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Program seeks to break stereotypes of young urban black males

Eleven-year-old Tra’Shawn Brown was walking to a convenience store on his block in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood when a man ran up to him, grabbed his money and ran off.

“I filed a police report,” Tra’Shawn said. “But seriously, who robs an 11-year-old?”

That was why Tra’Shawn didn’t get out of the house much until recently, except for school. Two miles north of Baltimore’s bustling Inner Harbor district, his almost all-black neighborhood was featured in HBO’s series “The Wire” as the city’s epicenter of chaos and violence.

Tra’Shawn said his dad, Curtis Brown, has been “in and out of jail” for several years on drug and parole violations.

But Tra’Shawn, a fifth-grader, did start getting out in February. His destination: a freshly painted yellow row house at 1406 N. Bond St., with a welcome mat at the front door, that stands out amid scores of abandoned row houses with boarded-up windows.

The house at 1406 is home to Baltimore BORN (Boys Opportunity and Resource Network), a new sort of Boys Club meets Make-A-Wish Foundation program focused on black boys like Tra’Shawn, who show a drive to thrive despite their obstacles.

It was started in 2009 by Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who grew up in a Baltimore suburb, to serve kids in the Oliver community who might otherwise go unnoticed.

“We don’t aim for the cream of the crop,” said Foxworth, 28, a key member of the 13-man NFL Players Association executive committee that in July negotiated a new NFL labor contract. “We aim for the middle-of-the-pack guys. Requirements are that they’re successful in school or their parents (or in many cases, grandparents) show the desire for them to be successful.”

Foxworth’s kids are handpicked fifth- and sixth-graders from Dr. Bernard Harris Senior Elementary School. Each weekday, they come to BORN’s Bond Street row house to take part in an interactive lecture, join a community service project like trash pick-up or get help with homework.

For example, astronomers visited at the invitation of BORN staff because two boys in the program were interested in astronomy. Boys attracted to acting have participated in local plays.

The students also read books with themes that can help them.

“The first book we do with the fifth-graders is ‘Facing the Lion,’” a memoir by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton, said BORN’s program director, Gabe Cohee. “[The books] deal with issues of manhood, rights of passage, bullying, education and all those things.

“We’ll have the class discussing, ‘OK, how did Lekuton deal with this situation? How would you have dealt with this situation? How do you think he was feeling?’ Then they can self-explore.”

Foxworth said he was inspired to start BORN by memories of how his father reared him.

“My dad was a great influence in my life and these kids, in their situation, are not as fortunate,” Foxworth said. “A lot of skills that he taught me about being a man, these kids might otherwise miss out on.”

Foxworth grew up in Randallstown with his older brother Dion and parents Lorinzo and Karen Foxworth, who together teach interpersonal development skills to corporate employees.

Randallstown, a largely middle-class suburb, was detached from the hardships BORN boys face, but Foxworth said responsible manhood transcends socioeconomic status.

“Being a black male in this city, there’s a misguided idea about what it means to be a man,” he said. “When I was growing up the coolest kids were the best at sports, got all the girls and knew how to fight.”

But when he was a teenager at Baltimore’s Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, Foxworth said, athletes were just as competitive in the classroom as they were on the field.

“It was cool to be smart,” Foxworth said. “We try to create that at BORN, an environment where it’s OK to be smart.”

Foxworth said BORN students can’t escape the stereotype of black males at an urban school, but they can belong to a different group after school where “the requirements to fit in are to be successful in school.”

And he said he’s seen a different attitude toward education and life among BORN students since his program began.

“In the fifth grade, they were arguing over who had more girlfriends and weird stuff like that,” he said. “Now they argue over who read the most over the weekend.”

Sometimes, Cohee said, the students become too excited about their opinions and a staff member must direct their attention back to the main topic by asking them: “Who’s going to college?”

BORN doesn’t have financial means to help kids pay for college, and it has no plans to do so. Foxworth said, however, that BORN plans to help kids find financial aid for college.

“There’s a lot of money for young men like this,” Foxworth said.

College is the ultimate goal for the program and a barometer of the program’s success. The BORN house is decorated with pennants from all eight Ivy League institutions and other well-known universities.

“College admittance is what we aim for,” Foxworth said. “They don’t necessarily have to go to the Harvards of the world or the University of Marylands.”

The more immediate goal of BORN is guiding boys to become responsible young men.

“It’s about having them mature into the men they need to be and give them the opportunities to be as successful as they deserve,” Foxworth said.

With only 27 students in the program, Cohee said it is nowhere near its potential.

“Eventually, we’ll have 150 students enrolled in grades five through 12,” Cohee said. “We look five to 10 years down the line and we’re going to be influencing a lot of students.”

The BORN staffers are already succeeding with Tra’Shawn.

“Sometimes it does get kind of stressful not having [his father] around,” Tra’Shawn said, “but … they just help me kind of be strong.”

4 comments

  1. That sounds like a great program. Given the circumstances that many/most of these children grow up in, it is a miricle when even one of them makes it out and does something useful and productive.

  2. Good article; a great plan is in place for positive things ahead for these kids!

  3. I think it’s really good that an NFL player would take time to help his own community. He could just play every sunday collect his money and spend his time partying, but instead he’s helping the kids in his city. great article.

  4. The NFL should do a better job of promoting programs like this.

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