Can’t Knock the Hustle! The Struggle of Black Boys in Atlanta

“We are products of a society that tells us who we are, how to live and who deserves to be loved!”

In the Southwest Atlanta community that I live in, our young boys have taken the plight of crime into their own hands. Instead of playing into the fast life, easy money, influence of gangs and petty thief, these young boys have taken initiative to sell bottle waters at the corners of major intersections. Many of these young boys are automatically labeled by the color of their skin, zip code, texture and style of their hair. It’s important for us to understand that how we educate young boys of color ultimately determines the level of success they will obtain. As a Black male Educator, I know the importance of having not only Black males represented in the education process, Pre K through higher education, BUT a strong support system from family, faculty, staff and community members that embrace, support and empower us.

I was inspired to write this post from recent dialogue in our community Nextdoor App around Black boys. Several residents voiced their opinions about why the young boys are doing took to selling waters on the corners of major interactions within our community. Previously, residents complained about “crime,” “thief,” or not feeling “safe” because of youth in our community. Many made the assumption that our Black boys were to blame. There were some boys who were engaged in poor choices and behavior but it wasn’t all. We too often made predictions about all because of the actions of a few.  This is the struggle of Black boys not only in Atlanta, but around our country. Before we see them as scholars, athletes, professionals, graduates, fathers, husbands or successful, we immediately confine them to the stereotypes of being “thugs,” “menace to society” and other labels. Our perspectives about Black boys will continue to overshadow positive reinforcements learned in school. The key here is for us to see that community engagement and family engagement determine how students are engaged in our schools. We set the tone for school culture from the culture we drive within the environment the our Black boys live, play and learn in.

I talked with several of the young boys who sell waters on our community interactions. Out of all 10 of them, the first thing they attributed their inspiration to were the community leaders and teachers, particularly Black males. I commend my father and other Black men who are business owners in our community for taking the time to actually have conversations with these young men, get to know them and encourage their spirit of entrepreneurship by mentoring them. “Your ability to maintain success starts with finishing school and making a pathway sustainable lifestyle for yourself,” is one of the tokens of inspiration one of the young boys who is a 5th grade student mentioned to me that was said to him by one of our community business owners. As community stakeholders, we too play a role in the education of our Black boys. How we speak, engage and present ourselves to them teaches them what we believe they are and either reinforces positive or negative behaviors.  They said that their community heroes and teachers inspire them to do something outside of the box to get what they want.  In particular their Black male teachers, coaches and community leaders that support them. “Everyone can get out in the streets and steal but I want to do something that makes me a man!”, one of the young boys stated to me. I asked them what did community leaders and teachers do to inspire them. They mentioned the following:

  1.  The F. L .Stanton Elementary School Principal, former Family Engagement Advocate Tonya Winters Buford and former Parent Liaison, Mr. Elliott Buggs ensured their family was support in times or crisis and beyond, provided mentoring opportunities and connected them to positive outlets for academic, civic and social growth.
  2. Their teachers connected the dots to education and life outside of school by reinforcing positive behaviors, conflict resolution and decision-making skills.
  3. Initiatives like Real Men Read with their schools and programs such as Raising Expectations, PAL, Camp Best Friends, etc., provided a variety of activities for them to learn, grow and play outside of school.

This is the true work of family and community engagement! These young boys knew that educational and community leaders care about their families and it helped them make a choice to do something positive to earn money for what they wanted to have in their lives. Of course our residents have differences in opinions about how and why they are doing this. When I asked the young boys why they wanted to sell the waters. It wasn’t what I saw our residents expected in the comments on our Nextdoor app. A lot of our community members made “assumptions” about why they sell the waters including “their family is in need,” “they are just hustling,” “they are doing it to help out the family because their parents aren’t doing anything,” etc. Here’s what the young boys actually had to say about why they are selling the water:

  • Wanting to pay for sports and extra curricular activities on their own (7 out of 10)
  • Wanting to have money to buy their own things i.e. (clothes, electronics, etc) (all)
  • Wanting to buy something special for their girlfriend (3 out of 10)
  • Wanting to do something special for their parent (mother, father or grandparents) (10 out of 10)

The major lessons I learned from spending time interacting with and engaging these young boys is that we have to remove stereotypes from our way of living in order for our children to thrive academically. The same barriers in education stem from our societal views and labels placed on children that prevent them from obtaining success. We must also become more engaged and connected with our local community schools. Lastly, we must support our youth in doing positive initiatives in and outside of the classroom which includes home and our communities. I asked the young boys what their engagement is when they approach drivers.

  • A lot of people ignore them i.e. roll up their windows, look the other way or are engaged on their phones
  • Most people patronize them
  • Some people give a donation
  • A few people actually take the time to talk to them

The way that we engage with young Black boys is reflected in how society, our schools, the justice system, Police and others treat them. We must also look at this story and see the importance of community engagement to the lessons and civic engagement that schools are teaching students. The disconnection of stakeholders in their community schools is evident in the interaction they have with the youth. We must also encourage and support Black male educators on every level including Pre K through higher ed.

If you are Black Male in Education, connect with Profound Gentleman which is a support network for Black male educators. Together, we can change the course of how young Black boys in our schools are educated, empowered and supported.



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