Black Male Engagement program aims to promote positive image in Philadelphia

Shawn White, 39, organizes barbers in Philadelphia to spread awareness about HIV and AIDS.
Shawn White, 39, organizes barbers in Philadelphia to spread awareness about HIV and AIDS. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 25, 2011

Shawn White reaches out to Philadelphia's black community by organizing barbers to help raise awareness of HIV and AIDS.

White, 39, a research technician at the University of Pennsylvania, said he is "trying to build on the relationships that barbers have with young people. . . . That's why we chose barbers."

Wendell Dingle, 23, a student at Temple University, helps others in the black community by offering free income tax preparation and assistance to families filling out federal student aid forms.

"I get the personal satisfaction of making someone's life a little easier in some sort of way," Dingle said.

White, of Wynnefield, and Dingle, of West Oak Lane, are among more than 180 black men in Philadelphia and about 100 in Detroit who since the beginning of August have posted their stories in an online video project spotlighting black men who are leading the way in boosting their communities.

The Black Male Engagement project, supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Open Society Foundation's Campaign for Black Male Achievement, is promoting the stories of such men. Some work as volunteers, others work for programs that pay them.

The deadline for participation is Sept. 30. And then the second phase kicks in.

"Once we've uncovered these hundreds of guys," said Trabian Shorters, Knight Foundation vice president for communities, "we're going to turn around and say, 'What else might you do if we were willing to give you $1,000, $5,000, or $50,000?' "

The project is focused on Philadelphia and Detroit because they are cities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers, including The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. If the pilot program succeeds, Shorters said, it will be expanded to other places.

"This was inspired by the recognition that black men and boys in a lot of our communities are highly disengaged or hard to engage," said Shorters, who is coordinating the project.

"The Knight Foundation's mission is to build communities where everyone is better informed and engaged," Shorters said from his office in Washington.

Through the program's website - www.bmechallenge.org - Philadelphia and Detroit residents may share their stories of leadership in writing and through video. Anyone can nominate men for the project. In October, entrants will be invited to join fellow community leaders in celebrations in both cities.

Men who submit their stories will be eligible to apply for financial and other support for their projects in the program's second phase, which runs through November.

"This is about guys who figure out ways to help make their communities strong and to go above and beyond the typical," Shorter said.

He said images associated with black males often are "absent, problem, or threat - all of those connoting a population that ends up being less engaged in the issues that matter."

Shorter said challenging stereotypes was "not the objective, although I am sure we will challenge them along the way."

White, whose work with barbers is called Shape Up, Barbers Building Better Brothers, said he had been with the project, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, since 2009, spreading the word about safe sex.

"We're trying to see if interventions will work through barbershops," White said. "We're trying to increase condom use and reduce multiple partnerships among 18-to-21-year-old heterosexual African American males around the city."

Dingle said he was working to increase the number of black students in colleges by helping families apply for financial aid.

"I go into the schools and I meet with students and counselors," Dingle said. "I get them to dedicate a night and I send out fliers so they can invite parents and students to come in and fill out their" forms.

Shorters said the hope of the Black Male Engagement project was to present hundreds of stories of black men and boys of all economic backgrounds working to improve their communities.

What makes this project special, Shorters said, "is the assumption that black men are assets to our communities, how they are helping others rather than how others can help them."


Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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