Empowerment Clubs bring African American mentors to classrooms across SPS

  • Hand Shakes at Westport

    Sir Burgess, a sixth-grader, straightens his tie. Then, he shakes Sylvester Hagan’s hand.

    “My name is Sir,” he says proudly. “Nice to meet you.”

    Twice a month, 15 middle schoolers at three schools meet for Empowerment Club. The ongoing initiative at Jarrett, Pipkin and Westport middle schools features lessons about goal setting, purposeful behavior and how to be a good man, as well as history lessons about famous African American men. LA Anderson, equity and inclusion coordinator at SPS, leads small groups of at-risk African American boys, along with the school’s coordinator of site interventions.

    But once a month, a different African American professional man will share his story of how he found success through education, says LA Anderson, coordinator of equity and access at SPS.

    “The purpose of bringing in these African American men is to show the boys people who look like them, who are successful in various ways in the community,” said Anderson. “But they all value their education.”

    Sylvester Hagan

    Sylvester Hagan, 24, has won every accolade possible in his competitive internship program with Northwestern Mutual. But before becoming a financial advisor, he overcame unbelievable adversity. He grew up lower middle class, surrounded by wealthy families in Ohio and was hungry most days at school. He also grew up seeing drugs and violence impact his friends and family.

    But he chose a different path for his life, and made football his way to achieve success.

    “I didn’t like school very much, I will be honest with you,” says Hagan, addressing the boys at Westport. “But I knew I had to do well in school to do what I wanted to do. I had to have a 2.0 to play football, and I knew I had to keep my grades up to play college ball. And so I did well at school, and I did well at junior college, and I ended up getting my degree from Missouri Southern. I needed to do well at school to do what I wanted.”

    At the end of a 30-minute talk, Hagan shook the hand of every boy in the class, smiling and laughing as the students asked questions about his friends in the NFL, his hometown, his family and how many push ups he could do. Omar Johnson, an eighth-grader, asked the name of Hagan’s junior college football team.

    “I like this class because it teaches me how to grow up and be a better black man,” says Omar. “That’s important to me so I don’t live a bland life when I grow up.”

    Sir Burgess, a sixth-grader, wore a shirt and tie provided by the Empowerment Club to meet Hagan. Tying a tie, having a strong handshake and sitting in the front of the class are things he’s learned in Empowerment Club. But he likes the class for a different reason.

    “I like this class because I get to be around people like me,” he said. “And I like to be around people like me, because we are all able to do anything. We’re not any different.”

    Empowerment Club

    Throughout Hagan’s talk, in conversations with the eager boys, and walking out the door, Hagan stresses the importance of personal responsibility and the importance of taking ownership of your choices. And now for Hagan, he’s choosing to invest in African American boys at SPS.

    “When I was a kid, I looked up to my peers,” he said. “But I knew I really was looking for someone in my life to look up to, to see someone who was successful. So for them, it’s important to tell my story so they hear that the only thing between them and success is their choices. There’s a chance my story could change their perspective.”

    Empowerment Club meets twice a month at Jarrett, Pipkin and Westport middle schools. In addition to serving African American boys, SPS hosts Young Ladies of Purpose, a similar club for African American girls at Westport Middle School. For more information, contact the Equity and Inclusion office at 523-0064.