By Sonya Goins
Am I my brother’s keeper?
If you asked Andre “Debonaire” McNeal, the answer would be a resounding yes.
Last year, he started Den Brothers North, a mentoring program for young African-American males on the northside of Minneapolis. The program is presented by the Doorstep Foundation.
“Today’s generation have very few positive images and role models and people they can talk to and draw from positively, so my job is to create that,” said McNeal.
The goal is to bring about change in the community, develop leadership skills and promote academic success.
Every first and third Wednesday of the month, a group of 20 boys, ages 10-17 years old, meet in the basement of the Northside Achievement Zone, 2123 W. Broadway Ave.
June 7 was picture day. The group wore white shirts with black ties. They beamed with pride, as they smiled for the camera.
The young men were fed dinner as the meeting got underway. They start each session with self-reporting. The boys and teens took turns talking about the challenges and bright spots that occurred since their last meeting. The word “bad” is not allowed to be spoken when talking about challenges.
“I didn’t pass a test,” said one young man.
“I don’t want them to think their situation is bad; their life is bad. The situation is challenging and challenges you can overcome,”said McNeal. “You didn’t know how to shoot a basketball at one point, but you learned, you worked hard at it, you overcame it. When they run up against something they haven’t seen before, instead of them losing it, and reacting, they can be proactive and use their growth mindset. That’s what we apply here, every time we meet.”
During the bright spot part of the meeting, the group clapped and cheered after each boy spoke. McNeal said this has to do with creating positive self-esteem and celebrating each other.
Each meeting, a member of the community visits and speaks to the boys. The mentors tell their story and talk about how they’re living their lives as husbands, fathers and men in the community. On June 7 Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-62) was the guest speaker. He talked about balancing legislative work and family life. He made a point of telling the young men to lean on their families for support.
“Your friends might not always be there, but your family will always have your back,” Hayden told the group. He went on to say the community has an obligation to take care of each other.
“At a certain point, younger Black males need an older Black man to really help them manage their emotions, understand appropriateness, be able to set goals. They need to be able to see themselves successful,” replied Hayden.
Sixteen-year-old Chris Jennings said before joining Den Brothers, he hardly ever came in contact with men like Hayden.
“It’s telling me these same type of people look like me, came from some of the things that I came from, and went through the things that I’m going through, have overcome to be the head of companies and bosses and that just feels good,” said Jennings.“It makes me feel like one day, if I keep putting this work in, and really start achieving all of my goals, then that could be me one day.”
Jennings wants to be a NFL player or physical therapist. He says the mentors encourage him to pursue his dreams.
“You get a sense of confidence. The people he brings in, they’re the type of men that want to see you get out of (tough situations),” said Jennings. “They want to turn you into somebody great. They want to see you go far and do big things in life.”
Most of the Den Brothers live in single-parent households and don’t have a strong male figure in their life. Eleven-year-old Peyton Rogers hasn’t seen his dad in several years.
“It’s fun, and we talk about things that happen at school … things I don’t want to talk about with my mom,” saidRogers.
Peyton’s mom, Jessica Rogers said Den Brothers has made a huge impact on the whole family.
“We were having some issues at home and I needed some tools, he needed some tools, so we started going to therapy. We did that until school started, and then he started Den Brothers and he didn’t want to go to therapy anymore. He says this has helped him more than therapy has.”
McNeal requires the scholars to unplug from cell phones and computers for at least an hour each day. The boys are encouraged to read a book during the down time. Next year, all the boys will sign up for library cards.
“The library can be an escape when home life is not going well,” said McNeal. “The library can be a safe haven; an alternative to the streets.”
Den Brothers also work on various service projects. A few weeks ago, they bagged 161 meals at Feed My Starving Children. Now the group is working on gathering clothing and hygiene supplies for boys and young men in need.
Discipline, accountability, unity and responsibility are the building blocks of Den Brothers.
McNeal asked the boys, “how do you want your parents and teachers to view you? You should care about your character and how people see you.”
A 2016 study by the National Mentoring Resource Center, shows mentoring programs like Den Brothers are instrumental in the development of young Black boys.
McNeal said he is passionate about providing the tools necessary for the young men to succeed.
“I want them to develop their character and go onto higher learning, and emerge as men. I want them to be civic-minded, responsible husbands and fathers and members of the community.”
McNeal also has another mentoring group, Den Brothers Olson, where 25 sixth graders meet every Wednesday, during the lunch hour at Olson Middle School.