni.

Among them will be George, who's replicating Real Life 101 at Madonna University with a campus program called Bridging Lost Gaps. Nearly 50 young African-American men from Detroit schools are enrolled there, and one will graduate this spring. George even landed a $150,000 grant from the McGregor Fund to develop and expand the program at Madonna.

His goal is to do for new students what Taylor did for him.

"I don't know where I would be without him right now," George said. "He saved my life. Without him, college would not have been a real reality. ... I wouldn't be who I am today."

Published: Thu, May 14, 2015