Boys to Men


C4 Mentoring gives kids a chance.

By Max Rykov

During one especially beautiful night several years ago, I was up late with good company watching episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The air in my apartment was thick with nostalgia and whatever else air is normally made out of—to such a degree, in fact, that happy little memories from my happy little childhood started rising up from wherever they normally hide to a much more prominent place in my awareness. I can’t remember what triggered this exactly, but the feeling of my father as an energy of love and unconditional support began swelling up in my heart. It rose in waves, and each successive cycle filled me up with light, and eventually overflowed into a powerful release of tears. Once I composed myself a bit, and tried to reconvey that I was still a super–double–macho–tough–guy–dude who has no feelings, and who can throw a football really really far, I sent my dad a text message, simply expressing my love for him.

I realize that I am extremely fortunate to have grown up with two parents who loved and supported me unconditionally, and I’m not sure how I might have turned out as a human being without the presence of my father (perhaps writing for a significantly less–renowned publication?!)

I also realize that many, many boys, especially in the city that I live in and love, don’t have a steady father figure at home.

Jermaine Johnson and Leaveil Binion realize this too, and have spent the last four year developing a grassroots community mentoring network to address this issue.

Johnson and Binion are long-time friends who I’ve admired from afar for a while. They’re the founders of C4 Mentoring, an organization that works with young men in the Birmingham City School System. C4 emerged out of think tank event they helped put together over four years ago designed to address community issues.  The two friends made some calls, and started the first cohort of C4 students at Smith Middle School in 2016.

The administration of the school worked with them to assemble an initial group of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade boys who were having disciplinary problems. Johnson and Binion began meeting with the students on Tuesdays, and instead of talking at that with “you can do anything you set your mind” to-esque platitudes, they just started asking the boys questions.

But not little questions. C4 tries to avoid small talk, and engages in what they call Big Talk. They have real conversations with the boys. Serious conversations. They probe into their minds with enquiries like “If you were to die tomorrow, what’s one thing you’d want to do?” and “what’s your greatest fear?” Surprisingly—given the infamously guarded nature of middle school boys—they open up.

Certainly, it takes some time to build trust and rapport with the boys, but that process is sped up by the sheer approachability and down-to-earth nature of Johnson and Binion.

After four years of the C4 program Johnson, Binion, and their network of mentors in Birmingham City Schools have developed an extremely positive reputation among students and faculty.

Here’s the reality they’re dealing with: they estimate that about 85 percent of their mentees don’t have a father figure at home, and they’re not likely to have a positive male role model at school either. In elementary and middle public schools in America, less than a quarter of teachers are men. This fact itself should be a tremendous concern in our culture, and has much to do with men’s perceptions of teaching being a low–value (i.e. low–paying) profession.

I guess here’s a good opportunity to state: PAY TEACHERS MORE!

The four pillars of C4 are the attributes that the mentors seek to cultivate in the boys: Education, Heritage, Leadership, and Manhood. They want the boys to become self-sufficient thinkers, to be responsible for themselves, to understand their emotions, and handle difficult situations with dignity. They want their boys to be the first ones to give respect, rather than wait for respect to be given to them.

Inside the schools, and during trips around and beyond the city, C4 allows their mentees to build relationships with a diverse group of relatable adult men who expose them to a world beyond their immediate surroundings and realities they see online or on TV. It’s challenging, of course, because they know there’s a big gap between what they show the boys and what they’re exposed to at home. The mentors make themselves available to the boys and their parents as well. Their energy for positive influence is seemingly boundless, and while they do devote so much of their time to mentoring, they’re adamant that the program isn’t theirs, but belongs to the community.

If you want to be part of that community, look up Cultivate 4 Mentoring on Facebook, and send them a message.

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