The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

May 15, 2012

BME Challenge brings together Philadelphia’s black male leaders

Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

This summer, a new program focused on tapping into and better supporting mentorship opportunities in Philadelphia is set to launch.

Backed by a $400,000 investment from the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, the program is led by several people involved in the BME Challenge, an effort to recognize, connect and invest in black males from all walks of life who engage others in making communities stronger.

Philly Roots aims to scale up the quality of grassroots mentoring by making sure mentors who work with young people are best equipped to help them achieve their goals.

Philly Roots brings together those already working on issues around mentoring in the Philadelphia community, like Rising Sons, an after school program where recent college graduates and college students 18-25 mentor young boys. Alex Peay received a BME Leadership Award earlier this year to help strengthen its operations. Rising Sons’ principal operations officer Mubarek Lawrence was brought in to co-chair Philly Roots. Brandon Brown, director of Youth & Family Services at Nu Sigma Youth Services, which advocates for improving the lives of young people in the community, is also a member of the Philly Roots Steering Committee.

One of the biggest factors for a young person’s success is having caring adults in their lives, said Steve Vassor, senior manager for quality assurance at the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, who serves as Lawrence’s co-chair for Philly Roots.  It’s why the organization he works for provided support to help launch the program. Vassor says the BME Challenge was crucial in helping bring the right people together to help build the program. He says it’s one of the few opportunities he’s been a part of that brings black men together from across different backgrounds:

“We need more of these opportunities for black men to come together and collaborate across their affiliations. BME is fantastic, it is one of the best networks and collaborations I have seen in a long time that provides such opportunities.”

Brown, who has worked in mentoring for over 20 years, was a part of the initial planning meeting for the BME Challenge in Philadelphia and a finalist for its leadership award. He was brought in to co-chair Philly Roots because of his extensive knowledge and professional background in mentoring. Brown says that he sees the BME Challenge as a crucial piece of the puzzle:

“BME added an extra layer of knowledge to connect those already working in the field of mentorship. It really has the potential to be the professional networking environment for men of color and particularly for those working with young black boys in the community. Although I was born and raised in Philly, of the 70 or so other finalists for the BME Leadership Award, I maybe only knew 10-15 of them. But now I’m more connected to what’s going on in the city and the potential for partnership and collaboration are huge.”

Lawrence said the BME Challenge helped the new Philly Roots program “come full circle” by connecting those who were already working in the community and helping secure funds to launch it:

“When I saw how many people submitted videos through the BME Challenge it sparked this ‘wow’ moment. I saw there were these guys out there who like me, are trying to make a difference in their community. It made me think about how we can get more resources to help build this network, make sure their programs are more sustainable and find new ways to publicize it. I really believe this network can help keep these stories of these leaders alive and even more importantly grow them.”

Lawrence and Brown said Philly Roots, still currently in its planning stages but set to soft launch in June, has hired Frontline Solutions, a social change organization that invests in emerging social change leaders, to do a landscape study around what mentorship already exist in the community, like a Knight supported e-mentoring program that uses software to help engage professional black men as mentors. It will include aggregating research that’s already been done, such as a and identifying where there are more opportunities. Philly Roots steering committee also includes Philadelphia’s first lady, Lisa Nutter. Nutter, who is the president of Philadelphia Academies, says:

“The BME Campaign has unearthed incredible talent and volunteer energy in Philadelphia and Philly Roots has become an extension of that work. For far too long the informal relationship building and mentorship that happens every day in our communities – particularly communities of color – has gone unrecognized and under-supported. Alex, Mubarek and Brandon are just three examples. There are thousands of young African American men in our city already supporting young people. What Philly Roots seeks to do is to understand how these men do their work, better support that work by providing information and other resources and replicate their results neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block.”

Knight’s Program Director in Philadelphia, Donna Frisby-Greenwood, said she’s inspired by the BME partnerships being built in the community:

    “When we developed the BME Challenge, it was designed to recognize and invest in the black men who step up and lead in the city of Philadelphia. To see such a network of talented and dedicated men, who came to know one another through the challenge, come together is a great source of pride.  Their efforts around investing in the future health and vitality our community are inspiring. We know there are many more opportunities for increased collaboration, the Philly Roots program gives an example of what is possible. I look forward to following its progress and watching what arises from these types of collaborations. I know this is just the beginning."

The BME Challenge is led by Knight Foundation in partnership with the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

As part of its campaign, BME asked local black men and boys in its two pilot cities of Detroit and Philadelphia to share the stories of what they do to make their communities stronger. More than 2,000 gave personal video and written testimonials viewable at

Related: "Philadelphia celebrates its BME Leadership Award Winners," by Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Twenty black men recognized for making Detroit and Philadelphia stronger" and “Detroit’s BME Leadership Award Winners address community issues with Michigan Governor.”

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