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Black Men meet in Chicago to change Negative Stereotypes

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By Frederick H. Lowe

Barrington Irving, dressed in his flight  suit, lives an exciting life. There’s no doubt about that.

Irving, a Miami native born in Jamaica, is the first black pilot and at one time the youngest pilot to fly solo around the world.  He took the flight in 2007 when he was 23.

He flew his plane, Inspiration, a Columbia 400, for 114.9 hours over 97 days. His flight from Miami, included 27 stops before returning home.  He completed the flight without a de-icer or  weather radar, flying at altitudes ranging from 11,000 feet to 18,000 feet and sometimes as high as 25,000 feet.

Barrington Irving and the plane he flew around the world
Barrington Irving and the plane he flew around the world

Irving was one of 65 black men from Chicago, Detroit, Florida, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin who attended the “Men of Courage” conference, which was held Monday Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Chicago.

“Men of Courage” is sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, which has invested $1.5 billion in civic organizations since launching in 1949. Its parent company is Ford Motor Co. , the nation’s second-largest and the world’s fifth-largest automaker.

The conference is comprised of a daylong series of forums during which black men share with each other their life stories or other events of significance.

The forum’s goal is to change one story at a time the negative social narrative about black men. Black men face significant challenges living their lives including a daily onslaught of microaggressions.

Ford’s History with Black Men

Ford has a strong historical relationship with black men. The company employed black assembly line workers, paid them $5 a day, the same wage paid white workers. This led to the creation of the black middle class.

Detroit hosted the first Men of Courage forum in 2015. Similar forums have been held in Atlanta and Baltimore.

Chicago, which is getting much unwanted attention because of  last year’s record high number of murders, mostly in black neighborhoods, is the latest host city. An attendee noted that the forum to create jobs was taking place mostly outside of much of the media’s glare.

The Chicago workshop, held at the Center for Technology and Entrepreneurship in Merchandise Mart  Plaza, was designed to bring together entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs because a growing number of African-American men see entrepreneurship as a key effort to create jobs in the black community and reduce the high unemployment rate among black men.

This is a dramatic change in thinking from decades ago when black men talked about finding good jobs with good benefits.

“Those jobs are no longer there. Now it’s innovation,” said Shawn Wilson, Ford’s manager for multicultural and community engagement, the event’s host.

Some disagreed with Wilson, but a growing number of studies, including one titled “The Long-Term Decline in Prime –Age Male Labor Force Participation,” published in June by the Obama White House reported that American men of all races between the ages of 25 and 54 are increasingly disconnected from the labor market.

In Chicago, black men sued job-placement agencies for refusing to refer them to minimum-wage day jobs. The agencies preferentially referred non-English speaking Hispanic workers, mostly from Mexico over black men.

An Angry Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wilson then played for the audience little-known film clips of  Dr. King Jr.  that many of the men had never heard (see today’s video channel).

In one video, Dr. King angrily railed against the government for giving land and money to European immigrants to help them build and grow their businesses,  but refused to provide assistance to blacks, telling them  to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” When black men can’t work they cannot provide for their families, Dr. King said.

I asked Carl H. Tutt Jr. , who was sitting next to me, if he had heard Dr. King speak like that. “I have heard part of it,” Tutt answered. “But mostly what we hear is the “I Have A Dream,” speech.”

The workshop attracted a large number of internationally, nationally and local celebrities, including Joe Madison, “The Black Eagle” on Sirius XM Satellite Radio. Madison broadcast his show from the conference with forum attendees as guests.  Chaka Zulu, rapper Tupac Shakur’s cousin, also attended.

Doug E. Fresh performs at Men of Courage in Chicago
Doug E. Fresh performs at Men of Courage in Chicago

Former Detroit Mayor and NBA legend Dave Bing was there and rapper Doug E. Fresh entertained the crowd, telling them, “Black men, we are going to change the world.”

The other stars of the forum, however, were the attendees themselves who sat a several wooden rectangular tables placed throughout the dark room.

In the front of the room was a stage where Wilson asked some of the attendees to come up and speak to the audience.

Most of the men sat at their tables, discussing how to characterize their own stories, including the challenges, choices and outcomes. Several cameras filmed the discussions and an overhead microphone recorded their conversations.

Each person had 15 minutes to write his story. And each attendee spent five to seven minutes discussing his story with his tablemates.

“African –American men in every community have great stories to tell. Their stories reveal the challenges they faced, how they responded to them and how they were able to succeed. These stories often inspire others showing them the way forward to overcome obstacles,” Men of Courage wrote in a booklet given to attendees.

One of the most inspiring stories came from Jeffery O. Beckham, who took to the stage to speak to  attendees. Beckham is CEO and founder of blackboxcreative.com, a web designed firm.

Beckham has been recognized by Ariel Capital Management, the  Chicago Sun-Times,  the Chicago Tribune and WGN television for his work but that did not prevent a black security guard at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oaklawn, a Chicago suburb, from slamming him to the floor.

Beckham, who was dressed in a suit and tie at the conference, was wearing a hooded sweat shirt while visiting a hospitalized nephew.

Men of Courage
Men of Courage

The guard claimed he attacked Beckham because he reminded him of other black men who have given him problems in the past. The guard also claimed Beckham moved towards him in a threatening manner. Police arrested Beckham and prosecutors charged him with minor crimes.  A judge later dismissed the charges in 2015, a year after his arrest in 2014

“I have never told this story to a large audience. But we cannot be afraid to fail. What happened  brought me to this conference,” he said. “People have to see. A lot of men have had to fight through adversity.”

Attendees also were instructed to continue to work as teams to develop a “Vision Board,” created by clipping newspaper and magazine articles and gluing or taping the articles to a board depicting how perceptions of African-American men could be changed in a positive way.

They also were asked to develop social capital, financial capital  and program capital action pacts. Finally Men of Courage wanted all of the attendees to create their own stories  and remain engaged with others through #MenOfCourage. Men also can download a digital tool kit at www. menofcourage.com

“We set the table for them. We want to spark discussions  and move the ball forward,” Wilson said.

Landing with 12 Minutes of Fuel left in the tank

Barrington Irving’s trip included a 22-hour flight over the North Atlantic Ocean, and an eight- to nine- hour flight over the Indian Ocean.

The most challenging  part of the flight was landing the plane with only 12 minutes of fuel left at Eareckson Air Station on Shemya, one of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands near the Russian coast. The plane carried 178 gallons of fuel.

People who have visited Shemya say it’s not the end of the world. But they add you can see the end of the world from there.

He landed on Shemya after Russian officials refused let him enter the country’s airspace after initially giving him permission to do so.

“That was the scariest part of flight,” said Irving, who has skydived from 30,000 feet, the edge of Space, and is founder and CEO of  flying classroom.com  a  STEM learning adventure that helps students excel in math, science, technology and engineering.

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