By An Vuong Nguyen
UW News Lab
In front of nearly 500 young men of color, Kevin Powell told the story of how he grew up in the center of violence and poverty.
The crowd of high schoolers cheered as they listened to Powell’s journey, their journey, at the Black and Brown Summit this weekend.
“Eighteen years of my life, I’ve never had a positive male figure,” Powell said.
Powell was cared for by his mother, a woman who only received an eighth-grade education. One way or another, the young audience could relate to Powell’s fatherless childhood: Some grew up in an addicted household, some went through depression, others had to deal with anger issues.
Students passed around the microphone, and the union building of Highline College became a safe space where voices were heard and valued.
That was the main goal of the annual event hosted by Highline College on Nov. 19. Nearly 500 young men of color from different high schools in the King and Pierce districts came together on a Saturday to engage in genuine and courageous conversations.
Highline College’s president Jack Bermingham recognized the importance of this summit. He said the fact that so many showed up proved that this type of conversation was needed.
With Powell as the keynote speaker, the summit emphasized the importance of education. Powell, an author, activist, and entrepreneur, said reading is a form of practice, a sport for your mind, and is the reason why he is who he is today.
Powell also promoted emotional health, self-consciousness and the ability to take actions. Powell’s message centered around one core question: “What is a man?”
Students rushed onto the stage with their own answers to what they think being a man means, and what makes them a man.
“A real man knows who he is, and knows when he needs help,” said one student, who shared that he wouldn’t be able to pass classes without having reached out to teachers and peers.
Another student said he dreamed of being a chef.
“A man takes responsibilities, and is willing to follow what he wants to do with his life,” he said. “I want my own restaurant one day.”
A third student said he didn’t accept society’s standard for masculinity.
“A real man can cry,” he said. “It’s OK to be emotional.”
For every person who attended the summit, there was a man with his own story.
“It hurts my heart when I heard some of you young men who say ‘no father, no family, depression, suicide,’” Powell said. “We gotta help ourselves, we gotta help each other. Y’all feel me?”
The Black and Brown Summit is a project near and dear to Rashad Norris’s heart. The Highline College director of community engagement wants young men to know it’s OK to ask questions and understand who they are.
“The reality is all these young men here are brilliant, they are geniuses, they have a skill set that is needed in our society beyond just the stereotypical, the skill sets that we see them having,” Norris said.
The summit was also open to parents, educators, and mentors who work closely with students of color. In a separate room, these people discussed different ways they could provide resources and guidance.
PaQ Dickerson, a mentor from YBMW/Young Business Men & Women organization based in Tacoma, said that events like this are great networking grounds to discuss practical ways to support young men and women of color.
“We teach basic life skills, basic business skills, and basic educational skills that later on feed into mentoring skills to help them start their own business, their entrepreneurship,” Dickerson said about his organization. “And then they’d take everything that they’ve learned and give it to the next generation.”
Dickerson explained that for those who choose to not pursue college education, being able to learn simple life skills makes a big difference.
Bermingham said that the Black and Brown Summit wasn’t just an event. He wanted everyone — students, teachers, mentors, and parents — to treat this as a conversation that lasts all year long.
“It’s not a Black Lives Matter movement,” Stephen Cobbs, a Stadium High School student said about the summit. “It’s people hearing youth’s voices on what’s happening around the world for the color people.”
Bermingham said that this year’s summit was also the most important one so far, because times have changed.
“This is a difficult time in our country. We have young people who are genuinely frightened about being deported on one hand, genuinely frightened about being thrown in jail on the other,” Bermingham said. “You need to have a balance these days — about the reality that we face, and at the same time not scaring the kids. That is a tough, tough line.”