Website celebrates Black Male Engagement

Malik Yakini is passionate about good food. So much so that he is spearheading a drive in Detroit to combat, what he says, are many areas of the city being food deserts.

He is the co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a coalition of organizations and individuals working together to build food security in the city’s urban community.

“In Detroit there is a serious lack of access to fresh and healthy food,” says 57-year-old Yakini, a former principle of an Afrocentric charter school. “As of 2007 all the major supermarkets were gone.”

“There are smaller independent grocery stores but the food is inferior and the selection is not as robust. In some cases the food is outdated and the stores are not even clean.”

In response, the Food Security Network operates the D-Town Farm, a seven-acre farm on Detroit’s west side that grows 37 organic crops. “The food from the farm is sold to local restaurants, farmers markets, individuals who visit the farm and the only black-owned grocery store in Detroit,” says Yakini.

“In addition, the coalition has a number of objectives such as promoting health eating, influencing public policy, encouraging co-operative buying and encouraging youth to pursue careers in agriculture or other food related careers.”

Yakini is just one of a growing network of black men committed to making their communities stronger by mentoring kids, starting businesses and engaging neighborhoods to make a difference.

What brings the men together is a groundbreaking initiative called BMe, or Black Male Engagement, pronounced “Be me.” The effort, which operates in Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia, has more than 2,000 men engaged and hundreds more are expected to join the network.

The program, the brainchild of the Knight Foundation, oversees a web portal that gives like-minded men a platform to share their stories in writing or upload a 1 to 4-minute video testimonial of what they do to make their community stronger.

It is a unique opportunity to exchange ideas and resources as well as help others gets started.

“Most of us can quote what’s wrong but ignore the assets that black people are contributing to America,” says Trabian Shorters, vice president of Community Programs at the Knight Foundation.

“The initiative recognizes that many black men are invaluable assets to their community,” says Shorters. “People want to do good but it doesn’t make good news print.”

One of those men determined to make a difference is Chris Wilson, 34, an undergraduate at the University of Baltimore. In November 2012 he started the Barclay Business School to help local entrepreneurs scale up their businesses by hiring the unemployed and underemployed in Baltimore City.

“I wanted to help solve the social problem of unemployment in my neighborhood by helping people gain employment and enhance their skills,” says Wilson, who is studying for a second degree in Business Administration, with a specialization in Entrepreneurship.

“By creating a new model that addresses the needs of Baltimore city’s large low-skilled population [we] will not only serve as a benefit to businesses but to the community as well,” says Wilson. “The entrepreneurs also have an incentive because we work closely with them to develop their business models and access resources.”

BMe also provides grant money for some of these men’s efforts. Shaka Senghor, 40, an author, mentor and motivational speaker, is just one of the men who have received funding.

Senghor recently received a $25,000 BMe Leadership Award for his Live in Peace Digital and Literary Arts Project, which he founded in 2010 after his release from prison. It involves going into high schools in Detroit to coach high-risk youth on how to fully express their life stories across media.

He says the money will be used to buy new materials as well as expand the program. “I want to use my experience to help young people take a different route,” says Senghor, who now works as a BMe Community Support Manager. “I want to use my story of redemption as a catalyst to help others avoid the path I took as a youth.”

BMe is a simple idea. Black men have a chance to share their story, apply for a grant and everyone can nominate someone. Yet, in the midst of simplicity, Black Make Engagement is an incredibly powerful concept to encourage African-American men to inspire and be inspired.

BMe is backed by a partnership of leading foundations including the Knight Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Heinz Endowments.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti