Alphonso Mayo launched his nonprofit, Mentoring Mentors, to help underserved black kids from Baltimore build positive relationships that lead to success in life.
As executive director of that nonprofit, Mayo, however, found a culture among the city’s charitable organizations that often makes achieving those goals more difficult.
“I think too often (foundations) look at it like, ‘Well, what can I get right now? How can this make me look right now?’ And they eventually wind up looking pretty silly, right, because we’re still the same city,” Mayo said.
Mayo spoke with The Daily Record as part of a series of interviews aimed at continuing the conversations started during the newspaper’s “Young, Black, Homegrown and Leading in Baltimore” webinar. The interview below has been edited for clarity and space.
The Daily Record: How has being a Baltimore native as well as a black man shaped your view of the city?
Alphonso Mayo: Honestly, I think being a black man in society in general, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth because you know that there’s limitations that you’ll face on a day-to-day (basis).
I was someone that tried to do everything right. Even though I had opportunities to mess up I tried to stay away from those. So I was the one that stuck to athletics, really tried my best in academics, didn’t join a gang, never sold a drug, never did drugs.
While I had my challenges with anger, for sure, I tried to stay on the straight and narrow path. Even not wearing certain haircuts, not dressing certain ways, and I still found myself displaced, or discriminated upon or not valued.
So much so I questioned, “What is my value? (What’s my) place in this world, and in society? Does the world really see all that I’m trying to give, as a black man, as a black father that loves his kids, as a black nurturer, as a black community member, as a black leader in Baltimore?”
Baltimore has this spirit over top of it. Every morning I wake up and I pray about that spirit, and the spirit that it has, it’s like this black cloud.
We don’t really know how to collaborate because many of us, and I’m including myself, have been through so much trauma that we’re trying to protect ourselves, and that kind of coincides with the systemic issues that we see, right.
I’ve lost everything that I’ve owned, that I valued, trying to do this work. You can’t take that story to foundations like, “I’ve lost my livelihood trying to give back and make Baltimore a better place.”
What I’ve found is that some foundations are trying to clean up the name of someone who done people that look like me wrong, but they often give far too little.
It’s tough being a leader in Baltimore, and it’s just tough being a black man, but I do it with pride, and honor, and dignity, and class and (there’s something) innate in me that doesn’t allow me to quit.
TDR: Tell me why providing city youth with mentors and role models is important not only to their, but our collective future in Baltimore?
Mayo: I think that we have a lot to learn from each other. Often adults think we know it all and I know, as a parent, we really don’t. We’re learning every day just like our youth.
When I look at Baltimore, and cities (like Baltimore) I often think, “Why have we seen the same thing since I’ve been a kid, since my dad been a kid, and since my grandfather been a kid in the city?”
We see the same crime. We see the same statistics. We see the same failing education (system). We see the same dynamics in the workforce. And what I realize is that because there’s no middle ground, youth aren’t seen as leaders, right?
We say it a lot like, “Oh, they’re leaders,” but we really don’t give them an opportunity to lead, and if we do, if they mess up, we blame them for whatever has happened.
Well, if I grew up in an underserved, under-resourced, crime-ridden, high-drug, high-crime community, what do you expect me to duplicate? So all we’re seeing is duplications of what exists.
So I said, “Well, what if we go in and we teach them, and reframe relationship building. What if we teach them positive connections? What if we teach them empathy skills? What if we teach them consistency? What would that look like? Who would they become now?”
TDR: You were talking about foundations oftentimes giving too little, or trying to control the way you go about doing the work. If you could sit down with a panel of foundations and tell them, “This is what I need from you to be successful,” what would you tell them?
Mayo: That’s easy. The first thing I think I would say, and share, is allow me to show up as me, right.
Allow me to show up in my fullness. Allow me to show up as Mayo, right. Don’t expect me to be something that I haven’t had an opportunity to even explore.
I never went to a private school. I know that I speak broken English. I know that I went to a failing school system. I know that I have all this past pain. But allow me to leave that past pain in the past so that I can recreate a narrative for what can be brighter in our future.
I shouldn’t have to share all of my heartache, and pour out all of my trauma for you to understand me, for you to relate to me.
If I’m telling you that there is a dire need, in order to connect youth to other youth, don’t compare me to other organizations that may be white-led who you supported, and gave millions of dollars to. Don’t compare me to that. Don’t expect me to have the same outcomes as them if you’re giving them $1 million and you’re giving me $5,000, right.
And then when we talk about the financial resources I think, too often, they look for return on investment, right. Like “How does this make my foundation look today?”
You can’t expect the return on your investment within that year, and I think too often they look at it like “Well, what can I get right now? How can this make me look right now?” And they eventually wind up looking pretty silly, right, because we’re still the same city.
Yeah, we make a little impact, and a little noise, but I want to make a lot of noise. I want to make a big difference. To be able to for people around the country to be like, “Man Baltimore’s doing it right.”
I would tell them about the savior complex. We’re not looking to be saved, we’re looking to collaborate. Great, we’re looking to partner. We don’t need a Superman, right. Your heroes aren’t my heroes. So let’s collaborate. Let’s figure it out. Let’s be deep and intentional in our relationship so that we can really grow.